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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An old adventure to Centralia, Pennsylvania – The Burning Ghost Town

Hopefully you guys aren’t missing me too much… I figured I would set up some posts in the queue to submit themselves while I am gone on vacation, that way you wouldn’t miss me at all. If you haven’t noticed by now, I enjoy going on adventures, and taking photos. On a cool morning last November I boarded an early train to White Plains to meet up with my friend, and partner in crime. From White Plains we drove to a small town in Pennsylvania named Centralia. I first learned about Centralia several years ago, and somehow I became obsessed with its history. Centralia today is nearly a ghost town, with a population of under ten people. In 1981, that population was over 1,000. It was a town full of life, a close-knit community with homes, churches, and shops. But today those homes, churches, and shops are gone… razed long ago. Thin wisps of steam rise from the ground in Centralia, especially so on cool mornings. The ground is warm to the touch, and the air smells of sulfur. Centralia is not like any town you’ve ever encountered, for it is burning, and has been since 1962.

If you’ve ever seen old advertising for the Lackawanna Railroad, you may already be familiar with anthracite. Anthracite is a particular type of coal, which in the United States is found in northwestern Pennsylvania. It burns hotter and cleaner, with less soot, than ordinary coal. In the early 20th century, anthracite was used for a variety of purposes, including home heating, but also to power trains. Although other railroads may have used anthracite, it was the Lackawanna Railroad that made it a part of their advertising. They called their line “The Road of Anthracite” because they chose the more expensive coal to power their locomotives. Anthracite, with its cleaner burn, prevented passengers from the possibility of getting dirty from the soot of a regular coal-burning locomotive. To further underscore this point, the character of Phoebe Snow was created for the advertising. Phoebe was a regular train rider who frequently wore white gowns. Various rhymes using Phoebe were created for advertising:

My gown stays white
From morn till night
Upon the road of Anthracite

Phoebe says
And Phoebe knows
That smoke and cinders
Spoil good clothes
‘Tis thus a pleasure
And Delight
To take the Road
Of Anthracite

The character, Phoebe Snow, used in Lackawanna Railroad’s advertisements.

During World War One, railroads were not permitted to use anthracite, as it was required for the war effort, so Phoebe’s career essentially ended there. However, in 1949 a passenger train named the Phoebe Snow was debuted on a route from Hoboken to Buffalo, and later from Hoboken to Chicago.

Anthracite figures significantly in the history of Centralia. Centralia was an old anthracite coal-mining town. It is somewhat ironic to note that it was the coal mines that led to the founding of the town, and also the anthracite coal that led to the town’s demise. In 1962 a landfill caught on fire, underneath of which was an old, open strip-mining pit. The fire above ignited a coal seam underground. The actual details of the start of the fire are hazy and frequently argued. One theory believes that the trash in the dump was burned every year, and that particular year the fire was improperly extinguished. Another theory states that a trash hauler threw hot coals from a stove into the dump, causing the fire. Whatever the cause, the coal underneath the town began to burn.

Side by side comparison of Centralia then and now (although this photo was taken from the wrong position, facing the wrong way. However it is my favorite from the adventure). Historical photo © David DeKok.

For the most part, how the fire began is unimportant. It was the hazardous conditions caused by the fire that led to Centralia becoming mostly unlivable. As the fire spread underground, burning along the seams of coal, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide were released. Efforts to extinguish the fire failed, not because it was impossible, but because of money. It finally came down to the fact that it would be cheaper to relocate everyone in the town than it would be to put out the fire. Centralia was essentially not worth saving, at least in the government’s point of view. In 1984 the government began buying out homeowners in Centralia, allowing them to relocate, and their old houses were demolished. Everyone was told the move was voluntary, no one was going to be forcibly removed. Except of course, that was a lie. In 1992 Pennsylvania clamied eminent domain on all the properties, and condemned all the buildings. The people that refused to give up their town were then essentially squatters in their own homes. The state of Pennsylvania is currently pushing for everyone left in the town to move out. I’m sure they would love to forget the death of a town mostly due to bureaucrats and incompetence… to get everyone out and forget that Centralia ever existed. There are some, however, that will not forget.

The current mayor of Centralia posted the fire signs above. The We Love Centralia sign was an addition by me.

As it should be, the subject of Centralia is at times a touchy subject. There are a few folks that would deny that the town was ever “unlivable” and that there was ever any danger. I consider this the emotional response to people that didn’t want to see the place that they grew up in, that their families grew up in, destroyed. When Todd Domboski fell into a burning sinkhole, these same people denied that it was a result of the fire. Back then living in the town probably was dangerous. The plumes of steam coming from the hillsides was massive, to the point of dangerously obscuring the roads. However, if you visit Centralia now, the steam is barely there. There seems to be very little danger to the people that are currently living in the town.

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