Yakutat and Southern Railroad

Arnold Israelson smiles from the engine.

The somewhat mysterious Yakutat and Southern Railroad was unique in that it was the only railroad of its time that had little or no association with the mining industry - its principle commodity being salmon in season.

In March 1901, Mr. A.L. Lee, while looking for a suitable location for a cannery at Yakutat, met a party of surveyors locating a line from Monti Bay, the port at Yakutat, to the Alsek River at Dry Bay. Many parties seemed to be interested in the fishing potential at Yakutat, including J.J. Healy, supposedly the man backing the survey in 1901, and the United States Fish Commission, led by Captain Jefferson S. Moser. Moser heard of plans by a group of Seattle businessmen to construct a wharf and cannery, connected by a railroad. Moser called this plan, a "wild scheme". On January 22, 1903, Seattle businessmen Fred Spenser Stimson, Charles Terry Scurry and J.T. Robinson, incorporated the Yakutat & Southern Railroad as a Washington corporation, holding capital stock of $100,000 - 1,000 shares at $100 each. In June of the same year, that amount was increased to $150,000 by the trustees. It is not known if these businessmen were the same men mentioned by Captain Moser President of the railway was to be F.S. Stimson, a Michigan born man who worked in his father's lumber business. At the age of 21 in 1899, Stimson and his three brothers established the Stimson Mill Company in Ballard, Washington. C.T. Scully, who was born in 1878, was a descendant of the famous Seattle Terry family, of which Terry Avenue was named. J.T. Robinson, the third partner, was a well-known Seattle millman at the time. Stimson and Scurry remained in Seattle while Robinson was in charge of the operation in Yakutat.

Chief Engineer of the Yakutat & Southern was Webster Brown. He began surveying the line and the 60-acre site proposed cannery site. The survey was approved by the trustees on April 30, 1904. A land grant according to the Railroad Act of 1899 was approved and construction started that spring. That year, ten miles of 40-pound rail was laid from Yakutat to the Situk River. A sawmill, which could produce 20,000 board feet daily, was also constructed to provide railroad ties and lumber for constructing the wharf and cannery on Yakutat's Monti Bay. In 1905, the cannery had a capacity of 50,000 cases of salmon a year.Stimson operated the cannery and railway for several years before they were acquired by Gorman and Company in 1912. In 1913, the Chicago-run Libby, McNeil and Libby assumed the operation and ran it until 1951. That year the Bellingham Canning Company of Bellingham, Washington bought the operation and operated it until the mid-60's. The last owner of the Yakutat & Southern Railroad was the Marine Foods Packing Company, which filed for bankruptcy in 1971. Today the cannery is owned and operated by Sitka Sound Seafoods, which ships fish and crab fresh and frozen via Alaska Airlines to customers worldwide. The train rests at a city park about a mile away. (See The Train Today)

The railroad took on a new dimension during the latter part of 1940 when the U.S. Army negotiated with the Libby Canning Company for permission to utilize the railroad for transportation of goverment materials. The army was building an airfield and garrison, accessible by railroad, about 4 miles southeast of Yakutat. With no roadway, the Army had no means to transport construction materials to the site. The railroad was in good condition and had plenty of rolling stock to handle the job so it seemed the most expedient means of getting the materials transported. By mutual agreement with the Libby Canning Company, the Army used the railroad from October 1940 until late April 1941 to haul construction materials for the airfield and garrison. By April 1941, the Army Engineers had completed construction of a highway from the dock to the airfield and garrison, and Army transports hauled the remaining materials. Thus, the Yakutat and Southern Railroad, which had served the Army well, was retired from military service.

The first locomotive for the Yakutat and Southern Railroad was a geared Heisler 0-4-2, No. 1092, reputed to have been used on the New York elevated railway prior to railway electification. In June of 1904, the Alaskan reported that the Alaskan Pacific Navigation Company's steamer "Santa Ana" was carried the locomotive to Yakutat. The Heisler was unsuitable, however, and was replaced in 1907 by a 2-6-2 Lima Prairie, No. 1057, built in 1907. The Heisler was used for parts while the bell became the cannery mess hall's dinner bell. Other cars included an open coach, built by the Hollingsworth Company of Wilmington, Delaware, and several gondola cars specially built for hauling salmon. Passengers on the railway rode for free to the Situk. It was common for the local fishermen to ride to the river on Monday and return to town on Friday. Dogs chased the train the length of the track out of town daily and returned home in time to begin the chase again the next day. In 1949, the Lima was retired, as it required two tons of coal to operate the round trip. Being too uneconomical, it was placed in a shed and replaced by a gas engine, the wheels and running gear from the Heisler, and a 1930 Packard sedan with flanged wheels. By the 1960's, time and lack of maintenance had reduced the Yakutat and Southern's rails to mostly moss-covered and rotten rails. Now the railroad was operating as a 1949 Chevy truck with a large box on the back. Anyone who could drive a truck reportedly became "engineer" for the day. Even before the cannery filed for bankruptcy in 1971, the railroad ceased operating. In its heyday, however, the little railroad was perhaps the greatest single contribution to the economic growth and development of the small town of Yakutat, Alaska.

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