Ron Engstrom was interviewed in September 2003 by Mark Cosson in Nome, Alaska for the KUAC-TV Documentary "Klondike and Alaska: A Rail History." In this interview, Ron talks about his boyhood memories and history of the railroads in the Nome area. He also talks about the various rail lines in the Nome area and where they went, how they were used, his memories of the railroads still being used when he was a boy to transport passengers, ore and freight to and from the mines, the types of equipment used, laying track on permafrost, and the demise of these railroads. He also talks about his family history, mining at Basin Creek, and dredge mining.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Railroads of Alaska
Date of Interview:
Narrator(s): Ron Engstrom
Interviewer(s): Mark Cosson
Transcriber: Carol McCue
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His first memories of the railroad in Nome
Using a speeder and the effect of permafrost on the tracks
The route of the railroad from Nome to Bunker Hill
Selling the rails to a California developer and the railroad at Council
Using the railroad to get to their mining property
The gradual decline of the railroad and the Wild Goose Railroad
Railroad tourism in Nome and his railroad car collection
His family's history in the Nome region
His father's mining claims on Basin Creek and their dredging operation
Gold mining with dredges on the Seward Peninsula
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MARK COSSON: Do you consider yourself, a third generation Nome gold miner?
RONALD ENGSTROM: No, second generation gold miner.
MARK COSSON: Uh hum. That's good. Ron, what are your -- what are your first memories of the railroad that ran out here?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, in -- in -- I was born in 1937, and my parents had mined on several creeks here on the Peninsula, and of course, our only access was the narrow gauge railroad.
And they had mined on a creek in the Kougarok Mining District north of here, and came down from there after a very unsuccessful mining season. This was 1938. And -- and I think my first memories are from about 1940 when they moved to Basin Creek where we are now.
My dad had staked it in -- in 1939, and we came here about 1940. And I'm not sure these memories are my own or if they are from my mother's movie pictures that she took. She was real -- really good about taking them. But I -- I do -- I do feel I -- I remember coming here because I was a pretty young boy in -- in 1940. Anyway, we pretty much stayed here since then.
MARK COSSON: You had said that when you went to school you had to take the rails.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Yeah. Well, in -- that would -- sure. In the -- we didn't really go to school in the early years, we -- we just -- my folks kept us out of school. We'd always arrived late and -- but my last years of high school, I would -- I would take it from our siding here at Mile 16 to Nome to go to high school.
Just a couple of years, really. But I always had a good excuse for being late, you know. Either jumped the track or some darn thing would happen, you know. And they bought it for a while, but then, of course, there was an end for that, too.
MARK COSSON: What did you -- what did you have on the track that you were using?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, we had a speeder. And that's mainly what the -- the people that lived along the -- the line used, or called them. They were gasoline driven. Ours had a Model A Ford engine in it.
And it was manufactured by -- in Seattle. This is a high class rig, it was by the Glenn Carrington company. And they had a lot of interest in Alaska and -- but I think this was a one of a kind rig. And my dad had been instrumental in its design. And it had the feature that it had a full reverse, so you could go just as fast forward -- or in reverse as you could forward.
So naturally, that was a -- a big, big plus because you didn't have to turn around to -- to make good time, you know. But the only problem with that was that going reverse, it had a tendency to jump the track. And then that's when you'd have to stop and put that thing back on.
Going to Nome from Basin Creek, it was an all day adventure. And you know, it wasn't -- it wasn't anything that you just took for granted because lots of things could happen. Of course, you could meet somebody coming the other way, and it was a long ways between the -- where you could get off the track and let another speeder go by.
And there was a lot of politicking and, you know, and who had the biggest load and who was the -- who -- who had the -- the need mostly, you know. So that -- that was always part of the -- part of this adventure.
MARK COSSON: Did -- did the -- did the tracks themselves have, like, little whoopty doos because of the permafrost?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Oh, sure. You know, it was -- it was just wild, you know. And they would -- it would move with the -- with the tundra, you know, as the -- as the permafrost changed it, you know. Usually they stayed pretty close together, you know, because they were spiked to the -- to the ties, but it -- it was -- it was really wild. You know, you couldn't really go fast. You know.
MARK COSSON: Why -- I mean, was -- was there something with the building of the railroad that they didn't make it -- the roadbed solid or anything?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Oh, it would be practically impossible to make it solid. As the -- anything you build on permafrost is -- is going to move. You know, it's -- it -- and the weight of the trains, it just -- it just isn't going to be something that's going to be stationary because of the -- the frost, the action of the frozen ground underneath the rails.
