SmartCat Sundays: Milk on the Harlem Division

Milk has long been a staple of the American diet, and since the New York and Harlem Railroad was founded up until the 1950s, it was also a staple commodity carried by rail. Early in New York City’s history, dairy cows were kept and milked in the city proper near distilleries. Often sick cows were kept in cramped conditions, and fed the byproducts of whiskey making – resulting in a blue tinted “milk” that was lacking in cream content and dangerous to drink. Unscrupulous businessmen used additives – including water, sugar, molasses, egg, and even plaster of paris – to give it the appearance of fresh milk and sell it to an unwitting public. This tainted milk led to an increased infant mortality in the city, and was coined the “Swill Milk Scandal” when exposed in the periodicals of the day. The scandal eventually led to regulation of the milk industry, and a push for “pure milk” from dairies far outside the city. Stepping up to transport this milk were, of course, the railroads.

Rut Milk in the 1950s
The famous “Rut Milk” train passes through Mott Haven in the 1950s. The milk trains were eventually replaced by trucks. Photo by Victor Zollinsky.

Milk depots were established at many train depots, and local farmers could bring and sell their milk, which was then transported to the city. One of the Harlem’s most famous freights was the Rutland Milk train, which brought milk to New York City from Vermont – transferring from the Rutland Railroad to the Harlem in Chatham. Every day a swap would occur where a train full of milk changed hands at Chatham, exchanged for the previous day’s empties.

Today’s random tidbit from the archive is a letter from F.T. Hopkins to William Hooker. Hopkins was a milk dealer who operated the Harlem Railroad Milk Depot in New York City. The letter is addressed to Hooker at Wing’s Station – an earlier name for Wingdale.

Milk Depot Letter

Milk Depot Letter

 

Borden on the Harlem Line

Condensed milk promo card
New York Condensed Milk Company / Eagle Brand condensed milk promotional card.

Even if the milk transported by train to the city was considered “pure” and not of the “swill” variety, it did not last very long before spoilage in the days prior to refrigeration. Condensed milk stored in cans, however, could last for years without spoiling. Not only was condensed milk transported along the Harlem, it got its start here.

There are many ways to describe Gail Borden Jr.: a perpetual wanderer, deeply religious (anecdotal evidence suggests that he bought bibles for placement on the Harlem’s trains), eccentric inventor (he scared his friends by taking them on a ride straight into a river in a self-invented amphibious wagon – the “terraqueous machine”), an endlessly stubborn optimist that never gave up. All of those traits led him from his birthplace of Norwich, New York to Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Texas, Connecticut, and ultimately back to New York and the Harlem Railroad to launch his most successful invention – condensed milk.

For some time Borden had been interested in preventing food from spoilage. One of his first food related inventions was a meat biscuit, made from rendered meat and flour or potato and baked into a cracker, which could be eaten as is, or crushed into boiling water to make soup. He also experimented with preserving and concentrating fruit to make juices, and making coffee extract which took up far less space than regular coffee. Despite winning prizes for the meat biscuit, none of those endeavors were commercial successes. After debts forced him to give up on the meat biscuit and sell some of his property to pay creditors, Borden wholeheartedly pursued his milk preservation idea in Connecticut – starting a factory in Wolcottville. He eventually ran out of money and that factory closed, later replaced by a different factory in Burrville. Unfortunately, the Financial Panic of 1857 marked the end of that venture as well.

The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York
The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York

The original Borden factory in Wassaic today The original Borden factory in Wassaic today
The original Borden factory today, now occupied by the Pawling Corporation, which manufactures architectural products.

A chance encounter on a train ride, however, brought Gail Borden and financer Jeremiah Milbank together, and Milbank found promise in Borden’s idea. With Milbank’s money, Borden founded the New York Condensed Milk Company in Wassaic, New York, right next the the tracks of the Harlem Railroad. Borden’s tenacious spirit had finally paid off this time around, as his product became a commercial success. Another factory was constructed along the Harlem in Brewster to keep up with demand – and condensed milk became a staple for members of the Union Army during the Civil War.

After Borden’s successes he moved back to Texas, but upon death was returned by train to New York. He forever remains next to the Harlem Line, buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with a large monument that bears the following quote:
“I tried and failed. I tried again and again and succeeded.”

Borden's final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery
Borden’s final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery

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Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.

