Early Alaska railroader tunnels to Whittier

Alaska Railroad engineer Anton Anderson sought out routes for the “Iron Horse” in Alaska’s wilderness.
Alaska Railroad engineer Anton Anderson sought out routes for the “Iron Horse” in Alaska’s wilderness.

One of Anchorage’s earliest settlers carved a name for himself in the Last Frontier. Literally. Anton Anderson engineered the project that pierced through three miles of solid granite to open the Port of Whittier to the railbelt in Southcentral Alaska.

Anderson began his Alaska Railroad career in 1915.

“Tents without floors, pole bunks covered with wild hay for mattresses and no bedding were the accommodations then available,” is how he described the early living conditions of railroad workers. “There was no smiling assistant camp steward to direct the new arrivals to their quarters….

“The bunks were built out of poles in tiers across both ends of the room, similar arrangement to post office boxes. They usually were four feet square and eight feet in depth and were known as ‘muzzleloaders.’

“It was no uncommon sight to find four tiers of such bunks, six bunks wide at each end of the room. Two coal lamps suspended from the ceiling provided illumination to the group who gathered around the central heating stove, or climbed up and down the crude ladders to and from their muzzle-loading bunks. One should not claim to be a real sourdough unless he has spent at least one night in an Alaska muzzle-loading bunkhouse.”

Later Anderson sought out routes for the “Iron Horse” to steam into the Interior and eventually became the railroad’s chief engineer. Through his work, Anderson was instrumental in the development of western Alaska and surveyed and engineered much of the railroad line.

But the feat that he considered to be his greatest achievement was the construction of the Whittier railroad tunnel, about 60 miles south of Anchorage. Crews operated from both ends of the mountain, part of the Chugach Range, drilling toward each other. The following excerpt from the Nov. 22, 1978, issue of The Greatlander Shopping News, tells of the moment they met in the middle.

“Anderson was at the end of one of the shafts, deep in the mountain, when the holing through was about to occur. Under pounding of air hammers, rocks gave way and through a small hole at his feet, Anderson could shout through to the drilling crew on the other side.

‘Where’d it come through?’

Back came a muffled reply, ‘It’s up by our heads!’

Anderson was stunned. What had happened to his careful surveys, the figures determined by triangulation over the tops of a high mountain?”

It turns out that the two shafts were only off by about six inches, an unusual degree of accuracy for such a difficult undertaking. Anderson’s companions had played a joke on him.

A bronze plaque appears above the tunnel entrance, which bear his name, giving credit to the man who engineered the project.

Anderson led a full, productive life in his adopted country. He was location engineer for the Matanuska Valley colonization project, active in the promotion of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Eklutna hydroelectric plant, chairman of the Anchorage Public Utilities and was elected councilman. He also became Anchorage’s 22nd mayor in 1956.

The railroad man resigned as mayor due to ill health late in 1958. He was honored by the Greater Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, which presented him with an honorary life membership in that group.

“The Anchorage area is a better place to live because Anton chose to come our way,” said then Alaska Railroad general Manager Robert Anderson.

Anton Anderson died in 1961 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

18 comments on “Early Alaska railroader tunnels to Whittier

  1. That’s very interesting. I can’t imagine sleeping on hay and being comfortable. Anderson sounds like a brilliant man, very inspirational and successful in his work! Thanks for sharing!

    • They opened the tunnel to cars a few years ago, Tom. For half an hour cars can enter the tunnel and travel to Whittier. The next half hour cars can leave Whitter and go through the tunnel to travel to Anchorage. When the train comes through, of course, the tunnel is closed to cars. It is amazing!

  2. What a great story. Back then the survey tools that had …it’s amazing they were able to accomplish these tasks.

    • Texas does have great historical tidbits, too, Veronica. In fact, my great grandfather Robert Burns Mathison had a ranch in Hamilton County Texas and he’s the fellow who traveled to Alaska in 1896 and helped settle the gold mining community of Hope (90 miles south of present-day Anchorage)!

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