Alaska Railway Technology

October 17, 2014

This post examines some of the technologies, construction techniques, and equipment commonly found on small railways and tramways in Alaska (many of which I have documented here).

porter 0-4-0

Alaska short line railways were often built rapidly on a shoestring budget, to serve an industry of unknown financial return. In several cases they were built as parts of investment schemes or frauds, and never intended to be permanent. As such, these lines used many techniques developed for temporary logging, mining, and construction railroads in the Pacific Northwest. They also used a wide range of motive power, often choosing cost over effectiveness.



The simplest and cheapest guide rails were simply logs laid end to end, the so-called “pole road”. This could be traversed by a wide-flanged wheel or even a tire-less automobile rim. The ride was generally not very smooth and required a very low speed. The poles would only last a few years at best, and less in rainy coastal climates. In Alaska, such tramways were typically under a mile in length and hauled by animals, although lower-48 logging companies used everything from steam locomotives to tractors to modified trucks. Fairbanks miner and contractor H. M. Henning placed a want ad in a 1905 edition of the Engineering News Record seeking a pole road locomotive, I have been unable to determine where he intended to use it or if he ever purchased one.


The next step up from poles were wooden rails, often 4x4s cut by an on-site sawmill. This was sometimes referred to as a “plank tramway”. Rails could be covered with strap iron to improve the lifespan of the wood. Most standard rolling stock and light locomotives could be used on iron-topped planks. A downside was the tendency to “snakehead”, the metal straps could come un-pinned from the wood and curl up to pierce the bottom of the cars. Tramways of this type could be found all over Alaska in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ranging from 1-15 miles in length.


Standard iron or steel rails were the mark of a better-funded and more permanent railway or tramway. Rails are rated by weight in pounds per yard, so “30lb rail” means that 1 yard of rail weighed 30lbs. The heavier the locomotive and cars, the heavier the rail needed to be. Modern North American railroads¬† commonly use 75-140lb rails. Mine cart tracks were sometimes as light as 8lbs. Street railway track was commonly 30-45lbs. For small contractor’s locomotives such as the one used at Funter Bay (approximately 10 tons loaded weight), the manufacturers recommended a minimum of 25lb rail, although 15-20lb rails were common on short lines. The AJ Mine hauled heavy rock loads over 50lb rails. The White Pass & Yukon also used 50lb rails. The Tanana Valley Railroad and the Yakutat & Southern Railroad both used 40lb rails. The Alaska Railroad began with 55-75lb rails and now uses 115-141lb rails on main line and 90lb on some sidings.

Some example rail sizes based on the author's collection.

Some example rail sizes based on the author’s collection.

Low budget railways often purchased second-hand “relaying” track that had been pulled out of service due to wear or damage. Rails were in such demand that they were often pulled up and re-laid 3 or 4 times as companies closed or failed and equipment was sold to other operations. Track condition was less important at the low speeds of most small railways and tramways, but court documents record a number of injuries from derailments on Alaskan short lines.




For flat ground, the simplest grade was a corduroy road with rails spiked to it. This was commonly used on muskeg or permafrost, where the grade could “float” on top of the loose ground. It was subject to subsidence and frost heave, and often became a roller-coaster track after a few years. Ties could also be laid directly on the ground, although they tended to sink in if spaced too far apart.

As flat ground is a rare commodity in coastal regions of Alaska, a more common approach was the trestle grade. This raised most or all of the track on wooden supports, which could maintain a level path over and around uneven ground. High enough trestles also eased snow removal. A walkway was sometimes provided between the rails for humans or draft animals.


Tram with wooden grade and center walkway, with part of a hand-pulled car. Photo courtesy AKphill.

Two types of grade are seen below, rails on corduroy are on the right, and a log trestle is on the left:


Courtesy of Alaska State Library, MS 247 1_02

A variant of trestle grades is the boardwalk tram, where rails were laid on or into a wider wooden boardwalk (examples of which can be found in place of roads in many rural communities). These typically ran between multiple buildings of an industrial complex such as a cannery, mine, smelter, or pulp mill.

Boardwalk tramway at Sand Point:

sand point

Public domain photo courtesy of USGS Photo Library.

Gravel-ballasted grades were a significant upgrade and represented a long-term commitment to the rail line. They required significant labor, extensive ground preparation and surveying, and a ready source of gravel, but paid off with less ongoing maintenance. Some mines used their crushed tailings or waste rock as track ballast. Even a gravel-ballasted railroad grade could suffer from permafrost heave and ground deformation, as seen in the below photo of the CRNWRR grade, 20 years after abandonment:


Public domain photo courtesy of USGS Photo Library.