And you know, that's -- that's why the bigger trains that they first tried to use really weren't successful because they -- they just couldn't stand to -- to go across the you know, the -- the terrible erratic rails, you know, that they had. And so mainly, that's why it became mainly a train of small cars like speeders.
MARK COSSON: And was --
RONALD ENGSTROM: There were several outfits that -- mainly individuals that freighted to the -- like up to the -- to the miners in the Kougarok and so on, but their -- their rigs were pretty small, you know.
MARK COSSON: When -- when the railroad was in operation, it ran from where to where?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, it started -- of course, it started in Nome; and basically, at first it went to Banner Creek. And that's about 3 miles from here to the south. And then as I understand it, at that point it was no longer a private enterprise.
The Alaska Territory purchased it and they extended it north to the Kougarok Mining District. And at first it went to Sheldon, it's about -- about 80 miles from Nome. And on the Kuzitrin River.
But then the -- it wasn't -- that terminus wasn't there long, and they put in a spur that went to Bunker Hill. And that was -- that was in place quite a few years later. And at that point, they crossed the Kuzitrin River and had a barge that they worked there. And from there they built a road going on up into the Kougarok.
And the road didn't have much better success than the -- the railbed because they built it on frozen ground, as well, and they didn't -- it thawed out underneath it and there were a lot of big holes and so on, but it -- it still was in use for a long time.
MARK COSSON: When -- when did they start -- you had said that you remember when they were actually starting to build the road, and they were, I don't know, putting the railroad to the side.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Pretty much built the road right on top of the rails. Because the people that did -- you know, that put in the rail -- railbed, they were smart enough to know, you know, the best -- best areas for gravel, you know, and so they followed that. In fact, to the north, they moved the roadbed off of the -- the rail -- the railway, and that was really a mistake because it was a much poorer spot that they put the road.
But generally, they built right over the tracks. And probably a -- and there's some spots up here to the north of us that are so thin, you can see the rails coming to the surface, you know, in a few spots. So -- but it was -- generally -- it generally followed the -- the railroad.
MARK COSSON: Was it -- wasn't a lot of the rails, didn't they take them up and send them out to salvage?
RONALD ENGSTROM: They did, and it's so unfortunate. You know, I've always felt it was so -- so nearsighted of the state. The state sold them for salvage. I know at the time they got less than $10,000 for this probably 60 miles of track. And there was a there was a guy that -- that bought them and took them up. And his idea, he sent them to Southern California, and I -- as I understand it, his -- his plan was to build a narrow gauge railroad on Catalina Island as a tourist thing.
And they put them in storage down there, and -- and when they went to take them out, they had just literally turned to rust. And it was -- he lost his shirt and the state didn't get anything, and it -- and we lost this, you know, tremendous piece of our history, to me. You know, it just -- actually for nothing, you know. It was -- it was sad to me.
MARK COSSON: Hypothetically speaking, if the -- if the tracks were still here and still in place, what do you suppose? If they were still here and still in place, would it -- would it be feasible to, say, start a little tourist railway for the visitors here in the summertime?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, I think so. I think something could have begun done like that. On a -- on a small scale, you know. The last years that I remember it, you know, were in the late '50s, you know, and the tracks were pretty poor, you know.
You had to your chances of going out for the day and -- and coming back, you know, without an incident were kind of slim. But you know, it -- it -- it didn't serve anything to sell it, you know. To me, it was -- it was a wrong decision.
MARK COSSON: Well, the Golovin Bay railroad out of Council, apparently -- well, I've -- I've seen it, some of the tracks are still in place; minus the ties, but some of the tracks are still in place on the side of the mountain up there. Are you familiar at all with the -- any of the railroad that ran out of Council?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Ran out of Council to --
MARK COSSON: Ophir Creek, I think.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Yeah. I -- I don't know much about it. I -- I've been -- I've walked on them, like you, you know, but no, I don't really know much about it. It was just kind of a local -- a local railway there that served the mining district, you know. Similar to what served the Nome River and the Kougarok, you know. But this was actually more extensive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can I ask a question?
MARK COSSON: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did your family use the railroad in its mining -- you know, for mining purposes? Did you use equipment or anything like that in those films that you have? What -- what uses did you make?
