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   Chapter 7 THE PARALLEL STEEL BARS

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 12428

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


AS is the case in all new countries the most serious problem that has yet confronted Alaska has been the lack of railroads. All men recognize that in the parallel steel bars lie the means of unlocking the treasures of an empire. In them rest the future successful or unsuccessful attempts to develop the resources of any new land.

When the importance of building railroads in Alaska became apparent the old, old serpent, the cobra of civilization, raised its head and spread its hood. Should those roads already built in the country be left to private interests, such as the Morgan-Guggenheim Syndicate, at the risk of a possibly unfair monopoly in the future? Or should the United States own and control them? The question was long and strongly argued. But the matter was definitely decided on March twelfth, 1914, when Congress voted in favor of government ownership.

The President was directed to "locate, build, or purchase and operate" a system of railroads at a cost not to exceed thirty-five million dollars. William C. Eads was made Chairman of the Railroad Commission. Construction was commenced in 1915, with Anchorage, on Cook Inlet, for a base. The Alaska and Northern Railway was purchased and became a part of the new system. The road, beginning at Seward, was to run along the southern coast through the Susitna Valley and Broad Pass to the Tanana River, with a terminal at Fairbanks. Its length, including a short branch to the Matanuska coal fields, was to be five hundred and four miles.

In eight months' time a right of way was cleared for forty miles and thirteen miles of track laid. Then came a halt. The inevitable labor troubles broke forth. These were finally adjusted, however, and the construction resumed, and it was hoped by the fall of 1917 to reach the Menana coal fields, about a hundred miles south of Fairbanks.

We are prone to believe that when the money to build a railroad has been appropriated the most important and difficult part of the job is accomplished. This is a huge mistake. For the Congress of the United States to vote thirty-five million dollars to build a railroad in Alaska was easy. To build that road was an herculean undertaking.

Fairbanks is the geological center of the country. To reach it from the coast the engineer must break through a wilderness of forest and mountains, swamps and glaciers. They must haul a great quantity of material by sledges in winter so that the construction of many special roads may not be necessary. The experience gained in Panama, and the recent opening of the coal mine near the road already completed, helped considerably, but the perils involved in engineering in Alaska, coupled with the rigorous winter weather, are those of all similar projects multiplied by ten!

To illustrate by but one instance (and it will give some idea of the labor involved) in the first forty miles of the line there are sixty-seven bridges! Many of them span deep and almost inaccessible ca?ons. During the winter months the snow, sometimes twenty-five to thirty feet deep, had to be removed before the work could be carried on, and during the time of building the temperature varied little. It was twenty to forty below zero all the time! Nevertheless the men worked courageously on and spring found them far on the way.

One of the most brilliant feats of engineering that has yet been achieved was accomplished during the building of the Copper River railroad in Alaska. To me it seemed little short of phenomenal. It was necessary to span Miles Glacier. The bridge is fifteen hundred feet long. There is a double turn in the river here, and it flows between the two faces of the Miles and Childs glaciers, both "living," a sheer three hundred feet. The engineers were well aware that when the spring "break-up" should come, thousands of icebergs would come battering down the defile. Would it be possible to erect a bridge with four spans, the abutments of which could be made sufficiently strong to withstand the onslaught of these icebergs, propelled as they were by the twelve mile current of the river? Everybody (except the engineers) declared it impossible.

When I remember how intensely interested I myself became in watching the progress of this wonderful building I often wonder what the feelings must have been of those to whom success or failure meant so much,-the builders themselves. Never shall I forget the tenseness of the closing days of that undertaking,-the grim, silent determination written in the faces of those men! In spite of the Doubting Thomases (of whom, I confess, I was one) the thing was triumphantly, gloriously accomplished.

It was at the cost of two years of the stiffest fighting that Man has ever put up against Nature. The great concrete piers, begun through the winter ice, were driven forty to fifty feet through the river bottom and there anchored. The solid concrete was reinforced with steel. A row of eighty pound rails, set a foot apart all around, the whole structure bound together with concrete, were placed next. Then above the piers, ice-breakers, similarly constructed, were planted.

It was conceded in the beginning that no false work would stand against the battering ice. Therefore the work of connecting the piers with the steel road-way must be done in winter. It was a cruel and trying task. The weather did its worst. It was bitter cold. Snow storms were practically continuous. The piercing wind blew sixty to ninety miles an hour and the fine particles of snow hurled by the gale cut and stung one's face like shot.

When the last span was almost in place there came a most appalling moment. The "false work," as the supports are technically called and which in this case consisted of two thousand piles driven forty feet into the bottom of the river, suddenly moved fifteen inches! The ice, a solid sheet, was borne on a twelve knot current. Into it the piles had been frozen as solidly as a rock. The spring break-up had begun in the river. The ice-cap, lifted twenty feet above its winter bed, began to move!

