The Strangest Town in Alaska

Chapter 4: An Explosion of Development World War II shapes Alaska

Reevaluations and announcements

By 1940, World War II loomed on the horizon and the U.S. government began to reevaluate the status of all of its outlying territories. Alaska was judged to be both valuable as a defensive point and vulnerable as a target of attack. Plugging the holes in Alaska's vulnerability became a high priority. The isolation of far-flung communities, and of the Territory itself resulted in many logistical problems. The existing railroad section from Seward to Anchorage was labeled a "security risk" due to wooden trestles, bridges and remote locations easy targets for sabotage. A secure railroad would become a lifeline for any Alaska military operation, and connecting roadways would become a necessity. The U.S. Armed Forces drew up plans and on October 15, 1940 General Simon Buckner announced a series of projects the Army planned to undertake.

"...(A hub) of roads will grow out of Anchorage because of its strategic location as the head of defenses in the Territory. The switching of the railroad from Seward to Portage Bay will also come within the near future, and for the same reason."

The move of the rail terminus would eliminate the risky 60-mile section of track from Seward to Turnagain Arm, shorten transportation time and maintain an easy grade very near sea level. Buckner's announcement received immediate cries of protest from citizens and businessmen in Seward.

The envisioned road system, built nearly as planned, connected Seward to Anchorage, Anchorage to the Richardson Highway (Valdez and Fairbanks) and Anchorage to Portage Valley. At this same moment, planners were examining routes for the Alaska-Canada Highway project, or the Alcan. The planned Alcan would connect Dawson Creek in Edmonton, Alberta to Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway, linking Alaska's roads to the rest of North America. Construction did not start until 1942, but the initial roadway was completed in only eight months.

Early construction begins

Within a week of General Buckner's announcement, the ball was rolling to build a terminal on Portage Bay. Porter Berryhill of the ARR and an engineer by the name of Grammer arranged for tests to be done on the underwater ground structure in the bay. They hired William H. King to tow his pile-driving barge from Anchorage, around the Kenai Peninsula to Portage Bay, and begin to drive test pilings. Berryhill and Grammer pored over the railroad surveys that F. H. Estabrook and R.J. Weir had completed before, and added their remarks, changing little.

Berryhill and Grammer submitted their surveys to the Army, including plans for the two tunnels. Based on their submission, the rail to Portage Bay and the terminus plans became concrete, despite any of Seward's protestations.

The new rail raises tempers

The spring of 1941 saw initial marking of the rail line and tunnels by hand. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee recommended a bill for $5,300,000 to finance the relocation of the railroad's terminus from Seward to Portage Bay. Citizens from all parts of the Kenai Peninsula were outraged, and representatives from Seward traveled to Washington, D.C. to confront the Committee.

Portage Junction, including the Portage Section House.
Photo courtesy Anchorage Museum of History and Art
Portage Junction, including the Portage Section House. This is where the existing Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks would be joined by the short 12-mile spur to Whittier, once the tunnels and rails were completed.
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