MARK COSSON: And look at me when you answer.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Oh, okay. Well, in the -- until about 1956, the road ended about five miles from where we are right now. It ended about Mile 10 or so, at a place called the Black Cabin. Don't know anything about the Black Cabin, but that's what we all called it. And from there, you either walked or you used a tractor on the tundra, or you had to originally start on the railroad that was quite a ways from it.
So everything we did came by railroad. When we came out in -- in the spring, we came on the railroad; and when we went in in the fall, you know, at the end of the mining season, we went by railroad. And we used that unless -- and then in 1948, though, we did build our airstrip that's located here on Basin Creek, and a lot of people you know, it was there for everybody, like it is now, but that's how we -- we either flew in or out or we -- we used the -- our little
MARK COSSON: Speeders?
RONALD ENGSTROM: -- trains. Speeders. And there was also people that had camps and so on up, or they used their dogs in the summer to pull their railroad cars. One is Sandy Peterson's and the family, there's a big family still in Nome, you know, that they remember going back and forth with their dog drawn railroad car. They planked in the ties over any -- any bridges or so on so the dogs could -- could run across it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What -- what did you use on the tracks in -- in addition to speeders? I mean, you talked about using speeders, but was there any other -- I just remember in those movies, there were other pieces of rolling stock that you used on the tracks, or not?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, there was some -- like I say, there was some companies or individuals in the freighting business. The Straubs were one, you know, they had these -- these larger rigs and they would haul oil and -- and so on, you know, but it was still basically gas driven railroad cars. There weren't trains, as such. I -- I've never seen a train on our -- on our narrow gauge railroad.
MARK COSSON: But the old locomotives were here at one time.
RONALD ENGSTROM: They were, sure. But they were just too rigid, too heavy to deal with the condition of the rails. Yeah. It just couldn't. And they -- they made these -- these rigs up, they were all home grown affairs, and they were made to follow the -- the tracks. And that's -- that's how they could stay on the tracks. Those other, the larger locomotives were just too rigid to -- to follow them, and to stay upright, you know.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What would happen to the railbed because of the heavy locomotives? Describe that for us.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, it -- it didn't help them any, but mainly -- mainly they just give up on them, you know, that they just simply couldn't
MARK COSSON: Flex.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Yeah, simply couldn't use them.
MARK COSSON: But do you -- do you remember seeing the old locomotives? I understand some of them went into the seawall as riprap.
RONALD ENGSTROM: I suppose. My dad drug one out of the -- of the seawall, and I have a picture of it, but -- and then, like -- but mainly, they were -- I think there were a few, but I -- I really don't know that, what became of them. But I know they weren't successful, I do know that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you -- you talked about -- you referred to about how you got on the train tracks in town. Where was that? How did that happen? Was there a staging
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, at first -- at first you'd start right up there, it would be a little bit north of
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it Steadman?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Steadman, yeah. I guess that's -- sure. That's what I'm going to say. Up there. That was one of the yards up there for the Alaska Road Commission. And then it would come down through generally around Fourth Avenue. I know it went through just about where Hanson's is, and then it would go and cross -- it would go down towards Q Trucking there on Seppala and make a -- make a right hand turn going north, it turned north there.
And you could still see part of the piling that made up the -- that low bridge through there, you know, heading out towards Anvil. But this was in the '50s. And then later, that part of the rail was discontinued, and it would terminate about at -- we -- we called it Little Creek. And it's out there at the base of Anvil Mountain where they had a good place to turn around, and people would normally have their trucks there, and so on, and they would turn around there, leave their rigs there and then use their vehicles, their trucks to go to Nome.
So that's -- that happened -- quite a few years we did that. And as the road got worse, the railroad got worse going over the hill, there's a real -- a real poor spot up -- going into -- up to King Mountain, up in that way. And so then they started to -- wanted to discontinue that.
And then finally it -- finally most people had their speeders out in the area of -- of the Nome River, you know, where the -- where the bridge was. This was in the late '50s. And it just got shorter and shorter, and finally, finally just was discontinued entirely.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So was that on track, then, from town? Like you talk about going through Anvil Creek. Was that on track that was part of the Wild Goose Railroad?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Yeah. The Wild Goose Railroad was only considered, I believe, to Banner Creek is as far as they went. And then it was -- you know, it was -- it was discontinued, then, as a private enterprise, and then Alaska Territorial Government took it over, and then they extended it from there.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So when Chubby Olson, Vern Olson, once told me about how he drove in some kind of train up through the Anvil Creek area, it was in the '50s or '60s, what was he driving then? Was he driving --
RONALD ENGSTROM: In the '50s and '60s? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- passengers or something? Yeah.
