“Trains tap into some deep American collective memory.” ― Dana Frank
Yes it’s time again for the tug of the Railroad and the beauty and nostalgia of a train ride, the railroad locomotives and the people that work on them.
On the recommendation of one of Denali’s capable bus drivers I booked a ticket on the Hurricane Turn Train leaving from Talkeetna (more about Talkeetna in this previous post). Owning the distinction as the nation’s last whistle-stop train, the Hurricane Turn is not on a typical tourist’s itinerary; nor is it on most Alaskans’, for that matter. Which made it a perfect fit for this off the beaten path traveler.
“Folks, we just saw a moose on the left side. We are just going to back up to see if we can get a better look,” Warren announces over the trains speaker system. This was my first indication that this train was very different than anything I had ridden before in my travels. No trains stop and back up for wildlife…. At least not one that I have ever seen.
“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” – Henry David Thoreau
The Hurricane Turn runs 55 miles north from Talkeetna, the pioneer town in the shadow of Mount McKinley, to Hurricane Gulch, the turnaround point. It is a roadless land full of thick forests and roiling rivers, where Alaskans have cabins tucked into bush country. The train is a lifeline for the 200 people who live near the tracks these folks depend on the train to reach their remote cabins and to deliver critical supplies and mail. Hikers and anglers board the Hurricane Turn for day trips on their own. It is quite easy for them to stop this train for a ride, as easy as using a white cloth that often comes right off their backs in the form of a t-shirt. We picked up and dropped off a number of such travelers on our run.
The rest of the riders just go along for the scenery and the train ride. The benefit for us tourist riders, however, is a glimpse of Alaska’s most beautiful backcountry, terminating at the jaw-dropping Hurricane Gulch bridge, a 918-foot tumble of rock to the creek below. Riders bring along picnic lunches including beer and wine to enjoy on the ride. It is relaxed and a great fun ride.
“One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.” – Conductor on The Polar Express
For many, the Hurricane Turn train is less about the view outside, and more about the characters within, starting with longtime conductor Warren Redfearn. An Alaska Railroad employee since 1974, Redfearn has been the conductor and heart of the Hurricane Turn Train for 39 years. Warren has so much enthusiasm for this train route it was impossible not to have it rub off on you. This was clearly his calling and his home, he hands out brochures, points out wildlife, and shares history and the culture of remote Alaska – all while still running the train with his crew. The title ‘conductor’ fit him perfectly – he was the maestro of the Hurricane Turn Train, and for him alone folks go back again, and again, and again.
“I’m sitting in the railway station.
Got a ticket to my destination.” – Simon & Garfunkel
But I also can’t neglect to mention the rest of the train crew. Warren gets the glory – but these guys love the train as much as Warren does, they are the backbone. And they are also just as enthusiastic and social as Warren (when their duties allow it). This is like the Train Dream Team – they all deserve gold medals.
The Hurricane Turn train isn’t just about the locals and their remote, unusual lives; it is much more than that. It’s the coming together of locals and tourists. It’s the Alaskan Railroad, and specifically the crew on the Hurricane Turn train, that unites them.
Thanks to a tip from Hurricane Conductor Warren I discovered that volunteers are working on the restoration of a Alaska Railroad steam locomotive in the nearby town of Wasilla, which also happened to be my next stop!
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Built for the United States Army between 1942 and 1945, the s-160 class Consolidation 2-8-0 locomotives became the largest single class of locomotives ever built in America. During the World War II, the United States Army Transport Corps was called upon to provide a heavy freight steam locomotive for use in Europe and Africa. The result was the type S-160 2-8-0 wheel arrangement allowing it to be used overseas in areas where the horizontal and vertical clearances were smaller. There were 2,120 locomotives of this type built from 1942 to 1945. The three major American builders Baldwin, American Locomotive Company and Lima were all engaged in this massive effort. Known as GI Consolidations, or Gypsy Rose Lee locomotives (with reference to the well known stripper of that time as they were striped down for war time action) these locomotives eventually found their way to every continent, but for Australia and Antarctica.
While most were scattered all over the world, 12 remained stateside and found their way to Alaska. The equipment power shortage was acute in Alaska as military preparations were being made for the United States entry into World War II. #3523 arrived in December 1944 to become Alaska Railroad Locomotive #557. It is 61-feet long, weighs 161,000 lbs., and has driving wheels that are 4-feet, 9-inches in diameter.
Alaska Railroad #557 was the last Steam Locomotive in regular service on the railroad. It was kept around to help during high water conditions at Nenana, Alaska, where the Tanana and Nenana rivers regularly flooded the entire town and rail yard. Diesel traction motors don’t like water and the steamer could easily ford 2-feet of water over the rails.
As the end of the steam era came to the Alaska Railroad, memories of war time shortages lingered. As a result strategic reserves were part of planning for most organizations. The Alaska Railroad stashed serviceable steam locomotives at several locations. Engine 557 was tucked into the Whittier engine house as of Aug. 31 1957. There are only five examples of this wartime era locomotive left in North America and none are currently operational. These dedicated volunteers’ work tirelessly to rectify this problem.
“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” ~ Elizabeth Andrew
I found the 557’s temporary engine house just where Conductor Warren described, behind the Burger King in Wasilla. As I walked into the door leading into the restoration shop I was met by one of these dedicated folks who quickly introduced me to Patrick Durand, President of the Engine 557 Restoration Company (also a volunteer). Patrick and I spent the next two and a half hours talking trains and touring the restoration shop. It was an awesome afternoon, as I love seeing history come to life in the restoration of a steam locomotive at the hands of such capable volunteers.
From the #557 website:
The restoration and overhaul for operation of ex-Alaska Railroad steam locomotive #557 was begun in August, 2012, and steam tests are projected to be done in 2020. $850,000 in monetary grants and individual contributions and $500,000 in in-kind contributions have been received and volunteers have invested more than 50,000 hours in returning Engine 557 to operation. Approximately $275,000 remains to be raised to complete the restoration. Your support is important and appreciated!
These are the types of places and people I love finding on the journey – I will certainly be back in 2020 for a ride on the #557.
“But all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
The passengers will please refrain
This train has got the disappearing railroad blues”
– Willie Nelson – City of new Orleans