Horses and mules were often the first “power” on small tramways. Some short lines continued using draft animals into the 1920s, although others upgraded to mechanical power as finances and hauling tonnage dictated. In the Nome area, and reportedly in other parts of the state, dog teams were used to pull small flatcars. These were often called “pupmobiles”.


Public domain photo courtesy USGS Photo Library

Very short and/or very steep tramways used fixed or stationary engines, either steam donkeys, small internal combustion winches, or electric hoists. Usually a very steep tramway was referred to as an “Incline”, and could operate either as a single-track or a 3-4 rail funicular.

A few incline trams were of the gravity or counterweight type, using only (or mostly) the weight of a descending car to raise the ascending car on a parallel track. This worked best when there was a steady supply of rock (ore and/or tailings) at the upper end.

Steam locomotives began replacing horse power in the 1880s, and remained in use in Alaska into the 1950s. Small “dinkey” engines could be found all over the state, the design of choice for most short lines was the 0-4-0 saddle tank locomotive. The short wheelbase allowed a tight turning radius and ability to take uneven track. The small size gave a good power to weight ratio and simplified delivery to remote locations. No tender was needed, as water was stored in saddle tanks hung over the boiler and fuel could be kept in bins in the cab. Such locomotives could be purchased new from major manufacturers including H.K. Porter, Baldwin, and Davenport, who marketed them to mines, plantations, factories, and contractors. They could also be acquired second-hand from construction companies in the lower 48. When urban street railways began electrifying, small steam dummies became available as surplus. Fuel was local coal or wood, making operation relatively cheap. The main drawbacks were low speed and limited fuel capacity. Several midsize railroads in Alaska (Such as the Y&SRR and TVRR) outgrew their original saddle tank engines and upgraded to faster, longer-range units.

Porter tank locomotive

Small locomotives were often described by loaded weight and piston size. 8-10 ton locomotives with 7×12 pistons were common in Alaska. A few short lines used 0-4-2 configurations, allowing slightly more speed and hauling power at the expense of wider turns, and at least one short line seems to have used an 0-4-4 locomotive.

Internal combustion locomotives were also found on small Alaska railroads. Many were home-made affairs cobbled together from spare parts. Converted tractors and autos were common, with Ford cars and Fordson tractors being some of the most popular. Small gasoline switch engines were sometimes used, and sometimes steam locomotives were converted to use oil or gas engines. A variety of railway “critters” can be seen in this video, operating at Nome after the steam railroad was converted to a public tramway. These are some good examples of some of the locally-built motive power found on other Alaskan short lines.


Electric battery locomotives were often found underground, but were less common for surface tramways. A few larger mines used trolley-type electric locomotives, with power supplied by overhead wires. Both types required a cheap source of electricity (usually hydroelectric dams or ditch systems).


Battery locomotive at Apollo Mine, photo courtesy AKphill.


Rolling Stock:

Small 4-wheeled flat cars were the most versatile and popular rolling stock found on Alaska short lines. They could handle sharp curves, carry most types of load, and be pushed or pulled by anything from humans to locomotives. During construction of a railroad or mine, they could haul materials and lumber, and after completion they could haul loose material with the addition of stake and fence sides. Often these would be coupled via long poles which increased the turning radius between cars. Longer loads could be stacked across two cars, or a temporary flat car could be built using two smaller cars as individual trucks. Photos commonly show short trains of 2-3 cars pushed ahead of the locomotive, especially uphill. This likely assisted with braking, as the cars would not have their own brakes.

Berner's Bay Watermarked Crop

Lumber on coupled flat cars at Berner’s Bay, photo courtesy of Michael & Carolyn Nore

Once a mine or industry had finished construction and begun hauling regular loads on its railroad, more specialized cars were sometimes used. For mines these usually included small 4-wheeled ore carts or larger hopper cars. Canneries also favored box hoppers to transport bulk fish. Coal depots usually had small side-dump cars (vs end-dump mine cars). Only a few small railroads used dedicated passenger cars, more often workers would ride to the job site on modified flatcars or on the locomotive. This was often in violation of company safety rules, occurring with a nod and a wink from the train crew and resulting in injuries when cars derailed or collided.

mine car diagram