March 27, 2018

I’ve been mildly interested in rail bikes for a while, but too lazy / busy to build one myself. However, when one popped up at a local estate sale I couldn’t pass it up.

Before the safety-conscious railfans jump on me, the track I’m testing this on is fully disconnected from any live rail and is on public land in a city park (The Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary). It’s part of a former industrial spur and was incorporated into the park as a bit of decoration by the designers.

I’m not sure of the origin of this contraption. It’s obviously homemade, but when and by whom are a mystery. The bike has a little side saddle “sidecar” on the outrigger, suitable for a passenger or cargo. The bike itself seems to have been built in England, or at least parts of it were. The nameplate is worn off and everything is pretty rusty! I’m guessing it’s from the 1950s or 60s, but whether it was a hobbyist or a railroad employee who built it, I don’t know.

The bike required a little work to get it going. Namely a new rear wheel, new crank and pedals, reinforced weld, new chain, and some minor adjustments.

It barely fits in the car, and requires the rear hatch to be open. This could get annoying if I want to transport it very far!

My initial tests showed that it does pretty well on abandoned track in decent condition. However, any bends, dents, large gaps, or major bushes on the rail will derail it. It kind of goes through switches in one direction, but tends to fall off the frog going through the other way.

A short (<1min) video of my early test runs can be found here:

Funter Bay History: Locomotive Headlamp

May 26, 2016

While researching Funter Bay history I often find things that are not in their original context. Rural Alaska is a great case study of creative re-use. The cost of new equipment leads many things to be salvaged and repurposed in ways they weren’t intended. A great example is this old kerosene lantern. It had ceased being used for its original purpose, was modified into an electric wall lamp, then was abandoned again.


The lantern is in rather rough shape, but still recognizable as a type used for headlights on small industrial locomotives.


I suspect this lantern originally came from the Danvenport 0-4-0T steam locomotive used at Funter Bay in the early 20th century. The locomotive was abandoned around 1952 after a failed conversion to gas power, and most of the small parts were stripped between the 1950s and 1970s. The headlight may have become a decoration for one of the miner’s cabins, with a little work to allow an electric bulb to be added.

The locomotive from Funter Bay is seen below, compared to a Davenport drawing of a very similar model. The headlight mounting bracket is a U-shaped piece of sheet metal riveted to the boiler just forward of the smoke stack:


Some details are labeled below. Intact locomotive headlights of similar design can be seen here and here.


Keith Muldowney believes this may be from the Star Headlight Co, founded in 1889 and still in existence today as the Star Head Light & Lantern Co. Some of the company’s history can be found here. Star manufactured kerosene lights until about 1941, when they switched to primarily electric lights. Keith sent a great set of drawings for a similar Star headlight design:


Star Headlight. Courtesy of Keith Muldowney

Other possibilities for the lantern’s original use include on a ship or underground in the mine, although carbide lamps were more common than kerosene for mining. It could have also been used on the surface at the mine or by a fish trap watchman. The locomotive origin is attractive but by no means confirmed! Hopefully I’ll be able to track down more information on this interesting artifact in the future.


Narrow Gauge Model Trains

September 24, 2014

Recent work on my list of Alaska short line railroads has gotten me interested in toy trains again (or, excuse me, “model” trains). I discovered that there is a whole subset of HO-scale model railroading for narrow gauge, in HOn3 (scale 3′ or 36″) and HOn30 (scale 30″, aka HOe). While 36″ was more common and has more “prototypes” (the real railroads on which models are based), scale track for it is somewhat less available. HOn30 happens to match N-scale track, which makes it more attractive to modelers on a budget.

Alaska had a few 30″ rail lines (as well as 24″, 36″, 42″, and others). As I’ve discussed on my railroad page, most of the locomotives used on these lines were small 0-4-0 saddle tankers re-purposed from lower-48 industry and construction. A few companies happen to make HOn30 industrial locomotives and cars for modeling, and I couldn’t resist buying some more toys!


My first experiment in HOn30 includes some 2nd-hand track, a BCH Minitrains 0-4-0 steam locomotive, and a string of cars including coal, ore, log cars, and a caboose. There is a very good review of the locomotive set here. The company also makes a Plymouth gas locomotive and a variety of rolling stock.


