The International Steam Pages

Alaska Railroad no 1, 2011
(and another preserved old Porter)

James Waite' visited Alaska in June 2011, elsewhere you can read the main report:

The H.K. Porter Company, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was one of the USA’s more prolific loco builders and the country’s leading manufacturer of small locos for use in industry and on lightly built narrow gauge railways. Even by Porters’ standards their 7-ton 3ft gauge 0-4-0ST design was diminutive and thoroughly quaint in appearance with a commodious cab almost half the length of the entire machine. Their works number 1972, completed in March of 1899, was one of these. Its builders may well have regarded it as one of their less significant products when they dispatched it to the fastnesses of St. Michael, a small port on an island in the Bering Sea off the west coast of Alaska for onward shipment up the Yukon River inland to Cliff Creek in Canada’s Yukon territory. Little can they have thought that it would go on to become locomotive number 1 of a major government-owned US railroad or, that after many years of slumber, it would celebrate the second century of its life rejuvenated and back in action. But then no. 1972 was always a little different!

The loco owes its construction to the Klondike goldrush of 1897 whose centre was at Dawson City on the Yukon River. By 1899 this had become a sizeable community with its own power company. At Cliff Creek no. 1972 worked on a railway 1¾ miles long which connected a colliery with the river bank from where the coal was shipped 59 miles upstream to the power station at Dawson City. It was the first steam loco to operate in the Yukon. By 1903 it had moved 5 miles upstream to Coal Creek to operate on an altogether bigger new coal railway, 12 miles long and worked by several Porter locos. Quite when this line closed is uncertain. It was in 1918 at the latest after which the locos still there languished out of use for many years until being rescued for preservation.

On 31st May 1903 the SS Louise set off downstream from Dawson City with 350 tons of cargo, mostly rails destined for the construction of the new Tanana Mines Railway which was to connect Chena and Fairbanks in the centre of Alaska with Gilmore, some miles to the north and close to the scene of a new gold find. Early in June the steamer called in at Coal Creek and picked up no 1972. Other freight was picked up as well until the cargo reached a total weight of 600 tons, much of which was carried on two barges lashed to the steamship. The ensemble reached Chena the following month. No. 1972 became the new railway’s no 1 and made its first revenue earning trip between Chena and Fairbanks on 18th July.

It was not to remain the railway’s some locomotive for long as a few weeks later its no. 50, a much larger Baldwin 4-4-0 bought second hand from the White Pass and Yukon Railway, set off downstream from Dawson City where it had arrived after a voyage from the WP&Y’s northern terminus at Whitehorse, several hundred miles further up the Yukon River. Other locos followed. The railway flourished and after the reconstruction of its financial affairs it transformed itself into the Tanana Valley Railroad and an extension was opened in 1907 to Chatanika in the heart of the mining country, 39 miles from Chena. By then little no 1 had been eclipsed by the much larger locos and was relegated to shunting. For a few years the railway made good profits but by 1917 was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. It could well have closed but happily the US government was building the standard gauge Alaska Railroad to connect Fairbanks with the coast more than 400 miles away. It bought the little line in order to use its route into Fairbanks and even built more temporary narrow gauge track until the main line was completed in 1923 when, as the railway’s no 1, the Porter was withdrawn. The last stretch of narrow gauge closed in 1930 but by then no 1 had been preserved as the first loco to work in the interior of Alaska.

Enter the Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad, an enthusiasts group whose main objective was to restore the little loco to working order. A 3ft gauge line had been opened at Pioneer Park, an open air museum, worked by a diesel replica of no 1 which by then was on display there. Work began in 1992. It needed a new boiler and cab, the latter a fine replica made of wood like the original. It’s now in use on occasional running days – details at link dead by 25th October 2016. The Friends very kindly steamed (and let me drive!) the loco on what would have been a bright sunny evening but for a forest fire whose smoke had got into the upper atmosphere – strange photographic conditions indeed. Unless there’s some undiscovered working in the far north of Russia this must now be the world’s most northerly steam operation. A great little railway and one that’s well worth visiting!

There’s a “rival” ARR no 1 preserved outside Anchorage station. It’s been there since the 1940’s but is in reality the line’s no. 6 (Davenport 764/1907). It has an interesting history, having started out its life working on the construction of the Panama Canal, another US government project which was coming to completion as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting under way. In Panama it was numbered 802. All the locos there were transferred to Alaska. Most of them were 5ft gauge, the gauge of the main construction railways at the canal. They were converted to standard gauge by the simple expedient of fitting their wheels with wider tyres and thinner flanges. On some accounts no. 6 was one of these but on others it was a 3ft gauge loco which spent its initial life in Alaska on the narrow gauge at Fairbanks and was only converted to standard gauge when it closed in 1930. Any more definitive input on this would be much appreciated!

The final picture takes us back to the Yukon in Canada. Porter 0-6-0ST 922/1888 is preserved, and in need of some TLC, outside the Yukon Transportation Museum at Whitehorse airport. It was one of the Coal Creek locos which spent many years abandoned there until rescued in the 1970's by the late Gunnar Nilsson, a Swedish gentleman who spent many of his later years in Whitehorse.

No 1 close up:

No 1 at work:

No 1 and train - the haze was caused by a large forest fire.


The other ARR no 1:

This is the Coal Creek Porter:

Rob Dickinson