Jay Livengood and Teddy Hudson discovered gold in the headwaters of the Tolovana River in 1914, leading to a minor gold rush in 1915. The resulting camp (eventually named Livengood) was remote, even though it was only 80 miles northeast of Fairbanks. With no established trails into the area, during the camp’s early years the surest way to transport freight and passengers was by boat via the Tolovana River, a tributary of the Tanana.
The Tolovana River was not the swiftest route, though. According to a 1924 report by the federal Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, as the raven flies the distance from the Tolovana’s mouth to its headwaters is only 55 miles. However, the Tolovana is tortuously twisting, so by water the distance is 175 miles.
Complicating the journey was the log jam, a 1½-mile section of river 125 water-miles above the Tolovana’s mouth. The river doubled back on its course at that point, and three distinct jams blocked transportation. Each jam consisted of interlaced logs filling the channel from the bottom of the river bed to several feet above high water. Silted in and covered with grass, the jams dammed the river, with a 5.1-foot difference in water level between the log jam’s upper and lower ends.
Freight and passengers had to be portaged across the isthmus of the river bend and reloaded on to smaller boats, then transported by river another 40 to 50 miles to a point where goods could be freighted by horse to Livengood.
Cleona Erickson moved to Livengood in 1915. Audrey Parker, in her book, “Livengood, The Last Stampede,” published portions of Erickson’s diary in which she records a 20-day boat trip from Fairbanks to Livengood, 18 of those days spent ascending the Tolovana.
Entrepreneurs quickly began making improvements to the Tolovana route. By the end of 1915 two short trams had been constructed across the log jam isthmus, and work started on a 13-mile tramway from Trappers Cabin (about 40 miles above the log jam) to Livengood.
The tramway consisted of wooden 4-by-4 “rails” placed on top of moss. On top of those rails ran a Dodge touring car with tireless, flanged steel wheels; pulling three trailers (also with with flanged wheels), each capable of carrying 1½ tons. According to government reports, the tramway crossed one slough, three swamp lakes and a branch of the West Fork River.
Of course, the river route was only open during the summer, and overland trails were blazed to provide winter access. Those overland trails crossed marshy areas and could only be traveled during winter. Due to the time, labor and equipment required for shipping via the Tolovana River, the winter trails proved much less costly for freighting.
Finished in 1916, the Tolovana Tram was privately-operated until 1924, when the federal government assumed operation. The government operated the tram until 1930. By then most freight was shipped via winter trail, and Livengood residents, tired of the tram’s high rates, petitioned the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) to build an all-season road between Fairbanks and Livengood.
The ARC agreed. It closed the tram and began work on upgrading the Olnes-to-Livengood trail to automobile standards. By 1938 the Elliott Highway had been completed between Olnes and Livengood. The tramway itself, being of wooden construction, quickly rotted away and there is no trace of it today.
The drawing depicts the old horse barn in Livengood. Although apparently not directly associated with the Tolovana Tram, the barn is a reminder of the community’s earliest days, when pack horses, horse-drawn wagons, sledges and boats, and rudimentary transportation systems like the Tolovana Tram linked Livengood with the outside world.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• “Letter from the Secretary of War, With a Letter from the Chief of Engineers, Reports on Preliminary Examination and Survey of Tolovana River, Alaska.” 68th Congress. 1924
• “Livengood: The Last Stampede.” Audrey E. Parker. Hats Off Books. 2003
• “The Gold Placers of the Tolovana District.” J.B. Mertie Jr. In The Mineral Resources of Alaska. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1916