Alaska’s Railroad Shipwrecks

During my research on Alaska’s forgotten railroads, I came across a few incidents of shipwrecked railroad cars. While such events don’t really fit my railroad page, they are interesting enough to document here.

Because the Alaska Railroad is not connected to the rest of North America’s rail network, there is a regular traffic of rolling stock on rail-equipped barges to and from Pacific Northwest ports (more info and photos here). Various other communities and industries have experimented with such service, with stub rail yards appearing in Sitka, Ketchikan, Saxman and Valdez, connected to the outside world by rail barge docks.

As with other ocean-going vessels, these rail barges sometimes suffer casualties. The following are a few such incidents:

February 26, 1947: The barge PT&B Co 1651 ran aground on Louis (or Lewis) Reef, just North of Ketchikan. Rail cars bound for the Alaska RR were salvaged, but the barge was a total loss.

September 27, 1965: The train ship Alaska ran aground in a storm and sustained bow damage, but was able to refloat under its own power and reach Vancouver for repairs. This was a roll-on, roll-off train ferry rather than a barge. A photo of the ship is here, and more information is here.

December 13, 1967: The “Hydro-Train” barge Valdez towed by the Sea Witch was driven ashore West of Yakutat during a storm. The tug (another source says it was the Sea Giant) sought shelter in Yakutat Bay but the towline snagged on the bottom and the barge was driven ashore. Heavy waves smashed the barge and 42 loaded rail cars bound for Whittier were lost.

February 19, 1970: The tug Intrepid capsized and sank during a storm, with loss of 3 crew (5 survived in a life raft for several days before rescue). The tug’s tow was the 400ft barge Cordova carrying 40 railroad cars. The barge went aground near Yakutat and was later salvaged (photo of salvage operations here)

September 1975: Crowley Barge 414 went aground near Yakutat and was refloated by the Salvage Chief (Source and photo here)

October 20, 1987: The tank barge Seattle hit a reef while carrying chemicals to the Sitka pulp mill. In addition to on-board tanks of chlorine and caustic soda, the barge had rail cars filled with sulfer, ammonia, and sulfuric acid. Despite the potential for a hazardous spill, the barge was pulled off the reef with only minor damage.

January 1, 1997: The tug Blackhawk departed Whittier with a barge of empty rail cars, and arrived in Ketchikan a few days later with only half the barge. A passing boat informed the tug of the damage, as the crew could only see the front of the barge they were unaware it had broken in half. The Coast Guard located the back half drifting intact southwest of Valdez and it was towed back to port with no rail cars lost. (Some details from the Daily Sitka Sentinel of January 6, 1997).

Unknown Date: The rail car barge Griffco went aground near Yakutat and was re-floated.

Groundings near Yakutat are somewhat common in this list. The stretch of coast from Cross Sound to Prince William Sound is less protected than the rest of the route to the Gulf of Alaska. There are no sheltering islands to break up ocean wind and waves, and few harbors where vessels can seek shelter. It is sometimes called “Alaska’s Lost Coast”, due to the scarcity of settlements. Boats are frequently driven ashore by strong winds, but the relatively soft sand beaches help reduce damage in many cases. Some examples of wrecks in the area can be seen here and here.

The information here is from various sources as noted, as well as alaskashipwreck.com and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Alaska Shipwreck Table.

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