The false work with its mass of unfinished steel was fifteen inches out of plumb. Not to get it back meant that communication with th

e other side could not be established that winter. The engineers recognized that at any moment the whole span, supports and all, might be carried away. The magnitude of the fight they would have to put up in order to prevent this was realized by all of them. But they determined not to lose heart.

I shall never forget the scene which followed. It was like a huge motion picture and I have always regretted that a camera man was not at hand to preserve it. Steam from every available engine was turned into every available feed pipe. Every man in camp was put to work chopping the seven-foot ice away from the piles. At last this was done. That which followed was the climax of the picture. It was a scene which could never fade from the memory of him who saw it. During that stinging Arctic day and the night which followed it, during which the river rose twenty-one feet, the piles were kept free from ice while hundreds of cross-pieces were unbolted! Then the shifting into place began,-at first but one inch a day, then two, three, then four inches a day. The melting and the chopping went on unceasingly, no one daring to relax his vigilance for one moment unless there was a man at his elbow to take his place. Anchorages were quickly made in the ice above the bridge. Feverishly every man, from the chief engineer to the last laborer, worked while that whole four hundred and fifty feet of intricate bridge work was coaxed, inch by inch, back into its place. Finally, at midnight, after an eighteen hour day of one shift, the anxious and weary men had the happiness and the satisfaction of seeing the great span settle down on its concrete bed. The last bolt was driven in. One hour later,-the river broke loose! In less time than it takes to record it the whole four hundred and fifty feet of false work was a pile of chaotic wreckage. But the river had been vanquished. It had lost the fight by a single hour! The people of Alaska and the United States Government can never sufficiently reward such men as these. Mere money can not pay for such achievement.

In contrast to the strenuous experience just related the builders of the White Pass and Yukon road had a most amusing episode to record. The bears in the vicinity got altogether too friendly. At first the blasting frightened them. But they soon learned to follow the example of the men and scuttle to shelter until it was over. They became so crafty that nothing which could possibly be eaten was safe unless some one watched it night and day. The bears actually learned to recognize the warning shouts of the foreman and to secrete themselves so cunningly that in the temporary absence of the men they could sneak out of their hiding place and steal the contents of the workmen's dinner pails! It might have been funny had it not been that the men were often far from a base of supplies and facing the possibility of starvation.

Now, in Alaska we have a method of dealing with thieves which is usually effective, but in this case it did not work. The bears could not read! Every dweller in Alaska has heard the story of William Yanert. He came into the country from God-knows-where and built himself a cabin in the Yukon Flats. He calls his abode "Purgatory." Nobody knows why he lives there or what particular sin he is accepting punishment for, as the name of his cabin would indicate. We do not often ask questions on such subjects in Alaska. And Yanert seems absolutely contented with his lot! When the Mounted Police began driving undesirable characters out of Dawson, however, Yanert returned several times from hunting trips to find that his cabin had been robbed of supplies which he had laid in for the winter. He resolved that the next time he left home he would leave warning, and while he was pondering upon the most effective method of doing so he heard a noise at the back of his house and went to investigate. He peeped out and saw a Canada jay (known commonly in Alaska as a "whisky-jack" or a "camp-robber") picking away at his bacon. He shot the bird. Then with the grimmest sort of humor he buried it in a full-sized grave, shaping it just as though a man were lying there. He fashioned a headboard on which he painted in letters so heavy that none could fail to read:

HE

ROBBED MY CAMP AND I

SHOT HIM.

Yanert had no further trouble with looters.

The importance and the significance of the construction of the government railroad are things which can be rightly appreciated only by those who live, or have lived, in Alaska. In another year (1919) unless delayed by the war, Pullman cars for the comfort and convenience of passengers will be running from Fairbanks to the sea. Freight cars will carry the great resources of the country from "Interior" to "Outside." But while these things mean much to Alaska there is one thing which means much more. This is the construction of a government railroad leading into the United States! This is a thing I have not even heard discussed and the possibility of such an enterprise, so far as I know, has not yet been sounded. Only two-fifths of Alaska is mapped! But one has but to stop and think a moment in order to realize that such a road would be of untold value. And this value is not alone commercial, by any means. Is not Alaska a country worth having? I think so. America thinks so. Japan thinks so! It is by no means outside the possibility of conception that, coveting her, she may one day attempt to possess her. In the event of such a contingency, unless conditions are altered (and that without delay), Alaska may one day be lost to us. She is now reached only by the sea. Soldiers and sailors must enter the country by that route. How about a transport or a battleship? In time of war would they be able to reach Alaskan ports?

These are questions on which the thoughtful will not fail to ponder. Alaska's one defense in time of need would be the army, and that army, in order to reach her, would have to run the gauntlet of a naval enemy's fleet. The gravity of such a situation would be much lessened by the ability to transport military forces (whether the times be those of peace or war) to Alaska via a Canadian-American railroad!

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