Legacy of the Chief,
Chapter 18, Pt 1: "Birch Private Train #73-1924"
How many times had Stephen Birch made this trip on
this, the premier symbol of his power and influence in Alaska, the
Copper River and Northwestern Railway? This railroad was undeniable
proof that it was possible to overcome the harshest of obstacles in the
wilderness which was Alaska, given enough persistence and money.
Kennecott the mine system is where Stephen began his rise to chairman of
the board of Kennecott the corporation. It started as the Bonanza
Mine--the personal project of Stephen in the days when he was just a
mining engineer. It was a rapid rise from geologist to company
View of the Chitina trestle
looking west toward Chitina from Kotsina Hill
Birch watched through the rear observation window as the consist cleared
Kotsina hill. It passed the small line shack to the south and the long
siding to the north as it began picking up speed at the top of the ridge
on the relatively flat stretch with long, straight runs that would
enable the train to push toward seventy miles per hour as it approached
Strelna. He saw the deep Chitina River valley disappear from view behind
the train. The whistle ahead began blowing to alert anyone along the
tracks of the high-speed private train roaring through the area.
Birch had not made a visit to Alaska since 1916. That was the interior
mine’s greatest production year. It was also the year in which Stephen
and Mary were wed. In those early days Kennecott was considered the
centerpiece of the corporation which carried the same name. Birch wanted
to show off the magnificence of the territory to his new bride. He
planned the honeymoon trip in great and lavish detail. But Mary was
thoroughly unimpressed. It mattered not that he had two special private
railroad cars made up for the trip. Nor did it impress her that Alaska
Steamship, which was owned by Kennecott, made one vast ornate stateroom
out of five standard ones just for the special couple on the S.S.
Mariposa. The next year the Mariposa wrecked. This final disaster seemed
to Birch to be a fitting conclusion to an apparently jinxed trip.
Stephen Birch had been particularly proud of the honeymoon cottage he
told E.T. Stannard to build for Mary and him at Kennecott. This
four-bedroom two-story house with its library-office and combination
living and dining room also had a well equipped modern kitchen attached.
Not that the guests would ever have to use it. The company provided one
of its senior cooks to prepare and serve the meals in that special
The most distinguishing feature of this special residence was its unique
fireplace which was built of stunning copper ore. Then there was that
wide veranda which overlooked the Kennicott Glacier as well as all of
Kennecott’s staff row.
E.T. Stannard saw to it that the place was fully furnished with posh
furniture right down to the player piano. He stocked the residence with
expensive alcoholic beverages and cigars for the special guests, though
alcohol was not allowed elsewhere on the site, except at the
Stephen was not the only visitor to use this comfortable residence with
the commanding castle-like view. To justify the high cost of
constructing it, the place was designated for use by any distinguished
company official or special guest of Kennecott. It became known as the
Stephen Birch guest cottage.
Stephen sighed at the thought. After that 1916 honeymoon fiasco, he lost
his enthusiasm for Alaska.
About that time the train whistle indicated that Strelna was
approaching. This had been Stephen’s favorite place to start out on a
nice week of mountain sheep hunting. Dwyer’s was still a rich man’s game
The whistle blasted in a continuous loud series as the private train
roared past Strelna on its nonstop run to McCarthy.
Several railroad workers at Strelna looked up at the private train in
surprise. The train was an unannounced special. It was not stopping. It
was not even slowing down. All the trains stopped at Strelna, but not
this one. It was a very large engine pulling a combine and a business
car. The Strelna crew shrugged and went back to their jobs.
Stephen saw part of the crew picking up rails as his car whizzed by.
They were all Indians.
Dwyer’s Inn and the water tower grew small as the train rushed toward
Kuskulana Gorge. To the south Stephen spotted an Indian graveyard.
Birch leaned back in his seat. His eyes were closed as he contemplated
the implications of his trip. He chuckled to himself.
Daniel Jackling entered from his private room near the front of private
car 100, now joining Stephen Birch . Jackling served as the head of the
operating committee for the corporation. He had come on board the
corporation as the genius behind the development of the enormous
low-grade ore Utah Copper mine. Jackling once had a financial interest
in a mining concern in Juneau. He contributed the design layout for an
almost revolutionary mill for the now defunct Gastineau Mine. As he was
fond of saying, “You can’t pick a winner every time.”
Birch was delighted to have this great engineer along to assist in the
very last high level on-site evaluation of the mine. Jackling was one of
the Kennecott directors. He was unequaled in his understanding of the
copper industry, excluding Stephen Birch himself. Dan was not in the
same rush as Stephen to close out the Alaskan operations. In the end, it
would be his view which would prevail. For many years there would be
considerable disagreement on the board as to the best time to close the
operation. Birch would finally escape the matter when he retired from
the presidency in favor of E.T. Stannard, who harbored no special
sentimental feeling for Alaska and would have no problem ordering a
final and abrupt closure when that time came.
The Kennecott was no longer the opulent private car it had once been
when it was specially fitted for that 1916 honeymoon trip. The
observation and dining car was now fitted for general public use. Those
who wanted to dine and enjoy the relative luxury of riding this car for
a price could now do so. During the July 4th Special Run, it was always
one of four or five cars on the annual passenger consist which hauled a
large part of the valley up to McCarthy and back for the annual softball
playoff and the other special events. Several of the more lavish
features had been eliminated, yet it was still quite the extravagant
ride for those who were so lucky as to travel on her.
When Warren G. Harding came through Cordova in late July of 1923, just
before his untimely demise in San Francisco, his Presidential party used
this car. There was no further reason to keep what had once been
Stephen’s business car for exclusive private use. Superintendent Hanson
preferred running his own specially fitted Studebaker over the rails for
his personal inspection trips rather than use the large business car.
This would be the last time the Kennecott would ever again be pulled off
the line for visiting high-ranking officials.
with Birch Private Train #73, pt 2