Right now these are just a static display. I have some HO scale stuff packed away from my childhood, and have been hoarding more as I find it at garage sales, but don’t have time to set any of it up and run it. In the mythical “some day” when all my projects are done, I’d like to model a small Alaska mine railroad (current estimates hover around age 60). Until then, these are really fun conversation pieces!


Above is an example of how small these are, the narrow gauge locomotive is shown next to a standard-gauge 0-4-0 switcher that I picked up at a garage sale. A real-world photo of standard and small narrow gauge locomotives can be seen here.

For anyone interested in modeling Alaska short lines, there are a wide variety of locomotives available new and used (eBay has quite a few). European models are quite popular and most manufacturers seem to be in Europe, using the “HOe” designation for 30″ scale gauge. Side-tank locomotives are more common in the model world, but were very rare in Alaska (so far I know of only one, an 0-6-0 Baldwin at the Apollo mine). Small flatcars were the most common rolling stock in real life (but less common in model form). Ore cars, log cars, and other specialty cars were also used.


I would love to get my hands on an H.K. Porter with the shorter saddle tank, as it was the most typical of small Alaskan lines. However, they seem to be rare in HOn30 form, and seem to be mostly home brewed / scratch built / kit-bashed by people with more time and patience than I. The little engine I bought is labeled as a Porter and has Porter’s logo on the front, but some reviewers believe it is more closely based on a Baldwin prototype. Both builders offered nearly identical models of this size and design in the early 1900s.

Porter and Baldwin












Article on PacificNG

September 16, 2013

I’m continuing to poke at my Obscure Railroad list occasionally (perhaps to the detriment of my Funter Bay History, which has not been updated as much lately). I’ve been in contact with a few people regarding some research, including Randy Hees and Andrew Brandon of PacificNG.com, a site dedicated to Pacific Coast narrow gauge railroad history. I ended up writing an article for the site on the Apollo Consolidated Mining Co railroad.  The article can be found here. I also made a KML file for their Google Maps collection of railroad routes. This railroad is somewhat less obscure, since it’s actually been mentioned in a few books, but I was able to track down additional details and route information.

More Railroad Updates

August 1, 2013

I’ve been poking at my Obscure Railroads of Alaska page a bit more. It’s fairly unorganized at this point, being mostly a running list of trams and small railways that I’ve found. My hope is that it will help other rail and history enthusiasts like myself. Hopefully it can serves as a landing page and jumping-off point for further research on small town Alaska rails, I’ve tried to provide links to source documents when possible. When I started this (a bit by accident), I had never heard of many of these lines, despite having a long-running interest in railroads and Alaska history. The information is out there, it’s just buried a little beyond the scope of easy viewing and mainstream histories (As a kid I was always frustrated at how vague and incomplete things like Alaska Geographic’s railroad issue were).

Randy Hees of PacificNG.com is one of the people who’s been quite helpful on this topic. He recently mentioned my website in a blog post. He also discusses the challenges of tracing the overlapping and twisting history of Alaska and Yukon railroads.

Eventually I might try to break the railroad page up into sub-sections or sort it by region, length of line, or other useful statistics. I also hope to refine the details on some of these, often the source documents are a little “fuzzy” about dates, names, or routes.

While I’m at it, I would also like to thank the Alaska State Library’s Digital Archives collection for letting me use some of their material. I’m sure they are getting tired of me sending in permission forms!


The Funter Bay Railroad

July 17, 2013

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.

1926 photos showing wooden rails with and without steel rails laid between them:
Funter Track

Some of Holland’s suggested improvements were implemented over the next few years. A 1928 letter to Governor Ernest Gruening reported construction of a “surface railroad” and purchase of a locomotive and cars. The 1930 stockholder report describes “railroads, 24″ gauge, 20lb rails” and an 8-ton steam locomotive. Within a few years the wooden roadbed was replaced with gravel from mine tailings. The 1931 Annual Report to the company stockholders stated that; “The Railroad Bed leading from the main tunnel to the mill located on the shore, and which was constructed of corduroy, was found too weak for continuous heavy loads and therefore has been ballasted the entire distance with crushed rock derived from the various workings in the main tunnel. New 8″ x 8″ x 9′ long ties have been secured and thus the road made substantial for any load at present under contemplation”. The report also mentions a branch of the railroad along the shore to the wharf.

