In the first half of the 20th century, Funter Bay had a small railroad running to mine workings at the base of Mt. Robert Barron (originally known as “Funter Mountain”).
A short mine railroad was first reported in 1895, when a newspaper article described plans for “about 1,000 feet of railroad track” running along the beach to various mine tunnels. This would likely have carried ore carts pushed by hand or pulled by draft animals.
Newspaper reports state that workers began laying 36-inch narrow-gauge rails towards the mountain in 1912. Originally, this track consisted of 4×4 wooden rails, spiked to an existing corduroy wagon road bed. The rails could have had strap iron on top, as did other wooden tramways in the area. A 1920 inventory of company assets describes the line as 4000′ of 36″ gauge surface tram, and a 1921 map labels it “wooden tramway”. It was elsewhere listed as a “tram road” (many of these terms are used interchangeably in describing small railroads). Initially four ore cars of about 3 tons were used, these had steel wheels and wooden boxes, and were hauled by mules along the wooden track. Although a “locomotive boiler 40hp with 40hp engine” is inventoried in 1920, this seems to have been connected to a sawmill at the time and not related to the tram.
Between 1920 and 1926, the track was upgraded with steel rails, laid on the same corduroy grade in between the existing wooden rails (which had become rotten by that time). The new line was approximately 25″ gauge, and seems to have used 20 or 25lb steel rails (30 tons of 20lb rails were purchased around 1926, along with frogs and switches, to supplement an existing stock of 11 tons of 20 and 25lb rail). Twelve additional all-steel ore cars were purchased second hand from the Gastineau Gold Mining Co in Juneau (which had shut down and begun selling off equipment in 1921). Also in 1926, consulting engineer A. A. Holland recommended that the track be straightened, graded, and ballasted to prevent derailing. Holland suggested that cars should be hauled by cable due to the grade near the mountain, noting that locomotive haulage would require new track to take the steepest part of the hill more gradually.
Some of Holland’s suggested improvements were implemented in 1928, when a letter to Governor Ernest Gruening reported construction of a “surface railroad” and purchase of a locomotive and cars. The wooden roadbed was replaced with gravel from mine tailings. After 1932 the line is referred to on maps and documents as a railroad, vs a tramway. This distinction may have had two factors behind it. For one, many early tram/railroad lines in Alaska used wooden trestles or ungraded track for their entire length to avoid the cost of permanent gravel grades. The switch from corduroy to graded roadbed at Funter would have been a significant upgrade. Secondly, the use of a steam locomotive seems to have boosted the status of small operations. One or two-mile short lines with locomotives were more often called “railroads” while five or ten-mile horse-drawn lines often remained “tramways”.
The company acquired a used 0-4-0T “Dinky” saddle tank steam locomotive around 1928. It seems to have been built by the Davenport Locomotive Works, but no identifying marks are left. It is anecdotally reported to be surplus from the Treadwell mines, which used steam locomotives at least until 1912-1913. Treadwell suffered a collapse in 1917 and finally shut down the last shaft in 1922, then sold the remaining equipment and property to the Alaska Juneau mine in 1928. As the AJ used electric locomotives of different gauge, the surplus steam locomotives were probably made available at bargain rates.
The total height is about 6′ (Treadwell’s specs called for a 5’7″ maximum clearance). This would have been considered a “contractor’s locomotive”, a type frequently used on temporary track in construction sites, to move dirt or materials around before dump trucks became common. Mines found them convenient due to their light weight and ability to handle uneven, steep, or sharply curving rails. I am not sure if the locomotive had an open cab (as apparently did most of the steam locomotives at Treadwell), or if it had an enclosed or even removable cab (at least one Treadwell locomotive was ordered with a removable cab, and a wooden cab could have been added later). Southeast Alaska’s climate would make at least a roof desirable, other small locomotives in the area had standing-height cabs when there were no clearance restrictions.
Here are some similar locomotive configurations that could have resembled this one:
Davenport locomotive with enclosed cab (larger version than this one).
Small locomotive with open cab.
Similarly sized locomotive (this one a Porter) with low-profile cab.
Such locomotives and light railroad equipment could be mail-ordered new or used from catalogs or classified ads in industry magazines.
Eventually, the rail line from the beach to the mountain was 4100ft long. A branch of about 1500-2000ft ran parallel to the beach just above high-tide line, connecting older mine workings along the shore. A report from around 1915 mentions “several miles of railroad” running “along the shore and back into the various tunnels”, but this seems a bit optimistic. Ore carts were hauled underground by mules, and later by electric battery locomotives (several documents mention multiple electric locomotives purchased prior to 1956, including a 3-ton GE). The tunnels along the beach are now collapsed or flooded.
Railroad trestle at Funter Bay in the 1920s:
The following picture shows some track along the beach and what might be a switch:
Today the beachfront track is mostly washed out, rusted away, or buried under decades of organic debris which are slowly forming new soil on top of the railway.
The steam locomotive was used until around 1951, when the owners seem to have decided it was inefficient. I am not sure if it was fueled by wood or coal, but feeding it would have been time consuming either way. The owners attempted to “modernize” the unit by converting it to a Plymouth gasoline engine. Such was sometimes the fate of other steam locomotives in Alaska and elsewhere. An untitled, undated (but probably from 1951 or ’52) note in government files mentions that the conversion cost $1,000. Another note in the file mentions work on a Plymouth engine cowling and head in April 1952. Another sheet mentions that “A steam locomotive for use on the surface tramway was being converted to gasoline power.” and that the $1,000 price tag included “Repairs to locomotive surface and aerial tram (haulage)”.
Since the front of the dinky locomotive was cast to the frame, it would have been hard to simply cut the boiler off. The miners used the old standby of Alaska repairs: If you don’t have the right tool, try dynamite! The story goes that they simply blasted the boiler off the frame, resulting in severe cracking to the front casting:
The gas engine conversion proved to be underpowered; the unit worked on level ground but was unable to make it up the hill between the waterfront branch and the main line to the mountain. The whole rig was abandoned until the early 1970s, when it was salvaged by railroad enthusiast Jim Walsh and moved to Nevada.
A map showing part of the former rail line. The beach section is not shown.
By the late 1950s, maps begin show the line as a road rather than a railroad or tramway, the mine having switched to trucks for transportation. Today there is essentially nothing left of the railroad at Funter Bay. The tracks have all become buried or salvaged for other projects (such as Ray Martin’s marine railroad and planned logging railroad). The land is privately owned and not generally open to visitors.
The locomotive is probably the last major artifact left from this line, and I am greatly appreciative of Jim Walsh’s time and generosity in letting me see it! I am still searching for additional information on this locomotive, such as the construction year, ownership history (Treadwell or otherwise), mechanical specifications, or even old blueprints, but I’ve been unable to track down many details (I spun off another page on small Alaska railroads based on information found during this research). If any readers know of a source for such information, or a possible line of inquiry, I would love to hear about it! As usual, my email address is (replace <AT> with @): gabe <AT> saveitforparts.com