 
  
 
  
 
  

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Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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Valladolid, Mexico’s Abandoned Station, and the High-Speed Trans-Peninsular Rail Project

As an escape from New York’s winter cold, I recently spent a week in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Considering that I like to visit diverse places such as Alaska in the winter, and Chernobyl, a beach locale like Mexico sounds relatively normal trip. The area doesn’t have much in the way of trains, either, which sounds really normal. However, a few hour trek toward the ruins at Chichén Itzá on the libre (free road), as opposed to the cuota (toll road), will yield you an encounter with a lone grade crossing just west of the city of Valladolid. This rail line extends from Valladolid to Yucatán’s capital of Mérida, and although freight runs are semi frequent, regular passenger service is long gone. Many of the former train stations are abandoned and in disrepair, such as the one in Valladolid, which I found after a bit of poking around.

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Rare mileage on the Alaska Railroad – The Palmer & Airport Branches

Most of the places we’ve checked out thus far on the Alaska Railroad are part of regular routes that countless passengers have traveled over. Today, however, we’re going to take a look at two of the railroad’s branches – the Palmer branch and the Anchorage Airport branch. Both routes are occasionally used for passenger service, but are not in regular scheduled service. The Alaska Railroad operates a fair train every year for the Alaska State Fair, which travels over the Palmer branch and to South Palmer station. Besides the fair and other special events, it is mostly freight that sees this branch. Beyond the branch’s useable track lies the town of Palmer, for which the branch was named. Palmer’s depot still stands, and is used as a community center. Sitting outside is a restored coal locomotive.

 
  
  
 
 
  
 
  
   

Photos around Anchorage and on the Palmer Branch

The Anchorage Airport branch likely sees more passengers than the Palmer Branch, but it is still not a regularly scheduled route on the railroad. Cruise ship lines with chartered trains are usually the only patrons of the branch, leaving the depot there fairly quiet. If you have money to burn, the depot is available to rent, however.

  

Photos on the Airport Branch. With its high-level platforms, this is the most “Metro-North looking” part of the entire Alaska Railroad.

Thanks to my camera, you can ride both branches from your own home. Starting off at the Anchorage International Airport, we pass the Anchorage depot before heading onto the Palmer Branch, finishing just beyond the South Palmer / fairgrounds station.

For the folks subscribed to the site via email, you must visit the site to view video features.

Our second video for the day shows another hidden part of the Alaska Railroad, one that passengers never see. Reversing out of Anchorage’s depot, we head into Anchorage yard just after sunrise.

Next week we’ll check out yet another part of the railroad never seen by passengers, as we go behind the scenes and take a shop tour.

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Grand Central Terminal’s Companion – The New York Central Building

When the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer William Wilgus came up with the concept of Grand Central Terminal, there were most likely a few people out there that felt he was completely nuts. Despite the fact that at the time the NYC was one of the mightiest railroads in not only the United States, but the world, the price tag for the project was incredibly high. Without the concept of “air rights” it is likely that the project would never have moved forward. Covering the Terminal’s tracks and allowing buildings to be constructed in the “air” above turned out to be a very sound investment. The railroad owned significant amounts of highly profitable, prime New York real estate, and the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central and built on that land became known as Terminal City. The Biltmore Hotel, Commodore Hotel, and the Yale Club were all parts of this city within a city. But it was the New York Central Building, finished in 1929, that was the crowning achievement of Terminal City, and an appropriate companion for Grand Central Terminal.

Construction on the New York Central building
Construction photo of the New York Central Building. [image source]

One of the final buildings designed by Warren and Wetmore in New York City, the New York Central building became the new home of the railroad’s corporate offices. Although today we view the building as a Beaux Arts masterpiece, on par with Grand Central Terminal itself, when the building was completed in 1929 it was generally looked down upon by the architecture world. As American architecture had moved beyond the Beaux Arts style about ten years prior, critics felt the building was almost like a step backwards. Viewed as a whole, however, the New York Central building fits perfectly with its companion, Grand Central Terminal.

Postcards showing the New York Central Building
Postcards showing the New York Central Building

Some of the most wonderful parts of the New York Central building are the details and sculptural elements you’ll find all over, a major component of the Beaux Arts style. These elements were sculpted by Edward McCartan, Director of the sculpture department of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City. While Warren and Wetmore frequently used the work of Sylvain Salieres, including for Grand Central Terminal, by the time the New York Central building was to be constructed, Salieres was no longer alive.

The building’s primary sculptural element is the clock that sits atop the front façade, featuring Mercury at left, and the goddess Ceres at right. Mercury is the typical deity used to represent transportation, while Ceres represents agriculture – one of many types of freight carried by the railroad. Found in various locations around the building are several other faces, whose identities never seem to be discussed. One of these faces is contorted into a painful grimace, and placed in front of a fiery torch. Perhaps this figure is representative of Prometheus of Greek myth – the titan who gave fire to man, who was punished by Zeus for the act.

