Roadtrippin’ 2023: The Alaska Railroad celebrates its centennial year
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - This is a special year for the Alaska Railroad, which is celebrating its 100th year since completion.
As part of its centennial celebration, it’s important to understand the history behind how this transportation giant got started. Thirty-six years before Alaska was even a state, its transportation foundation was already being laid.
On July 15, 1923, the Alaska Railroad was completed when President Waren G. Harding hammered a golden spike into the track in Nenana. The railroad remained under federal ownership until 1985.
“The state of Alaska recognized the importance of this amazing piece of infrastructure in a state that is really very bereft of basic infrastructure, and purchased it for somewhere around $22 million, which I would characterize as the steal of the century,” said Bill O’Leary, Alaska Railroad Corporation President and CEO.
From there, it was set up as an organization, meaning the railroad was now a state-owned corporation.
“It’s an entity separate and distinct from the state,” O’Leary explained. “The railroad’s liabilities are the railroads, they’re not the state’s liabilities. Railroad employees are not state employees. So it’s set up to act very similar to private enterprise.”
With more than 650 miles of track, the Alaska Railroad transports both freight and passengers year-round. It’s also the last full-service railroad and the last flag stop operation in the United States.
“We will stop for you if you wave the train down, which is really something, again, very unique to Alaska and to the Alaska railroad,” O’Leary said.
Fast forward to 2023; it’s a very exciting time for Alaskans, tourists, and even O’Leary, who grew up in Fairbanks and remembers the Alaska Railroad roaring through town.
“You could hear the train whistle, no matter where you were,” he said. “Just the acoustics being the Tanana Valley or whatever it was, but anyway, it was just always something that was there.”
Passengers aboard have plenty to choose from. The coastal train takes folks from Anchorage to Seward, and passengers can go to Whittier on the Glacier Discovery or take the flagship Denali Star Train all the way to Fairbanks.
“We are blessed with the most amazing scenery in the world, so the place sells itself. There’s no doubt or question about that,” O’Leary said. “But I think for us, and part of our mission to the railroad, is to also provide an experience onboard for our guests — again, whether they’re visitors, whether they’re Alaskans, whoever they are — at this point, where they’re going to come and be not only blown away by the scenery, but also just blown away by the service.”
Over the years, the Alaska Railroad has proven to be a key piece of infrastructure for the state, and 100 years later, it’s still on the right track.
“It’s a big deal anywhere, it’s even a bigger deal in Alaska,” he said.
The Anchorage Museum has an exhibit called “All Aboard” that highlights the railroad’s history. It will be up until Feb. 18, 2024.
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