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Alaska - Palmer to Potter

Adventurer in Alaska 

Palmer, Airport & Potter

Day 20

  September 20, 2013, Friday

Text and photos by Robin Bowers

    It must have gotten a bit cold over night because I was shivering my timbers by the time I entered the Sizzlin Cafe. There were several others there getting their first meal early in the day.  Had a great breakfast and the warm coffee hit the spot. Then it was back to the motel to pick up my bag for today. As I left, I stopped by the motel's coffee bar and poured a cup to go. The walk to the station was short and cold, but the coffee was a welcome treat.

    After arriving  at the Anchorage Station I walk the train and find an unoccupied seat in Car 209. Coach 209 was built by Daewoo Heavy Industries in 1989. At 8:00 A.M. we depart heading towards Cook Inlet and the Knik Arm. We need to go to the far side of the yard and out on the main to be able to switch over to the tracks going to the shops. With power on either end I don't know if we are going forward or backward.

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My ticket to ride.

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Anchorage port and docks.

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    MP     CP1140 -    This is the south end of the split between the freight main and the passenger main. The passenger main goes by the station (through freights use it,too) while the freight main loops through the yards.

GPS:    61 13.323, -149 53.882     Alaska Rail Yard.    Click to see map.       Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.

    MP    114.3    Anchorage - The name of Anchorage comes from Knik Anchorage located just offshore. The town has had a number of names before Anchorage,
including Alaska City, Brownville, Ship Creek, Port Woodrow and Woodrow.

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Repair shops



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    To the very north is the engine house, also known as the roundhouse. The three-bay engine repair shop (230' x 320'), has a very interesting history, starting near Denver, Colorado. It was originally part of the Kaiser (Remington) shell plant. After World War II, the plant was closed and the building was torn down and sold off. In 1948, the building was reassembled here as the locomotive shops. Just south of the roundhouse are the back shop, car shop and coach shops. This trip through the rail yards was very rare mileage today. We are either the first or maybe the second passenger train running on these tracks according to the railroad personnel.


This form of shipping seems popular here in Alaska.

    MP    115.2    Ship Creek Bridge - The railroad passes over Ship Creek, and the Ship Creek Trail bridges over the railroad just to the north. Ship Creek is a favorite local spot for fishing and shorebird viewing near downtown Anchorage in the industrial environment of the Port of Anchorage. Two miles upstream from the mouth of the creek is the Elmendorf State Hatchery. The lake and adjacent pond provide salmon viewing in the spring and summer. King salmon are present from late May through July and coho salmon from August through mid-September.


Ship Creek Bridge.

    MP    117 - Elmendorf Air Force Base. Initially Elmendorf Air Force Base was an Army Air Corps field. After WW II, the Army moved its operations to the new Fort Richards and the Air Force assumed control of the original Fort Richardson and renamed it for Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf who was killed in an air accident on January 15, 1934. It is the largest Air Force installation in Alaska and home of the Headquarters, Alaskan Command (ALCOM), Alaska NORAD Region(ANR), Eleventh Air Force (11Th AF) and the 3rd Wing.


    MP     120    Fort Richardson - The rail line passes through Fort Richardson in this area. Much of the track through Fort Richardson was realigned during the 2003 work season. Originally, this area included some of the Alaska Railroad's most curvy track. Ernie Piper, railroad assistant vice president of operating safety, told the Alaska Journal of Commerce that "historically, the greatest degree of derailments has been on these curves."

        Fort Richardson was named for the military pioneer explorer, Brigadier General Wilds P. Richardson, who served three tours of duty in the rugged Alaska territory between 1897 and 1917. Richardson, a native Texan and a 1884 West Point graduate, commanded troops along the Yukon River and supervised construction of Fort Egbert near Eagle, and Fort William H. Seward (Chilkoot Barracks) near Haines. As head of the War Department's Alaska Road Commission from 1905 to 1917, he was responsible for much of the surveying and building of early railroads, roads and bridges that helped the state's settlement and growth. The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, surveyed under his direction in 1904, was named the Richardson Highway in his honor.

