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The Tanana Valley Railroad: Some history and Engine No. 1

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Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 2:12 pm, Thu Jan 24, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — When Falcon Joslin, the mastermind behind the Tanana Valley Railroad began work on the line in 1904, he envisioned a railroad stretching from Fairbanks to Nome. However, real-world considerations meant the completed railroad reached only 39 miles, as far as Chatanika.

The TVRR (originally the Tanana Mines Railroad) began at the townsite of Chena, near the confluence of the Tanana and Chena rivers. Little track was laid in1904, but by July of 1905 the tracks reached Fairbanks, just in time for the arrival of the railroad’s first locomotive. Engine No. 1, a small Porter locomotive (shown in the drawing), came from the Yukon Territory’s Coal Creek Coal Co., which Joslin helped build, and had been the first locomotive in the Yukon.

Construction continued during 1905 on the railbed to Fox and Gilmore, and by September 1905 this initial phase was completed. The second phase, extending the line to Chatanika, was finished in 1907. Unfortunately, railroad revenues began declining in1910, and by 1917 the TVRR was insolvent. The Alaska Engineering Commission which was building a standard-gauge railroad (4-feet 8.5-inches between rails) north from Anchorage, acquired the narrow-gauge TVRR (3-feet between rails), and it became the AEC’s Chatanika Branch.

The AEC built another narrow-gauge branch from Fairbanks to Nenana to meet the northbound track. When the railroad’s Tanana River bridge was completed in 1923, this section was widened to standard-gauge as far as Happy (in Goldstream valley) where the TVRR’s tracks turned east toward Fox. That same year the AEC became the Alaska Railroad.

From Happy to Fairbanks the railroad laid one additional rail parallel to the narrow-gauge rails. This created a dual-gauge railway, allowing narrow-gauge and standard-gauge trains to use the same railbed.

The ARR was forced to shut down the Chatanika Branch in 1930 because of competition from motor vehicles. Its rolling stock was scrapped, relocated or converted to standard-gauge, and the track was torn up and salvaged. The right-of-way is still visible in areas such as Fox Gulch.

Engine No.1, retired in 1922 and donated to the city of Fairbanks, fortunately escaped destruction. It was long on display in front of the Fairbanks depot, and eventually moved to what is now called Pioneer Park. A group of volunteers (including myself), formed the Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad in 1991 to restore the engine to operating condition.

There was much work in store for us. For example, the locomotive’s water tank and wooden cab were in deplorable condition and had to be replaced. (Our carpenter and I actually traveled to Dawson City to take measurements, photos and sketches of the cab on No. 1’s sister engine, No. 4.) We had also hoped to restore the boiler, but decided it was safer (albeit more expensive) to manufacture a replacement boiler utilizing some of the old boiler’s parts.

The engine restoration was completed in 2000 and the little locomotive now chugs around the tracks at Pioneer Park on special occasions. For more information on the TVRR visit the FTVRR website at www.fairnet.org/agencies/tvrr/tvrr.html.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

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