Beginning in the 1930s, 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 was a significant upgrade. Secondly, the use of a steam locomotive seems to have boosted the status of small operations. Short lines with locomotives were more often called “railroads” while longer 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 and was categorized as an 8-ton engine. Unfortunately no identifying marks are left, so the construction number and year are uncertain. 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.

0-4-0T locomotive from Funter Bay:

The locomotive may have looked something like this when operating.

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.


Front view of Funter Bay steam locomotive:

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. Below the surface, ore carts were hauled through the tunnels 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.

Funter Track 2

Two sizes of rail wheels and axles lying on the beach at Funter Bay, the larger gauge set may have been from the 36″ gauge mule tram:

Railroad trestle at Funter Bay in the 1920s:


Courtesy of Alaska State Library, MS 247 1_02

The following picture shows some track along the beach and what might be a switch:

dual gauge

Courtesy of Alaska State Library, MS 247 1_01

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)”.

locomotive conversion

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.

RR map 2

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

Sidetracked: Obscure Railroads of Alaska

July 9, 2013

So… while researching AK history I accidentally found a whole bunch of forgotten railroads that aren’t well documented (if at all) in official rail histories. Kind of like finding spare change in the couch, but with more rust! I managed to get myself totally distracted from my Funter Bay history, while I typed up a quick list of these lines. I’ve tried to include links to supplementary information, but it’s a work in progress, and any information anyone might have would be appreciated!  Since it’s a long list, I’ve gone ahead and made it a separate page on the site, you can find it at the link below:



Funter Bay History: Logging

May 23, 2013

While Northern Admiralty Island was never clearcut on an industrial scale the way the central section was, there have been occasional timber harvests in the Funter Bay area. Industrial logging was both helped and hindered by regulatory issues; creation of the Tongass National Forest in 1907 added some forest protections, but the Forest Service also earmarked large parts of National Forest to become foreign pulp exports. Private landowners had a few more options for local-use and some export harvests. General information and statistics on Alaskan logging is available here and here. A basic timeline of logging and timber regulation in Southeast Alaska in the 20th century is available here.

Handlogging tools at Funter Bay:

Early hand-logging operations in the 19th and early 20th century supplied logs for fish traps and pilings, shipping crates for canned salmon, wood for cannery and mine construction, and possibly fuel (although coal was more common as a fuel for steam boilers, possibly due to the high sap content of local spruce adversely affecting machinery). Most hand-logging operations were based from boats, the loggers would cut trees very close to the shoreline where they would fall into the water, then they would be tied into rafts and towed to lumber mills at Juneau and Douglas. Today there would not be much evidence of this forest-edge harvesting, but the practice probably explains why photos from the early 20th century show very few trees on the small islands in Funter Bay. These islands are heavily re-forested today, they would have been convenient places to cut old-growth spruce and float it away.


Despite the abundance of timber, some businesses imported lumber for construction, including the Funter Bay cannery (which brought in California Redwood beams), and other local buildings which were pre-fabricated and shipped up as packages. Certain woods like pine, and especially redwood, are more rot-resistant than the local spruce, and buildings made out of such woods have lasted longer in the damp environment. Spruce pilings driven near the shore or used as building footings were often soaked in tar to make them last longer.

Part of a shipping address stamped on lumber brought in from down south in the early 20th century:

Barry Roderick’s “Preliminary History of Admiralty Island” mentions a single cable-logging operation on the island in 1905 (where logs would be hooked to a cable and pulled or zip-lined to the beach). Later operations would have been more mechanized, with tractors and engines used to haul logs from stands of timber deeper in the woods. Of special interest were the old-growth cedar trees, prized for their rot resistance.

In 1911, the US Forest Service decided that clearcutting (AKA “Clean Cutting”) was the best method, supposedly it would allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and make new trees grow faster (in reality, clearcutting just creates big jungles of berry bushes, destroys wildlife habitat, and leaves the soil unprotected to wash away into salmon streams).

