Larry Powell was interviewed in June 2004 by Mark Cosson in Yakutat, Alaska for the KUAC-TV Documentary "Klondike and Alaska: A Rail History." He talks about the history of the Yakutat and Southern Railroad that ran from the Situk River to a fish cannery in Yakutat. He discusses how and why the railroad was built and financed, its hauling of fish and passengers, the impact of World War II, the lifespan of the railroad, and the history of its surviving locomotive.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Railroads of Alaska Project Jukebox
Date of Interview:
Narrator(s): Larry Powell
Interviewer(s): Mark Cosson
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
The beginnings of the Yakutat and Southern Railroad
Running on steam power and some of the problems during construction of the railroad
Use of the railroad during World War II
The end of the line for the Yakutat and Southern Railroad
Plans for future restoration of the railroad
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
MARK COSSON: Larry, what would you consider yourself here in Yakutat, a historian for the Yakutat and Southern Railroad? Is that --
LARRY POWELL: That plus other historical aspects of the community -- the gold cannery operation and other things that might be around, military, etc.
MARK COSSON: Okay. Local historian. Okay. That sounds pretty good. Okay. Let’s start with the inception of the Yakutat and Southern Railroad. Why and when did it come into existence.
LARRY POWELL: Right after the turn of the century a group of Seattle businessmen thought that fish pack canning and packing would be a pretty lucrative thing to get into particularly with the number of fish that were in the area. So the idea was to build a railroad, harvest the trees as they built the railroad to cut wood to build the cannery and build the railroad and haul the fish from the Situk ten miles to the east. The Situk and Ahrnklin Estuary. To the cannery that they built here in town.
MARK COSSON: I wonder -- I wonder if you could touch upon the fact that this is probably one of the very few railroads in Alaska and the Yukon that wasn’t designed for minerals. And I wonder if you could say that it wasn’t built for mineral extraction it was built for fish. I wonder if you could just go into that?
LARRY POWELL: As far as I know this is the only railroad in the world that was built to haul fish. And that’s what it was designed for and there was no other -- there was no other aspect -- economic aspect to it besides the fish and the canning and that sustained it.
MARK COSSON: Who financed it, who backed it, who built it?
LARRY POWELL: The first fellows that were in it -- I can’t quite off the top of my head remember their names, Seattle families. At that point in time they were fairly well-known Seattle families. They’re still around. At least their offspring. And they financed it by selling stock you know on the market to finance the construction. I have some of the original papers on that.
MARK COSSON: Really?
LARRY POWELL: Yes.
MARK COSSON: So, some Seattle financiers built it just for the sole purpose of getting the fish.
LARRY POWELL: Getting the fish. Building a cannery and building the railroad and hauling the fish.
MARK COSSON: But, they just didn’t haul fish. They had passengers and coaches.
LARRY POWELL: They had passengers. That’s the only railroad also that apparently operated the table was based upon the tides. On high tide the railroad operated to the Situk to pick up the fish and at low tide it didn’t operate. So, when the tide was high the railroad ran. And they hauled fishermen and their gear back and forth to the river both to get out there in the spring, back and forth to town during the week, and then out, you know in the fall -- back home to town. Nobody lived full year round out at the Situk and in that area. They all moved to town during the winter. They had two homes essentially -- a cabin -- a cabin in the estuary at Johnson Slough rail end and one here in town.
MARK COSSON: So this railroad was -- obviously -- they operated at some sort of profit for a time didn’t they?
LARRY POWELL: I’m sure that they did. It was profitable enough that sometime in the early teens they sold -- the name has come to me -- Gorman was the name of the company. They sold to Libby, McNeill, Libby sometime in the early teens. And then Libby, McNeill, Libby operated it until the very late 40s. Like 1949 - 1950. And they sold it to another canning -- canning company.
MARK COSSON: How long -- how long did they run for? I mean how long did the Yakutat Southern run as a railroad with steam -- with steam power and?
