20 October 2010

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Pt 3

The Influence of Lone Janson's  "Copper Spike," 1976

First Edition of The Copper Spike Lone Janson, c. 1998

I have often wondered whatever happened to that first edition copy of The Copper Spike that I picked up in the Book Cache bookstore in Fairbanks in 1976.  That book had a profound effect on my life, yet years later I was unable to find it. By the time I started looking for it again, nearly twenty years after I purchased that first copy, the book was long out of print and very expensive. It took many months of searching before I was able to find another copy.  I believe I found one in Powell's Bookstore in downtown Portland for a price of about fifty dollars. At the time I picked up that first one I was thoroughly intrigued by both the many dramatic images and a well-written story line about a history I had never even seen a reference to until that time.

The back cover read:
"In 1975 the trans-Alaska pipeline is the headline story, the focus of attention in Alaska.  But way back in 1905 to 1911 there was another construction job that was comparable in magnitude and interest.  The building of a railroad up the Copper River, from tidewater to the rich copper mines at Kennicott was an epic event that pitted gang against gang in pitched battles over rights-of-way.   There were Herculean struggles to overcome natural obstacles, including the building of a bridge where experts said none could be built . . . "

What a story. The combination of the construction of that railroad and the concurrent development of an enormous underground copper mine well before the railroad even reached that mine site made it the second largest privately-financed construction project of the time in the Territory of Alaska. This was only eclipsed by the Alyeska pipeline project itself, which became the largest project of its type in the world--with similarly near-impossible obstacles to overcome in a remote and hostile arctic environment.
I had already been there in an arctic camp and had quite an appreciation for what those early engineers, surveyors and the rail line builders must have endured to accomplish such a feat, but under much worse conditions without access to modern earth-moving equipment.

Laying the 48-inch pipe in 1975-76
Five-Mile camp near Pump Station 6, Yukon River

The story told of a long battle, primarily between the federal government, which sought to prevent the Guggenheims, prime owner of the copper resources, from gaining access to vast coal reserves. This was done by closing off the coal lands and then declaring them part of a national forest. To this day that area with all its reserves has never been developed. Yet the building of competing railroads in order to access interior Alaska and the copper and gold fields was marked by intense, if somewhat brief, violent episodes, including a shoot-out in Keystone Canyon, which is one of the roughest parts of the Alyeska Pipeline route.  In the end, the Guggeheims--and J.P. Morgan, whose money backed the railroad construction--prevailed mainly out of very good planning, some incredible luck and vast funds backing what appeared at the time to be a near-impossible task.

The Million-Dollar Bridge, 1570 feet long as it appeared after span number four fell in following the 1964 earthquake:  This was the scene of some of the most dramatic moments during the construction of the railroad. This bridge was almost lost when the river ice started moving during the erection of the third span--the one over the main channel (450 feet).  This bridge was built between two facing glaciers. Shortly after the bridge was successfully installed, one of those glaciers began advancing on this bridge. Had it continued, that would have marked the permanent end of the railroad before it even had a chance to begin service. Click for larger photo.

Lone Janson largely limited her book to the story behind the construction, but that account opened the door to many questions about the railroad, about Kennecott, about what happened after it was all over. For me it was all new. I had never even heard of this railroad, had never seen nor knew of a rotary snow plow nor of much else associated with railroads of the time.  Nor did I have any appreciation of the role of Big Business in Alaska and specifically that of the Guggenheim family and their corporate heir, the Kennecott Copper Company which became a world-wide conglomerate because of that initial success in Alaska.

Above: One of four massive CRNW rotaries at the port of Cordova (click).  Below:  A final  consist in Chitina, CRNW mile 131,  following the closing and final abandonment of the railroad in November of 1938. 

There was something compelling about looking at those engines with all that steam coming out.. Seeing  those old images awakened something deep inside of me that I had no idea existed. This was not a feeling I had before experienced, even though at one time I had owned a small steam model railroad as a boy-- two decades before I read that book.  

Then there were the images of the mine itself. The image below practically jumped out at me. When I turned to this photo of the Bonanza mine at Kennecott, probably taken about 1917,  I  immediately had the feeling that I knew this scene, that it was somehow a part of my life. 

However I was occupied with pipeline construction-related activities.  Events were moving fast. I had little time to contemplate my own deeply personal reactions to this book. Soon all of that would be buried--just as my early dreams of those deserted red-painted buildings along the hill with the rocky rubble in front were forgotten--for now. (Image can be enlarged).

It was time for me to find work back on the pipeline. I was trained to be an operator and I wanted to become one.  It would take longer than I thought, but by early winter I would be on my way back north in my new role as a young union hand, ready to become part of the greatest construction project ever to hit Alaska.

A CRNW passenger consist at the Million Dollar Bridge, CRNW mile 49

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