RONALD ENGSTROM: A train? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. MARK COSSON: A Cat -- Cat train maybe?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was on the tracks. Do you know anything about what he did?
RONALD ENGSTROM: I don't know. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It derailed once.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Uh hum. Was it actual trains behind their locomotive?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know that. I thought you might have known something.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Uh hum. Like -- like there was -- there was a few little outfits that had tourist things, like Chuck Reader had them, had a little tourist car. And then there was a guy named Jinx that he had a rig that went from Nome up to Slate Creek, that was the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. I remember that. And it's still -- the remains of it are around, you know. And -- but that's probably what -- you know, what -- what you're speaking of.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you tell us more about the Curly Q Railroad?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, that was -- that was the Curly Q Railroad that Chuck Reader owned. He had the -- I think it was the Kougarok Jack, or the Kougarok Queen. It was part of Straubs. See, the one you have in -- in the Anvil city square, that's the Kougarok King. And they had some other smaller ones that they used for -- for tourists, you know. And -- and they ran a few years. And it was...
MARK COSSON: I -- I noticed that you have a few remains of the railroad yourself out here. Tell me about those.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, I have what's remains of our -- what's left of our own -- our old speeder, our speeder. And the engine's out of it right now. It's on my things to do list to get it going. But I do also have a -- a little car out here, I really like it, it belonged to the -- well, it belonged to the mining company. We used to just say "the company."
It was the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining. And it belonged to Jack Morosovich (phonetic). And he used it -- and he was the head of the -- head of the ditch walkers that maintained the -- the ditches that brought the water down to Nome. We called him Jack the Boss.
And a real nice guy. And he'd go back and forth between the ditch walkers' cabins, and -- and bring them supplies and check on them, and that's -- that sits out here in my yard.
MARK COSSON: Flatcar out there, too.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Yeah. And it came from town. And like I say, they were -- they were just too big for the -- for the railroad, the bed. And so there was -- they -- they were used some, but most of the -- soon, you know, the -- the bed itself just got so poor that they couldn't -- they couldn't use them.
MARK COSSON: But why do you have it?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Oh, it's a good place to throw old -- old parts. We used to call that my dad's parts department. If you couldn't find what you need there, you don't need it.
MARK COSSON: It makes a nice bit of your collection.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, I guess so.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Talk about your -- your airplane snow machine contraption.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Oh, okay. Are we going to --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll stop that and then we'll take a --
RONALD ENGSTROM: My snow plane. Well, they were common, you know. They were -- you know, before transportation was always such a problem, you know. We had, you know, World War II Weasels, and then we have a Snow Jeep. And then in high school, I built that snow plane off of plans. And they -- it originally came from, you know, Minnesota. And the snow plane, we used to say it had all the bad features of an airplane and none of the good ones. And that was -- pretty well summed it up.
But it -- it -- before, you know, like now we have, you know, the snowmobiles and things, you know, and it's it's maybe too easy to get around the country, but you know, the snow plane, we had some good trips on it.
MARK COSSON: Anything else you'd like to ask? Is -- is there anything else that you would -- you would like to say about your life experience out here in Nome and just, you know, being so close to -- so close to history of this area?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe your -- from your perspective of your family. When did your father first come here, and --
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, my dad came up here in 1933 at the height of the Depression. And you know, he -- he had the perfect wife, a perfect partnership, because she backed anything he would do, you know. And he left her in San Francisco and she was about to have their second child, and in a month. And he told her that, you know, he wanted to go to Alaska before he got too old and -- and lost his nerve.
And the story, and it's probably -- maybe just a story, but he worked for an outfit called California Fast Freight, and he was their master mechanic. And they drove between San Francisco and Reno. And he was on call 24 hours a day. And one day the boss came in and he asked him, he goes, well, how much do you make now, Herb? And dad said, well, you know, 35 bucks a week.
And this guy's name was Gretch. And he said, well, from now on, it will be 30. He said, you're a good man, but he says, there's a line of people out there wanting a job, and he says, I know there's lots of good mechanics in that bunch. So my dad, he says, as the story goes, he asked him if he had a 50 cent piece. Yeah.