        Fort Richardson was built during 1940-1941 on the site of what is now Elmendorf Air Force Base. Established as the headquarters of the United States Army, Alaska (USARAK) in 1947, the post moved to its present location five miles northeast of Anchorage in 1950. Fort Richardson is still headquarters for United States Army Alaska (USARAK), a subordinate unit of United States Army Pacific Command. The majority of USARAK combat forces are at Fort Wainwright, 300 miles to the north, with Fort Richardson as the primary support base. The posts largest military tenant is the Alaska National Guard, with facilities at Camp Carroll and Camp Denali. Fort Richardson also hosts several non-military activities, including a United States Notional Cemetery and a state-owned fish hatchery. The post has 3,300 soldiers, as well as over 3,200 family members, and employs about 1,200 Army and DOD civilian employees.

        The fort encompasses 62,00 acres, which includes space for offices, family housing, a heliport, a drop zone suitable for airborne and air/land operations, firing ranges and other training areas. Nearby mountain ranges offer soldiers the opportunity to learn mountain/glacier warfare and rescue techniques.

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Gravel pit on Fort Richardson.


Teaching tool for fire fighting training.

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Between miles 139 and 137.5, the railroad parallels the south shore of Knik Arm, an estuary of Cook Inlet.




Palmer Branch

        The Palmer branch of the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1917, at the time know as the Matanuska Branch of the Alaska Railroad. At one time, the line went much further than Palmer, passing through Sutton (twelve miles to the north) and on to the Chickaloon Mine (another dozen miles). This line initially served several coal mines supplying coal to the US Navy as well as various communities around Alaska. The line beyond Sutton was abandoned during the 1920's after the US Navy changed to oil to power their ships, as the mines at Chickaloon were operated exclusively for the Navy. However, coal from the privately owned Evan Jones, Jonesville and Eska mines fueled the Sutton and Palmer economies until 1968, when the military bases in Anchorage converted their power systems to oil, and coal mining ceased.

        Traffic on this line has changed from coal to gravel. Just as the coal shipments ended about 1970, gravel moves began. Gravel is hauled to the Anchorage area for construction. One of the techniques to build on ground where permafrost exists to cover it with layers of gravel to allow air flow, thus gravel is actually used statewide. Because of this regular activity on the Palmer Branch, and the growth of residential areas along the line, the Alaska Railroad, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF), City of Palmer and Matanuska-Susitna Borough have discussed various solutions to blocked crossings. Plans are being developed to improve the adjacent Glen Highway (Alaska Highway 1) and possibly rebuild parts of the railroad branch to reduce or eliminate the problems of blocked grade crossings and traffic congestion.

    A0.00        Matanuska - This location is also know as CP SSS (South Siding Switch)  or South Matanuska, mainline milepost 150.55. The Palmer Branch climbs northward toward Palmer on grades of about one-half of a percent.


    A3.3           Outer Springer Loop - Just south of here is the AS&G tipple, loading gravel trains directly on the branch's main line. Anchorage Sand and Gravel (AS&G) has their large Palmer Pit in this area. AS&G operates a number of facilities around the state, providing stone and cement products for all types of construction. The material is essential as it is used to insulate the permafrost under buildings, thus stabilizing the ground.  The Alaska Railroad operates unit trains from this facility, primarily to the Anchorage facility of AS&G, but also to their facility in Fairbanks.

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    A4.2          Fairgrounds - Known as South Palmer, the Alaska Railroad has a shelter here for the yearly trains that serve the State Fair (held in late August and early September) at the fairgrounds. The Alaska State Fair Inter-modal Commuter Center opened at the Alaska State Fair grounds in Palmer in August 2004. The new facility, initiated by the State Fair, included a "new rail station, restrooms, handicap parking and convenient and safe drop-off traffic flow through a new fair gate."


GPS:  61 34.671, -149 08.341  To see map, click here  Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.

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Parking lot for fairgrounds. Also used as a semi-truck driver training practice area.

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Once we stopped at the fairgrounds, everyone detrained to explore and prepare for a photo runby.

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I told you it was cold overnight. 26 degrees at 10:40 A.M. at the fairgrounds.

        MP    A6.2    Palmer - Palmer was established around 1916 as a railway station on the Matanuska Branch of the Alaska Railroad. Named for George Palmer, an area trader in the late 1800s, there was a post office named Palmer from 1917 until 1925. A post office was re-established here in 1931 with the name Wharton, but it was renamed Palmer in 1935. That same year, Palmer became the site of one of the most unusual experiments in American history: the Matanuska Valley Colony. Palmer was made famous in the Great Depression on 1935, when 203 families were sent north by Franklin D. Roosevelt to start a farming "colony." In those days, Americans and Europeans coming to Alaska tended to come from colder parts of the country. This was no different. The Palmer colonists were chosen mainly from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The idea was that they were more used to ice and snow, and could adapt to the extremes of Alaska weather. Although the failure rate was high, many of their descendants still live in the Mat-Su Valley today.  Today, Palmer farm families grow peas, potatoes, carrots, rhubarb and lettuce and are famed for their giant-sized cabbages.
        The wooden depot from the 1930s still stands here and is used as the Palmer Community Center.