LARRY POWELL: Well, better than forty years under steam power. The last time the steam engine ran that I’m aware was in the 4 -- late -- in the 40s. Last time she was fired -- late 40s. And then the diesel took over. They found that after they had rebuilt the diesel -- from what I can read -- after they had rebuilt the high cellar to a diesel engine it was still -- it was too heavy for the tracks as well by that time. So, they didn’t operate that long. After the company was sold by Libby to the other -- to the new company, Bellingham Canning Company, out of Bellingham, Washington they took an old six by six truck put wheels on it and pulled the gondolas with a truck until -- from early 1900s 04-05 until 1970.
MARK COSSON: What -- what were some of the major problems they had in actually building this railroad?
LARRY POWELL: Boy, you know I’ve tried to get some information on -- on the struggles and the troubles and the kind of equipment they used, you know during construction but that’s been a bit hard to -- hard to come by. But I’m sure that (interrupted by traffic noise)
MARK COSSON: I’m sorry, can you start that again.
LARRY POWELL: Yeah, I’m sure that they had, you know, problems with, you know, with equipment and certainly they had problems with water, water table and all the crossings. So, there was a lot of pile driving a lot of trestle work that they needed to do. They didn’t do much filling I noticed walking, you know, walking the right of way. Probably again because of the lack of equipment, mechan-, you know, mechanized equipment. So in addition to the weather in the winter time, you know, the heavy snows were, you know, a real problem.
We got pictures of them with, you know, fifty or sixty guys shoveling the tracks to get the train out to the -- out to the landing in the spring time. So weather and water, high-water table I’m sure was a problem.
MARK COSSON: Okay. World War II, what happened during World War II?
LARRY POWELL: World War II the army showed up in the fall of 1940 to start construction of the airport to aid in the movement of aircraft out to the chain and also to Russia in the Lend-Lease Program. And they also garrisoned a force here during the second world war of about upwards of 10,000 troops stationed around this area. And they needed the airport to support that. They kept some aircraft here for -- for they were expecting a possible landing by, you know, the forces --
Japanese forces during the war. And so the airport -- the railroad was used to first shuttle men and equipment out to the airport site which is about, you know, four miles from the dock site here. And they took some of their initial equipment as I understand it out on the railroad to get it to the site. And then they even used the old passenger car as an office before -- until they got some structures up out there to keep their construction office in and that sort of thing.
MARK COSSON: Were they using the railroad?
LARRY POWELL: There weren’t -- they actually took the railroad over as I understand it for a time during the war at least during the construction of the airport. And then they returned it to the -- to the cannery to Libby, McNeill, Libby and the Yakutat and Southern Railroad Company at the end of the construction period once the highway was built from the airport to town.
MARK COSSON: Now what was the name of the cannery down here -- Libby, McNeill?
LARRY POWELL: Libby, McNeill, Libby owned the cannery and they also had the controlling interest in the Yakutat and Southern Railroad Corporation.
MARK COSSON: When -- when was the railroad -- when did they start disassembling it -- taking it apart piecemeal?
LARRY POWELL: The tracks started to be scrapped in the late -- in the late 60s early 70s. Right after the end of operation they started pulling up the rail to try to stave off bankruptcy. So that would have been probably in 1970, late 1970 -- 71 when that started to occur. Up until that time it ran every year -- back and forth to the river.
MARK COSSON: But they didn’t pull all of it up?
LARRY POWELL: No, they only pulled up the first four miles out to the airport and some of the paraphernalia and track and switches and that sort of thing that’s here in this immediate area where we’re sitting close to the dock operation. But only to the airport the rest of the rail -- most of it is still in place all the way out to the Situk River and beyond.
MARK COSSON: So what -- what remains now of the Yakutat and Southern Railroad?
LARRY POWELL: Well
MARK COSSON: Was it railroad or is it railway --Yakutat and Southern Railway --according to the safe in the city -- the lady pointed out to me which I took a picture of.
