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Alaska Wasilla & Engine 557

Adventurer in Alaska 

Wasilla MATI & Alaska RR 557 Project

Day 22

  September 22, 2013,  Sunday

Text and photos by Robin Bowers

        This morning I awoke for my last day in Anchorage and Alaska. Today will be a bus tour to Wasilla on this the last day of the 2013 National Railway Historical Society's Convention in Alaska. Buses will leave the Hilton at two separate times. The first group is for those leaving early or have afternoon flights home. The second group would leave later. This also helped keep the venues from being overwhelmed with one big crowd. As I and many others had red-eye flights tonight, I opted for the later group to have some free time in the morning and get checked out. After breakfast across the street, I returned to my motel room and packed-up my bags and went down to the front desk to check out and to put the bags in storage till later in the evening. 

        I left the motel and walked to the Hilton via Fourth Ave. Along Fourth Ave I pass the starting line for the 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins the first Saturday in March. The actual mileage of the 2013 race is 1,131 miles; however, 1,049 is often used as a symbolic figure because the distance is always more than 1,000 miles, and 49 was added to signify Alaska's rank as the 49th state. Dogs and mushers travel over the Alaska Range and across frozen Norton Bay, arriving in Nome nearly 2 weeks later.

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Starting line.


Looking down Fourth Ave. Hilton on far right.

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        Going strong for more than three quarters of a century, Anchorage Fur Rendezvous has evolved from a gold rush-era good time to a celebration of every facet of Anchorage's Big Wild Life. Affectionately known as Rondy, this festival began as a three-day sporting event timed to the return of miners and trappers coming into Anchorage with the fruits of their labor. It now includes Native tribal gatherings carnival rides, the sprint-style action of the World Championship Sled Dag Races and some wacky events only found in Anchorage: Outhouse Races, the Frostbite Footrace and the running of the reindeer.
        As Rondy wraps up, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushes through Anchorage. Dog teams yip and bark in anticipation of the adrenaline-fueled ceremonial start. Thousands of spectators line Fourth Ave as teams rush through town before embarking on their 1,000 mile journey to Nome.

        Continuing on to the Hilton I find the bus that will take us Wasilla.


Engine 557 Restoration Company

        The final tour of the 2013 NRHS Convention features the opportunity to visit the restoration shops of the Engine 557 Restoration Company in Wasilla, AK. Locomotive 557 was one of 2,120 S-160 class Consolidation 2-8-0 locomotives built for the U.S. Army Transportation Corp (USATC) between 1942 and 1945 for use in Europe and Africa during World War II. The S-160 was designed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Major J. W. Marsh, and the locomotives were manufactured by Baldwin Locomotive Works, American Locomotive Company and Lima Locomotive Works. The S-160 carried the nicknames of GI Consolidations or Gypsy Rose Lee locomotives (stripped down for action). During the war, a dozen S-160 locomotives were sent to Alaska to help handle the huge increase in freight movements over the Alaska Railroad. USATC 3523 arrived in December 1944 and quickly became Alaska Railroad 557. With the significant weather differences between Alaska and its intended European destination , 557 was modifies with larger compound air compressors mounted on the front pilot; steam coils installed to heat the cabs; and a snow plow fashioned for seasonal use. Alaska Railroad 557 burned coal until it was converted to oil in 1954.


The 8 in 2-8-0.


        Alaska Railroad 557 was the last steam locomotive in regular service on the railroad. The primary reason for its survival was to help during high water conditions in Nenana, where the Tanana and Nenana Rivers regularly flooded the entire town and rail yard. The 557 also continued in occasional service for special events such as the annual fair trains and excursions. When the locomotive was officially retired in 1964, Washington scrap dealer and museum owner Monte Holm purchased the 557. On June 14, 1965, the locomotive left Alaska from Whittier, where it was loaded onto the Train Ship Alaska bound for Everett, Washington. Instead of scrapping the 557, Holm preserved it for school groups to witness steam engine history in action. During the 1970s and through most of the 1990s, Engine 557 was kept in running condition and parked at Holm's House of Poverty Museum in Moses Lake, Washington.