        After our layover for photos and fresh air, we re-board at South Palmer to begin our return trip back to Anchorage and then to the airport.


Mt. Denali.

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Our second time crossing Elmendorf base this morning.

    Arriving at the Anchorage station we take the passenger main on this trip and continue south on the main to MP  110.2  CP1102 - This is the south airport lead connection.

Anchorage International Airport Branch (AIAB)

        Railroad directions for this line are north to the Airport terminal and south to the mainline at CP 1102. The branch officially starts at MP J0.00 on the south leg of the wye at CP 1102. The branch can also accessed from the north leg of the wye at CP 1107.

        J0.00    Mainline - The first two miles of the branch are on a new grade, built when the West International Airport Road was rebuilt and upgraded to expressway standards. The road is where the branch used to be and the railroad is now on the north side of the right-of-way.   

        J0.20    North Leg of Wye - The highway that bridges over the wye area is Minnesota Drive, the main roadway from the airport area to downtown anchorage.

        J0.68    Northwood Street - After curving around and heading west, thus following the new West International Airport Road toward the airport, the railroad crosses Northwood Street.

        J1.23    Jewel Lake Road - To the north, this road is also called Spenard Road. Jewel Lake, located several miles to the south and covering 26 acres, was named on 1912. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has in the past stocked Jewel Lake with silver salmon and rainbow trout. There is also a swimming area and public park.

        J1.43    West International Airport Road - The rail line crosses to the south side of the highway.

        J1.60    Airport Runaround - This 800-foot long siding can be used for locomotives to run around their passenger trains as they drop off and pick up cruise ship tour groups. It is located in an industrial area, full of warehouses and rental car garages.

        J2.05    Aircraft Drive - The railroad crosses this airport road on an overpass, as the railroad grade rises to the grade of the airport complex.
        J2.25    West International Airport Road - Airport Road reaches the airport, loops through the terminal area, and then circles back. We cross it on a new trestle.

        J2.33    Terminal Track - The Anchorage International Airport Branch splits into two station tracks. The Alaska Railroad employee timetable cautions that there is close clearance between here and the end of track due to the terminal platform.

        J2.43    TSIA Depot - TSIA is the Ted Stevens International Airport. Technically, this is the Bill Sheffield Alaska Railroad Depot at the Anchorage International Airport. This is the end of the branch, recently extended to this new train station which was built for the cruise ship trains. With the first passengers arriving on May 25, 2003, the project included an elevated track leading to a 300' covered passenger platform with a 3-story2-level passenger terminal. The building provides assembly space for 250 people and has pedestrian flow into a subterranean tunnel that leads to the main airport facility. A 1999 marketing study projected the depot, built with $28 million in federal money, could serve as many as 200,000 rail passengers annually within a year of opening. However, with no commuter rail service and declining cruise ship traffic, the airport rail station served just 20,000 rail passengers in 2009. To expand its use, the Alaska Railroad has recently began renting the facility for special event, such as conventions and business meetings.

            The station is named for former governor Bill Sheffield, who signed legislation establishing the quasi-public Alaska Railroad Corporation and its seven-member board of directors as a part of the process of Alaska acquiring the railroad from the federal government. Later, Sheffield was appointed to the Board and elected chairman.


Three story 2-level passenger terminal.

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GPS:  61 10.513, -149 58.784    Click to see map.  Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.


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    We disembarked on the station platform and organized for the photo runbys.  After a half-hour it was time to re-board and leave the airport.
    It was a short ride to the main at which we headed south to meet up with Turnagain Arm.


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Potter Marsh, part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.


A favorite location to spot many species of birds.


Turnagain Arm.