The New York Central Building in print
Poster of the New York Central Building by Chesley Bonestell, and cover of the October 26, 1929 edition of the New Yorker with illustration by Theodore G. Haupt.

High above street level are the faces of American Bison, situated above stylized compasses, representative of how the railroads essentially built this country – or at least how it contributed to the migration of people to the west. Sharing a similar concept, a face resembling the Greek god of nature and the wild, Pan, appears towards the very top of the building. Eagles, representative of the United States, can be found above some of the doors to the building, and lions, a symbol of power can be found in the tunnel that carries Park Avenue through the building. Purely decorative columns, much derided by the architects of the day, can also be found on the upper reaches of the tower.

The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper
The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper

As the New York Central’s financial woes grew after World War II, the railroad began selling off some of its New York real estate. After being sold in the 1950’s, the New York Central Building became the New York General Building – a crafty idea that required only minimal changing of the signage. Eventually, the building was purchased by Helmsley-Spear, and it is rumored that Harry Helmsley’s wife Leona was the one who formally changed the building’s name to the Helmsley Building.

Perhaps the biggest travesty of the Helmsleys, besides all the tax evasion and treating their employees like dirt, was their grand idea to “update” the façade of the building. All of the architectural details on the building, including the sculptures of Mercury and Ceres, were coated with a layer of gold paint. Thankfully, during the building’s 2002 restoration, these elements were restored to their original state, without the paint. The building was sold in 1998, about a year after Harry Helmsley’s death, though it is said that Leona required a stipulation along with the sale – that the building would not be renamed. It is likely for this reason why the outside of the building still reads the Helmsley Building, while the property owners refer to it by the generic name 230 Park.

Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979
Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979. [image source]

The current owners have made several modifications of their own to the building – two bronze murals – weighing over a ton and comprised of 40 individual panels – depicting the streamlined 20th Century Limited have been installed in the building’s lobby in 2010. Though attractive, it would have been nicer if a more time appropriate scene was selected – the building predates the streamlined locomotive by about ten years.

Bringing the building into the “modern age,” the current owners also hired lighting designer Al Borden, who came up with a night time lighting scheme for the building. As the building is designated as a landmark, none of the lighting was permitted to “compromise the building’s architectural integrity.” Thus all light sources had to remain hidden, and none could be drilled into the building’s surface. Over 700 individual lights were added to the building, and similar to the Empire State Building, the colors can change reflecting holidays and other events.

 
A scene from the movie The Godfather was filmed in the former New York Central building. Note the portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt, and the old style #999 Empire State Express.

When constructed, the New York Central Building was one of the primary features of the New York skyline. It may not have been the tallest building, but it was certainly one of the more unique. It remained as such until the late 1950’s when it was dwarfed by the massive Pan Am Building, now known as the MetLife Building. Despite that, the building is still a symbol of New York, and has appeared numerous times in popular media. Moviegoers might recognize it as the building that appeared in the poster for 2008’s film The Dark Knight, and eagle eyed viewers may have seen some of the building’s inner rooms in the movie The Godfather.

The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station
The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station.

Let’s take a photo tour of the old New York Central building, including a quick peek of the marble-covered inner lobby. Weekends in August are the best time to check out the building, as part of the city’s Summer Streets program, which closes parts of Park Avenue to cars. You’ll be given the rare opportunity to not only view the building up close and personal, but to walk the Park Avenue Viaduct, and the tunnels that travel through the old New York Central building.

 
  
 
  
   
   
  
 
   
  
   
  
  
 
   
 
  
   
 
  

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Toledo – the busy, half-abandoned station

Just about twelve years ago I hopped on a plane bound for Brazil to spend a year as a foreign exchange student. I lived in smaller city named Toledo – in the south-west of the country, not too far from the borders of Argentina and Paraguay, and the famed Iguaçu Falls. It was a nice place – think quaint Appalachian mining town with a little of White Plains mixed in – but hardly a city that would get significant numbers of tourists. While I lived there I had a host brother that was some years older than me, and he recounted his first visit to the United States. As is customary in many South American cultures, the 15th birthday is a big deal, and a lot of upper middle class folks reward their children with a big trip. Most tend to choose interesting places like Disney World, or New York. My host brother had a different idea – he wanted to go to another city called Toledo.