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        In 2011, Jim and Vic Jansen, owners of several Alaska-based transportation companies, purchased the locomotive from the Holm estate to ensure its return to Alaska. The Jansens donated the locomotive to the Alaska Railroad with the condition that it be relocated to Anchorage, rehabilitated and eventually put back into service. The Alaska Railroad arranged for ARR557 to be moved back to Alaska via rail/barge service between Seattle and Whittier. The engine arrived in Whittier January 3, 2012, and was then moved to Anchorage on a railroad flat car later that day. 

        In June, the non-profit Engine 557 Restoration Company was formed to raise funds for, and to coordinate and oversee, the locomotive's rehabilitation. On August 15, 2012, ARR 557 was moved by a Lynden Transport truck and lowboy trailer from Alaska Railroad Anchorage yard to the project facility in south Wasilla. Since the original oil tender was in poor condition, it was joined by a replacement oil tender donated by MATI. The bulk of the restoration work will be accomplished at the Wasilla based project facility, formerly known as the Kenai Supply Building. Owned by the Alaska Railroad, the facility is located at 1390 E. Matanuska Road.



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        The goal is to re-establish the 557's full classic appearance as well as bring it into compliance with today's passenger rail regulatory requirements. Major costs include initial tooling, asbestos removal and abatement, replacing galvanized steel cladding, new insulation , boiler and tubing replacement and repair, gear inspection and repair, painting and positive train control electronics. A preliminary cost estimate cost estimate for restoration is $600,00 - $700,00. When the work is complete, the Alaska Railroad is interested in using ARR 557 to pull a few refurbished rail cars between Anchorage and Portage during the summer season, perhaps as an excursion or as a dinner train operation.

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        For additional information, see the 557 Restoration Company Facebook page at: -Company/416150931790950.

        After everyone had a good look and had their questions answered, it was time to board our bus and travel to our next stop.

Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry

        The Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry (MATI) is a nonprofit organization and its mission is the collection, conservation, preservation, display and interpretation of artifacts related to Alaska's transportation and industrial history. MATI was basically created to display and collect the machinery left over from the bursts of growth in Alaska's economy. Resources discovered meant that railroads had to be built, aircraft had to be assembled, and roads had to be cleared for the development to continue. After the resources were exhausted, the machinery used remained in the forest and tundra due to the high costs of transportation for removal of the equipment, while the workers moved out.

        MATI has gathered those machines left to rust and preserved them to educate the public and present an educational, historical account of the history of transportation and industry in Alaska and the people of the era. A complete timeline of artifacts shows the progress that has been made through Alaska's history.

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        The museum features railroad, airplanes, boats, trucks and automobiles, as well as dog sleds and snowmobiles - a full collection of Alaska transportation vehicles. Displays also include information on the other Alaska developments such as the telephone the electrical industries. The role of the military in Alaska's development is also covered. Its aviation exhibits include aircraft from ultralights to a C-123. Several early aircraft engines are displayed, as are photographs and artifacts associated with Alaska's early flyers.

        After we arrived and before disembarking the bus, we were welcomed to the museum and Wasilla by a nice hostess. She was dressed in a period costume which I think was early 1900's. Later we were to find out this was a special lady. After our welcome went inside for a look around.









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And old wire voice recorder. Before there was tape.

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Broadcast radio transmitter.

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An assortment of vacuum tubes.


1960's oscilloscope.





Wonderful poem.




I operated these projectors while in high school for class in late1950's.

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        When we were finished perusing the inside of the museum, we were called to lunch. The museum volunteers were hosting us for a pot luck lunch. There were two seatings. The first bus went first and we were the second seating. We were called to the upstairs meeting room for an assortment of home cooked dishes, among which were moose stew and reindeer sausage. It was very hospitable of the local folks to treat us to this nice meal.

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Having lunch in the museum.


        After a good home cooked meal it was time to head outdoors and see the exhibits.

