By Barbara Hecker
PALMER — At first blush, one might presume it was the 1935 Matanuska Colony project that put Palmer on the map. While Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” agricultural experiment brought the Valley national attention, it served to broaden, not initiate, its founding and settlement.
Central to Palmer’s historical district is the train depot, the shiny black Engine No. 5 locomotive and, sadly, only remnants of railroad tracks. In their day, these artifacts served an essential role in the building of the Valley, the support of Navy efforts in World War I and in maintaining a cargo and social lifeline between individuals and communities living along the rail line.
Twentieth century pioneers came to Alaska by boat, sailing into the only deep-water port of the time, Seward. From there they rode the train to Anchorage, to Matanuska or to Wasilla. Then they relied on horse and buggy or wagon to travel to their new home site. For Matanuska Colonists, tents were erected adjacent to the railway in preparation for their arrival. As homes were completed, colonists moved from the tents to the new structures, though many endured that first winter living in those canvas tents. The Alaska Railroad maintained regular rail service into the mid-1960s.
At the turn of the 20th century, traders and prospectors had learned from Alaska Natives living in the area of coal reserves along the Chickaloon River. These deposits were hard to reach and little interest was shown in them. In the winter of 1913-14, John Dalton sledded 800 tons of Chickaloon coal down the frozen Matanuska River for delivery to the U.S. Navy for testing. Tests proved the coal had good steaming properties and would be acceptable for ships. When construction of the Alaska Railroad was approved in 1914, the plan included a branch line through Palmer to access the Chickaloon coal fields.
The U.S. Navy soon sponsored the thriving town of Chickaloon, a community in the Talkeetna Mountains just 74 miles from Anchorage. It had homes, a schoolhouse, stores, a power plant, dormitories, a mess hall and rich deposits of coal. In 1919, more than 4,000 tons of coal was mined by Chickaloon’s 35 employees. Two years later, the Navy built a million-dollar coal-washing station at nearby Sutton. All the coal that Chickaloon mines produced over the next few years was for Navy use.
About the time the Navy was planning to enlarge the mines, California oil was found to be more economical than coal. Ships were converted to burn oil instead of coal. Not long after, the Navy ordered the Chickaloon mine shut down. Over the next decade, Chickaloon buildings were taken apart and moved elsewhere. Demand for Matanuska coal remained high until the mid-1960s due to the heating and power generation demands of the growing town of Anchorage and its adjacent military base.
Little Engine No. 5 was built for the U.S. government in Pennsylvania in 1909. It had a coal-fired boiler that supplied steam for a pair of cylinders with 9-inch bore and 14-inch stoke. It was configured as “0-4-OT,” describing a locomotive with no lead wheels, four drivers and no training wheels. The “T” indicates the water tank and fuel bunker are carried on the locomotive rather than on a separate tender. It is thought its first service was in dam construction and land reclamation projects in eastern Washington state. About 1914, it was shipped north for use in building the Alaska Railroad.
Engine No. 5 hauled coal from the upper mines of Eska, Premier, Wishbone Hill and Bufalo Mines to the tipple and junction with the main branch. In 1956, the locomotive was found abandoned at Bufalo Mine. Local donations of funds, equipment and manpower brought Engine No. 5 to downtown Palmer, where it was placed beside the rails on which was hauled north more than 30 years before. Engine No. 5 is now owned and maintained by the city of Palmer and exhibited in recognition of its significant contributions to the development of our area.
Alaska Railroad has not offered regular service through Palmer since the late 1960s. Major sections of downtown track were recently removed, precluding future special events train service.
We have a roomy, historic train depot as a community gathering place. We have an iconic, century-old coal locomotive that stands as background for family, graduates and tourist photos, and welcomes thousands of children grasping at its shiny steel flanks while imagining themselves engineers, “choo-choo-ing” down the line.
Think how tremendous it would be, what a boon to local tourism, to again enjoy those contiguous train tracks bearing visiting dignitaries, sports teams, commuters, state fair and Friday Fling attendees, tourists, friends and family visitors in extraordinary style?
Sources: Alaska Railroad Corp., USGS Reports and from personal communication with Mat-Su Valley historian Patrick Durand.
Barbara Hecker is a local writer and longtime teacher who writes Inky Visits, a regular history column for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. Send suggestions for places, events, and persons to visit and write about to InkyVisits@gmail.com.