    MP    100.6    Potter - The historic Potter section house (named for nearby Potter Creek) and Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Area mark the junction of Cool Inlet and Turnagain Arm, so named when Captain Cool's search (1778) up the arm for the Northwest Passage ended when he had to "turn again." Here you can watch for the bore tide, a huge wall of water rushing into or out of the arm during tide changes. Turnagain Arm is one of only about 60 bodies of water worldwide to exhibit a tidal bore. The bore may be more than six feet high and travel at 15 miles per hour on high spring tides. Turnagain Arm sees the largest tidal range in the United States, with mean of 30 feet, and the fourth highest in the world.

    Located at Potter is the Potter Section House State Historic Site, consisting of a former Alaska Railroad section house (built in 1929), rotary snowplow X-900212, and troop sleeper/kitchen car. During the summer, volunteers often maintain a railroad garden here in the tradition of railroad workers.

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Bart Jennings and wife, Sarah "Lunch Princess."



Solar powered signal boxes.

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Coal shed

    The train horn blew so it was time to re-board and begin our return trip to Anchorage. Tonight is Banquet night so now back to motel and get ready for the evening.


        The 2013 NRHS Banquet was being held at the Anchorage Hilton, the convention headquarters hotel. And just a short walk down hill to the train station.
     The lobby in front of the banquet rooms was filled with conventioneers being social and enjoying a cocktail before dinner. Then the doors opened and we all went to find our assigned table. 

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        My choice was salmon. I mean; You are in Alaska, why would you not eat salmon in Alaska. And I am sure the hotel kitchen has some experience in cooking and
  procuring this fish. Other entree choices were Prime Rib, Chicken or Vegetarian.


My table mates Chris G. and Elizabeth A.

        The presentation began after dinner. The first set were NRHS officials. We were told that when it was suggested to have a convention in Alaska a few years back, all the doomsayers said it is too far, nobody would come, not enough interest and many other wild predictions.
        Well look around you here and see that almost five hundred souls came to the Last Frontier to ride trains and see this great land of ours. This convention will turn out to be a very successful one.

        Our next NRHS speaker told us about the NRHS RailCamp programs.   RailCamp programs, sponsored by the NRHS, which give hands-on railroading and preservation experience to high school kids on the east and west coasts.
        The NRHS is teaming with rail industry partners to offer an exciting week of train operations, facility tours, workshops, train rides and more. both camps allow students to interact directly with rail employees and learn what it take to be a railroader.
        RailCamp East will be held July 6-11, 2014, and will be based in Newark, Del., with some activities in Strasburg, PA.  RailCamp Northwest will take place July 27-Aug. 2, 2014, and again will be held in Tacoma, Wash.
        Then the basket was passed around for help with scholarship funding. Thanks to everyone's help enough monies were collected to fund two scholarships.

        The Thank You time arrived. A big thank yous went out to all the volunteers and help need to put on this successful convention.
    A special thank you and a big round of applause went to Barton (Bart) Jennings and his partner and wife, Sarah. Bart has spent the past several years working with the Alaska Railroad on this project. There needed to be a lot organization and coordination to make these big dances work. And work they did, daily like clock works.
    Bart and Sara published the NRHS 2013 Convention Guidebook. From which I have used many fact and figures in writing my adventures in Alaska. So a big Thank You from me.

        Next we heard from the railroad. We were a new and different class of conventioneers and tourists for them. A few railroad old timers said that some of the conventioneers knew as much or more about their railroad than they did. One official said he had never heard of a photo run-by till he meet Bart. Now, they might offer something like this to their customers. But, they all enjoyed our visit and would like us to come back and be welcome warmly.

        This was followed by a history of the railroad from the federal government, built under the management of the Alaska Engineering Commission to January 1985 when the State of Alaska bought the railroad from the U S government for $22.3 million. Today it is a successful state business.

            For tonight's finale, we watched photos and heard stories on running a railroad in the wilderness and in weather as low as 60 below. When your loco breaks down you can't ship it to Seattle or Omaha to get it repaired. You have to do it in house by yourself. Are you motivated to leave your warm shelter to go out in 60 below weather to get a train moving when all the wheels are frozen to the rail. Lots of good stories and then it was over.

         Leaving the hotel Chris P. and I share a taxi back to our motel. His ankle has been bothering him and didn't want to walk back. The ride was short and I was in my room in short order.

        Tomorrow is the last train ride day. Hard to believe that it has been a week since I first landed in Alaska. The places and things I been to and seen are beyond imagination and conception.

        Soon it was lights out.

        NRHS RailCamp        Click for info on RailCamp  Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.