Toledo, Ohio is likewise a city I can’t imagine gets immense amounts of tourists (though apparently there are some modern rail hobos), but it certainly is a nice enough place. I’m not too sure what my host brother actually did here when he was fifteen – perhaps took a trip to the zoo – but it really doesn’t have the allure of say, Disney. Once upon a time, however, Toledo did get quite a few visitors, and many of them by train. The state of Toledo’s rail station today is really a visual reminder of not just the fall of passenger rail travel, but of the steady 40+ year decline of Toledo’s population.

Toledo's former station
In embracing modernity, the above 1800s Toledo station was replaced with the current brick and glass box. People hated this building so much that they cheered when it caught fire and burnt down. I think they’re crazy.

Toledo
The replacement – Central Union Terminal postcard, and tickets from Toledo from 1950.

Central Union Terminal, opened in 1950, is claimed by Wikipedia editors to be the last “great” railroad station built by the New York Central. A modern structure made of brick and glass, it certainly doesn’t have the same charm as many of the Central’s older stations. When opened, the station had about 55 daily departures – compare that with today’s paltry 4 departures. The island platforms that connected to the main station, once filled with people, are relatively dormant today. The passageways leading from these platforms to the station proper have long been shuttered, and are fastened shut with rusted chain for good measure. Some lonely platform canopies protect ripped out platforms, and others just stand over rusted rails. Toledo may be Ohio’s busiest railroad station, but from some angles it looks quite abandoned.

Event space in the old terminal
The old passageway to the platforms can now hold quite a few chairs… note the doors on either side that led to the island train platforms below. More photos of the event space in the station can be found here.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza, as it is called now, is served by Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, and Capitol Limited. With trains arriving at the station during hours many are asleep (11:39 PM, 2:50 AM, 5:22 AM and 6:15 AM), the station functions on opposite schedule – the waiting room is open most night hours, and closed during the day. Though the waiting rooms for the trains were once in a more attractive spot on the third floor, during renovations the waiting area was relegated to the bottom floor. The former waiting area on the third floor is now an event space able to hold 650 people… so in reality, this station is pretty cool – if you’re looking to host a wedding reception.

 
  
  
  
 
  
   
 
  
   
  
 
   
 

If half-abandoned rail platforms aren’t your thing, there’s at least a bunch of freight traffic through Toledo that you can check out. I even caught my first Norfolk Southern heritage unit… awww. In case you’re curious, the folks watching the train in the first photo were the aforementioned “hobos.”

 
 
  
 

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Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2

After last week’s journey along the Alaska Railroad to around Hurricane Gulch, we continue today with the remainder of the ride to Fairbanks. This includes passing through Denali National Park and Preserve, though no one was looking to disembark in the frigid weather (we did see some ice climbers from the window, however). Further north was the small town of Healy, which contains the Usibelli coal mine, Alaska’s only operating coal mine. The coal from the mine is shipped southward by the Alaska Railroad to Seward, where it is loaded on ships for export, or north to other interior locations in Alaska.

Usibelli's coal ships via the Alaska Railroad
Usibelli’s coal ships via the Alaska Railroad. The mine is connected to the railroad main line by a rail spur. ((Usibelli coal photograph via Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources))

Beyond Healy is the town of Nenana, once a large population center with several thousand residents. According to the 2011 census ((Census data from the US Census Bureau via Google)) there are only 383 residents today. Nenana depot, opened in 1922, still stands, and the Aurora train reached it around sunset. The Alaska Railroad itself was completed just north of the depot in 1923 with the Mears Memorial Bridge. ((A history of the Mears Memorial Bridge.)) President Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike at the north end of the bridge, linking the two sections of rail. Beyond the bridge the passenger portion of the Alaska Railroad terminates in Fairbanks. The railroad itself extends at least to Eielson Air Force base, which is freight only. In fact, some of the aforementioned Usibelli coal is shipped to and used at the base.

Artifacts of the Alaska Railroad
Brochure and matchbook cover from the Alaska Railroad.  ((Alaska Railroad brochure and matchbook covers from the author’s collection))

While we traveled from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the only route open to passengers during the winter, the Alaska Railroad’s main line is more than a hundred miles longer. Extending southward to Seward, the line also branches off to the port of Whittier. Along these rails glaciers are visible from your train seat, and one of the routes is aptly named the Glacier Discovery.

