Nenana, a small town 50 miles south of Fairbanks, became a venue for a big visit by the President of the United States for the completion of the Alaska Railroad.

Prior to the railroad, goods were moved partially through the state via rail and barge, but shippers were at the mercy of the mighty Yukon and Tanana rivers. They often had to wait until those rivers thawed out before moving product the rest of the way.

Everything changed on July 15, 1923 when the Alaska Railroad was officially unified into one system.

"There had been two separate railroads: there had been one coming out of Seward, that had started up there in the early 1900's, as well as a small gauge railway in Fairbanks, the Tanana Railway," said Alaska Railroad Spokesman Tim Sullivan.

Private companies had been trying unsuccessfully for years to build a railroad linking an ice-free port to connect into the river system.

"It also made Nenana important because Nenana was the port of the interior, Fairbanks was not,” said Nenana Historian Annette McDonald. “Fairbanks was the center of government, but it was too hard for the steamboats to get there."

That changed with the completion of this span over the Tanana River. The single-span bridge is built to withstand extreme climate changes from the heat of the interior summers, to the frigid, icy conditions offered up by the river. The federal government had accomplished many of these engineering feats while unifying the railroad ever since taking over from the private sector.

During the building phase the Nenana Ice Classic was born as workers took wagers on when the Tanana’s ice would finally break.

Dignitaries descended on Nenana on a sweltering hot day 90 years ago to celebrate the new railroad. This included the 29th President of the United States Warren Harding, Alaska Territorial Governor Scott Bone, and Secretary of Commerce and the 31st President Herbert Hoover.

In what turned out to be the first official visit to Alaska by a sitting president, President Harding and his entourage gathered on the other side of the Tanana River, where he drove in the Golden Spike signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad. A little more than two weeks later, after he finished his trip to Alaska, President Harding died in San Francisco of a heart attack.

"It was very disappointing to Alaskans because Alaska was hoping that since this was the first time a President had ever visited Alaska, that word could get back and people could really understand Alaska and the conditions," McDonald adds.

Although it may have taken a little longer for Congress and the Lower 48 to fully understand Alaska’s unique transportation challenges, today’s modern Alaska railroad has come a long way since those frontier times.

Contact Adam Pinsker