LARRY POWELL: That’s the -- we salvaged that from the old cannery office before they tore it down to make the new dock site. But -- I don’t remember what the question was now.
MARK COSSON: What remains, hang on -- hang on a second.
LARRY POWELL: The remnants -- of course
MARK COSSON: Hang on a second. Okay.
LARRY POWELL: The remnants that we see today are the right-of-way grades, you know, down to the dock. Most of the grade in the right of way is still -- is still intact and is still visible. The rail is gone. We have the locomotives that were used and under cover. There’s some facilities that are pretty well dilapidated out at the rail head and out at Johnson Slough where the salmon were loaded. But that’s about it -- that remains today. There’s an old steam donkey that was used to drive piling on the bridges and over -- and over the Situk and other
-- and other crossings but that’s about the end of it.
MARK COSSON: Is there -- is there a feeling amongst the people here that they wish it was still in place -- possibly still operating or is this just perhaps yourself and a maybe a few other people?
LARRY POWELL: No I think that when I talk to people about it -- and I get kidded a lot I guess -- one-man restoration force in some ways. But -- I think most people would like to see it operating again -- would enjoy -- would enjoy seeing it at work. And of course I think it could be a small, you know, a small visitor attraction that would bring people to town instead of just here for fishing. Although we do have a bit of a surf attention here lately -- surfing and sport fishing is the main tourist attraction in the community.
But this would be I think a highlight for a lot of people in the community not just me.
MARK COSSON: Give me a little history on this -- this locomotive -- the Lima. I wonder if you could say built by and -- and when.
LARRY POWELL: Well it was -- its construction number was 1592 built in 1904 by the Lima Locomotive Company in Lima, Ohio. The company -- Libby, McNeill, & Libby or Gorman I guess was the name of that company bought it from a logging company -- as I understand -- relatively new in the Seattle, you know, in the Seattle area and brought it here. So it operated for, you know, better than nearly forty years continuously in addition to the other, you know, the other locomotive which I don’t really know much of the history about the old -- I have --
I have the construction number on the Heisler but I never have been able to get much information on how long it operated or why it wasn’t operated longer. Maybe it was wore out when they got it, who knows. But I think the Lima was the -- is the one that you see in all the photos -- action photos -- photos with fish being hauled in and you never see the Heisler in that operation -- in the photos -- the old photos.
MARK COSSON: And you’d like to see the Lima?
LARRY POWELL: I’d like to see it operate again and we’re working in that direction -- definitely. Get an engine house up where we can start the reconstruction. And look for some grants and some help from the local government and the state and anyone we can -- we’ll rebuilt it and it’ll operate.
MARK COSSON: Pretty lofty goal
LARRY POWELL: Well I think it’s doable. Other folks have done it elsewhere. We just keep at it little by little. Eventually we’ll -- eventually we’ll make it hopefully before -- hopefully before I’m dead and gone.
MARK COSSON: Is there anything else about the Yakutat and Southern Railroad that you would like -- you would like to share -- any thoughts?
LARRY POWELL: Well I think that, you know, not only could it be put back into operation so that it operated but I think that it could become a kind of an integral -- integral part of not only a visitor attraction but a little bit of the transportation scheme in the community. For example it could operate between here or the dock site which might eventually someday become -- cause it’s what’s left of an old canning building -- steam canning operation -- maybe eventually tied into a dock site attraction. But also to tie in maybe to the airport to become a little bit of not only a touristy transportation link,
but a, you know, maybe a bit of an actual transportation activity between the airport and town that people with some side of a -- of a minor schedule maybe could run back and forth between the airport and town. That’s not a, you know, an undoable situation -- but put a half a million dollars with DOT grants into restoring the right of way to the airport. So, maybe that’s a little bit of a side goal that I think would have some day-to-day useful aspects in the community as well.