When it comes to railroad history, Alaska’s rails are a bit young compared with some of the other lines we normally cover on the site. The New York Central can claim history back to 1826, and the Harlem to 1831 – Alaska’s first dates back to 1903. ((Timeline history of the Alaska Railroad)) The predecessor Alaska Central Railway went bankrupt by 1907, and was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Company, operating an approximately 70 mile stretch of rail extending north from Seward. Construction on a real Alaskan railroad began in earnest in 1914, when Congress agreed to fund the construction and operation of a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks (Alaska had officially been incorporated as a US territory in 1912). Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city today, was formed as a railroad town during the construction. Populated by construction workers of the now-named Alaska Railroad, Anchorage officially became the headquarters of the railroad by 1915.

Today the Alaska Railroad is owned by the state of Alaska, and it operates both freight and passenger service. On the passenger side, as of 2012, the railroad owns a fleet of 44 railcars (excluding locomotives), which consists of 2 business cars, 6 diners, 11 passenger coaches, 6 vista dome coaches, 7 low-level dome coaches, 6 bi-level ultradomes, 1 bi-level diesel MU, and 5 baggage cars. ((Statistics from 2012 Alaska Railroad Passenger Services Business Report.)) In 2011 the railroad carried 412,200 passengers, 265,335 of which were from cruise ships. Outside of cruise passengers, the Denali Star is the railroad’s most popular passenger train, followed by the Coastal Classic.

That is about it for today’s post on Alaska – there will be one more Alaska post forthcoming, and it will contain dogs and penguins… everybody likes dogs and penguins, right?

   
  
   
  
   
  
   
 
  
 
  
  
  

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Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 1

In our previous post regarding Alaska, we traveled the Dalton Highway up into the Arctic Circle, a route that for the most part parallels the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The interesting thing to note about the Highway is that there could have been a railroad here too, and possibly instead of the Pipeline. After the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the problem was how exactly to get this oil out of such a remote location. Prudhoe Bay is in the far north of Alaska, and ocean access is hindered by ice – a fact that assured whichever method of transportation was chosen, it wouldn’t be easy. Besides the pipeline, highway tankers, submarines fortified to navigate the icy waters, air tankers, and the railroad were all possible solutions to the problem.

An Environmental Impact Statement from 1972 regarding the pipeline project details the two possible railroad routes that could have been. One proposed plan envisioned a Trans-Canada railroad, connecting Prudhoe Bay down through Alaska, and Canada’s Yukon to Whitefish, Montana. The massive project would require construction of 2,200 miles of double track to connect with already existing rail infrastructure in Montana. Carrying two million barrels a day would require operation of 37 trains per day. Trains would contain 80 to 110 tank cars, and likely be over a mile long (roughly 88 tank cars is a mile).

Alaska Pipeline Map

The other route, and likely the preferred route, was to extend the already existing Alaska Railroad to Prudhoe Bay. Diverging from the current railroad around Nenana, the new railroad would continue north to Prudhoe, requiring 580 miles of new track to be laid. The existing railroad infrastructure would also have to be updated in order to accommodate the heavy traffic. It was estimated that 1.26 million barrels a day could be transported over the single track line, requiring 21 trains a day in each direction. The total run from Prudhoe Bay to the port at Whittier would take 39 hours. Transporting the goal of two million barrels would require a double tracked railway, and operating more trains.

Unfortunately, neither railroad option was chosen, and the Trans Alaska Pipeline was constructed. The pipeline can transport just over 2 million barrels of oil per day, something that would have been difficult by train. Though certainly not impossible, transporting that much oil would require immense amount of equipment, and significant maintenance. The Alaska Railroad extension called for 9 hours a day to be devoted solely for maintenance, as even a small accident could have catastrophic effects (in hindsight, the pipeline proved to be just as dangerous – the Exxon Valdez oil spill could certainly be categorized as catastrophic. The Trans-Canada railroad plan would have eliminated the need for ships transporting oil). Even if the Alaska Railroad had been extended, it is likely it would have been used solely for freight, similar to the Alaska Railroad’s route that goes to the Eielson Air Force Base, or the mines near Healy.

But it is, of course, the passenger routes of the Alaska Railroad that we’re really here to see, and they look a bit like this:

Alaska Railroad

As you see from the map, different trains are offered in the winter and the summer, and my trip included a trip on the Winter Aurora train. Running weekly in either direction, the train takes around twelve hours and travels from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Besides a baggage car and several passenger cars, the train contains a dining car that serves up hot meals. The first half of the journey I took passed through Wasilla and Talkeetna, and passes over the 558-foot long Hurricane Gulch arch bridge. The below photos are from the first half of the trip – we’ll continue the journey, and learn a bit more about the Alaska Railroad, in Part 2.

  
 
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  
   
  

Riding the Alaska Railroad

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