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Alaskans Celebrate Railroad Takeover With Buffalo Strew

January 6, 1985

NENANA, Alaska (AP) _ Alaska has removed ″the last vestige of territorial status″ by taking over the nation’s northernmost railway and the last major flagstop line in the country.

Alaska Railroad officials said they hoped the 530-mile system eventually could link Alaska with the lower 48 states via connections with Canadian railroads.

The state bought the 61-year-old railway from the federal government for $22.3 million in a deal effective at midnight on Saturday.

″This may just be the best deal since William Seward bought (Alaska) from Russia,″ Gov. Bill Sheffield told the 800 people who celebrated the event at the Nenana Civic Center by eating 250 gallons of buffalo stew.

″We’ve finally cut it loose,″ said Frank Chapados, vice-president of the new railroad corporation’s board of directors, aboard the train from Fairbanks. ″Alaska’s growing up and I think we’re on the verge of some development that will be very significant.″

John Riley, the Federal Railroad Administration official in charge of the Alaska Railroad, accepted an oversized check for $22.3 million and gave Sheffield a switchkey made of Alaskan gold nuggets.

″What we’re doing today is removing that last vestige of Alaska’s territorial status,″ Riley said.

Nenana was chosen for the transfer because it was there that President Warren G. Harding tapped a golden spike on July 15, 1923, commemorating the line’s completion.

Members of the new, quasi-public corporation said they believe Alaskans may yet see the fulfillment of a goal as old as the railroad itself - extending the rails farther into the wilderness and perhaps connecting them to the lower 48 states.

″If we’re going to attempt to make this a paying company, we are going to look toward expansion,″ said James Campbell, chairman of the railroad corporation’s board of directors.

But Frank Turpin, who will be the general manager, said that before any expansion occurs, ″We’ve got to learn how to walk. Then we’ll get to run a bit.″

When Congress approved $35 million to build the Alaska Railroad in 1914, the vast territory was accessible only by boat, dogsled and a few shortline railroads.

Nine years and $58 million later, the 530-mile Alaska Railroad connected Seward on the Gulf of Alaska to Fairbanks deep in the interior. In the process, the cities of Nenana and Anchorage were created as construction camps.

After 15 years of slow progress, World War II and the ensuing population growth meant more business. Since the war, the railroad has gone through costly renovations, and endured competition from air and highway transportation and a devastating March 1964 earthquake in Anchorage.

By the early 1970s, federal officials started looking to rid themselves of the money-losing railroad. In January 1983, President Reagan signed a law enabling its sale. In May 1984, the Alaska Legislature accepted the offer.

With the transfer, Alaska takes control of the country’s last major flagstop line - on some runs, passengers can board anywhere merely by flagging down the train.

The line passes through deep valleys, and near glaciers and snow-covered mountains. It is a scenic but severe route that means extra work for maintenance and repair crews.

Snow removal in winter requires large rotary plows. Avalanches sometimes block the tracks. Animals use the cleared tracks as an easy trail, earning the railroad the nickname of ″Moose Gooser.″

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