Sawmill equipment was delivered to Funter Bay in 1918 by the steamer Admiral Goodrich, probably for one of the mines. A 40hp steam-powered sawmill was reported in 1920.

In 1922 the Alaska Gastineau mine in Juneau purchased timber rights on Admiralty Island, but the sale was cancelled due to financing issues.


After WWII, the Forest Service attempted to entice pulp mill operations to Southeast Alaska. There were also some attempts to cut spruce for plywood and export full logs overseas, but most development seems to be devoted to grinding up the trees for pulp. These operations were heavily subsidized by the government, and still claimed to be operating at a loss. Local rumor has it that Japanese investors are stockpiling logs to sell back to the US once we’ve clearcut everything.

The Keelers who had a cabin near Clear Point (and possibly one at Hawk Inlet?) did some logging. The uncle-nephew team purchased a large two-man chainsaw. Unfortunately, the younger man was killed when one of the first trees they cut tree fell on him.

In the 1960s, local resident Ray Martin had a plan to log old-growth cedar from between the creeks at Crab Cove. His idea involved building a railroad from a dock at “The Point” up to the old-growth cedar stands between the creeks. The cedars would have been used for telephone poles. Ray apparently had many “get rich” schemes that never took off, and the logging operation was no different. He eventually landed in some legal trouble due to a shady stock deal with a company in Juneau.

The biggest logging project at Funter Bay was run by the Alaska Dano Mining Co in conjunction with Gary Lumber Co of Juneau. Spruce (and some Hemlock) was harvested from approximately 30-35 acres on and near Dano’s mining claims around 1969. Sources indicate that it was around 1.8 million board feet, mainly for export.  In 1971, the US BLM transferred 33 acres to the state in the section which was logged, this could have been related to Dano’s operation, but I am not sure.  The clearing resulting from Dano’s logging is still visible in satellite imagery, although its a much smaller scar than those left by the bigger industrial logging operations elsewhere on Admiralty Island.

Dano clearcut and logging road, 10 years after the timber harvest (color infrared image showing different vegetation types):

A Forest Service memo notes a timber sale of 222mbf (million board feet) in the Funter Bay area in 1969. That volume of timber would indicate an area of roughly 500 acres, much larger than the Dano clearcut. The appraisal price was 3 times higher than the average for Southeast Alaska, which could mean that cedar was the target rather than spruce. This could be related to Ray Martin’s plan, or to a late-60s plan to bring a large pulp mill to Juneau and clearcut the surrounding forests.

Today there are the remains of a piledriver at The Point, but I am not sure if this is specifically related to Ray Martin’s logging scheme, or simply left over from something else.

The other remains of Ray’s logging scheme include a mobile logging arch left on his property (which became our home). When my parents expanded our house, the arch was too heavy to move, so Dad incorporated it into the foundation of the deck!


A logging arch would be used in conjunction with a tractor, to raise one end of a log and then drag it somewhere for loading. Here’s a model of one. Here is a page showing logging arches in use. Here is a photo of a logging arch being used to assemble a log raft on an Alaskan beach.

Dad believes this was Ray’s tractor, a Fordson made by the Ford Motor Company in Detroit:



Fordson tractors were quite popular in Alaska. It also seems to have been somewhat common to turn them into small railway locomotives, everywhere from Nome to New Zealand.

Here’s a Fordson-based locomotive in Nome, AK:
Nome Alaska, Iron

Here’s the low-budget model, with the rail made of logs (a “pole road”) and the wheels apparently just big flanged rims. And here’s a whole bunch more. A salt mining company once built a monorail using Fordson tractor motors!

Here is a mention of another small railroad in Southeast Alaska, with a Fordson locomotive. That site also had a Fordson-powered sawmill:

Ray Martin had a marine railway at the property, which included some tracks leading from the beach up to the house, and some wheels and axles. This would have been used to haul his boat out for storage and repairs, but maybe he planned to build his own logging railroad using some of this equipment as a starting point? By the 1950s, mines in Southeast Alaska were switching from railways and tramways to gravel roads, and surplus rail equipment would probably have been available cheaply.