        Exhibits include tractors, fire trucks, and other vehicles from the  1920's to 1960's; five diesel locomotives and 20 pieces of railroad rolling stock; mining equipment; antique steam and gas engines; and boats. This equipment is displayed across acres of museum property.

        This museum features the original collection of the Alaska-Yukon Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and today includes more than 35 locomotives, passenger cars, and fright cars, plus numerous railroad displays. Included in this is the former Whitney Section House and the original "The Alaska Railroad" header from Whittier Tunnel.


EMD   F7

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Baldwin  S12


Baldwin S12






Troop Kitchen and Troop Sleeper.






























You could take a short ride in this on track on the museum grounds


You could take a short ride in this vehicle around the museum grounds.



        About 2:30 P.M. it was time to board our bus for the trip back to Anchorage.

        MP    159.8    Wasilla - The town site was established at the intersection of the Kink-Willow mining trail and the newly-constructed Alaska Railroad the the elevation of 330 feet. It was a supply base for gold and coal mining in the region through World War II. The Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) valley was settled by many homesteaders as part of an experiment in the 1930's. While most soon failed and moved away, enough stayed to develop the region. Agricultural crops and natural resources sustained growth and development in the valley. Mining in Wasilla played an integral role through much of World War II and the mid-20th century; a handful of the area's mines, which once numbered more than 50, remain active to this day.

        The Alaska Railroad has been realigning 44 miles of mainline track south of here, straightening about 70curves, between Wasilla and Anchorage. The project increases the speed that trains can safely travel. Travel time between Anchorage and Wasilla is expected to drop from 90minuted to less than an hour, making rail commuter service feasible. The track relocation would eliminate five at-grade crossings, reduce operational and maintenance costs, and allow for faster train speeds.

        After we re-boarded our bus, we were informed that the nice hostess who greeted us on our arrival was the mother-in-law to a former Alaska Governor.

        It was near 3:30 P.M. when we arrived back at the Hilton. I walked across the street to the Eisenhower Statehood Monument.




The Alaska Railroad Depot.


Anchorage harbor and rail yard.


        I took a scenic walk thru downtown to return to the motel. Needed to pick-up some souvenirs and gifts. I walked down 4th Ave to the courthouse and back.


No loose change needed.


4th Ave Theater, downtown's last, looks to be no more.



        Self-guiding tours: A guide outlining a walking tour and driving tours north and south of the city is available at Log Cabin Visitor Information Center, Fourth Avenue and F Street.

        After shopping and back at the motel, meet with Chris G. and we decided for our last meal in Alaska we would go next door for a Mexican meal at La Cabana Restaurant. So good and just a walk across the parking lot. Afterwards we waited the motel lobby for our flights. Also waiting were several young people for their flights. They had just finished their summer employment and were returning to home, school or winter employment.

        Then it was time to leave for the airport. We were able to get a ride to the airport with the motel shuttle and this was a great benefit offered by Guesthouse Anchorage Inn. I enjoyed my stay here and would stay again if I returned.

        We arrived at the airport, did the security thing, and proceeded to the gates waiting area. This was my third trip to the airport. Also in the waiting area were many fellow conventioneers waiting for their flights. My fight was to Portland with a change of planes there. I decided to stop in Portland because had never been there and this was chance to see it. In Portland, didn't have much time to look around. Just enough to get a bagel and board a new plane for Los Angeles. After getting airborne, out the windows the sun was cracking the darkness.

         Arrived in Los Angeles after two smooth flights. It was a sunny morning here at 9 AM and I went to the Flyaway bus stop. At 9:40AM was pick-up by the Union Station bound bus. Arrived at Union Station at 10:15AM. That gave me some wait time for my Surfliner train # 572 with a 11:15AM departure. 572 left on time and arrived in Santa Ana on time at 12:03PM. Walked over to the parking structure and retrieve my automobile and then drove home with arrival at 12:50PM.

         It was good to be back home and in familiar surroundings, but I was grateful and happy I took a step out side of the comfort zone and went on this once-in-lifetime adventure. I definitely would make another trip and visit to the Last Frontier. I recommend every one make a pilgrimage to the 49th State.

Thanks for reading.

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