He said, well, can I borrow it for a minute? And he flipped it in the air and he said, heads I go to Nome, tails I go to Fairbanks. It came up heads. And he quit and went, came to Nome, and he -- but he left my mother behind. And when he got to Nome, he said that -- 1933, he says there was lots of people looking for work, too, you know. But he -- he walked out to Arctic Creek.
And they hired him up there on the dredge as a mechanic. And my mother said that he had been gone almost two months, and one day in the mail she got a hundred dollar bill. And she said it looked -- it was just wonderful, you know. And she was said she was literally down to her last nickel, you know. But then she came up the following year in 1934, and of course, they stayed here ever since.
MARK COSSON: It's been a good trip?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Pardon me?
MARK COSSON: It's been a good trip?
RONALD ENGSTROM: For them?
MARK COSSON: For you, for them.
RONALD ENGSTROM: Oh, this is -- hmm. You know, Alaska is the -- it's the best state -- first say, you know, the United States, of course, where the -- this is the most wonderful place in the world, and -- and Alaska is the best of the fiftieth states. And you know, I have comings and goings about Nome, but of course, it's my birthplace, so I'll stick up for it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How does your father acquire Basin Creek? Did he stake this claim or how did that all come about?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, under the -- Basin Creek was originally Federal mining claims. And this was a common practice for most people that wanted a place to mine. A -- a typical claim is 660 feet wide by 1320 feet long. That can vary, but it can't exceed 20 acres. Now, there's something called association claims, but just -- just talking about a family like us, we have a -- just the normal claims.
And that's what my dad came and did here on Basin Creek in 1939. And he started staking generally where the railroad went, and -- and started up the stream, Basin Creek, and this -- this is just normally how people would do. And claims normally follow a stream bed because that's normally where the gold is because the same forces that deposit the gold are the same forces that make the creek, or vice versa, I guess.
So that's -- that's why you normally follow a stream bed. And it's kind of -- you all would name them, and of course, you name them after your kids, usually. And that was -- that was typical here on Basin Creek. All of -- all of us kids got our names on something, but then there was some other ones, too. Dad -- dad staked all the way to the headwaters of Basin Creek, which is, oh, probably three miles up. And we mined most of it during our lifetime here.
At first, we had just tractor, a sluice box, and very -- very simple -- simple means. And then later, in 1960 about, dad found this dredge over in the Eldorado country, and he always wanted a dredge, so we went and went and he bought this dredge. And we went over there and we ran it one season, Pajara Creek. Really nice creek with a pretty name, but no gold. And we run it that one summer.
Then the following year, we took it apart and moved it -- moved it in here to -- to Basin Creek and set it up right outside the -- the door here and worked it -- reworked a lot of our old ground and reworked a lot -- a lot of virgin ground. And we've had good years and we've had bad years, but it's all been -- it's all been good experience. Good life.
MARK COSSON: You said that's one of only two dredges operating?
RONALD ENGSTROM: There's only two on the Seward Peninsula still mining. There's another family that has a dredge in the Kougarok, the Tweets have a -- a dredge similar to ours, slightly bigger, built by the same company, Washington Ironworks. Ours was built in 1935, and I think theirs was built in that same era. I don't know of another dredge operating in the United States. I -- I -- there could be, but I -- I really don't think so.
All of the dredges that worked in the Nome area are shut down. And this is for a lot of reasons. But when -- when the dredges, during their heyday, at one time there were 39 of them operating on the Seward Peninsula in the '20s. But this was mainly before the -- the tractors, the bulldozers came on the scene. And you know, the equipment just improved so much. So that's -- that's a lot of the reason.
MARK COSSON: More economically feasible to run a tractor than a dredge?
RONALD ENGSTROM: Just so much easier to move around, to change, you know. It -- a dredge, you know, to move it, like we moved ours, it's -- it's a -- really an undertaking. You know. And, of course, you know, with this other equipment, it can be moved so easily. And -- but a dredge is still a very good way to do it.
It's -- it's economical, it's very environmentally sound, you know, because it works in its own pond. You know, you can close that pond off, the water doesn't -- you can bypass the existing creek around it so you don't -- you don't have any turbidity in -- in the stream.
Not that I -- I don't really feel that it causes any problems. We had a lot more fish in the early years than there were -- when the mining was going on than there is now, for whatever reason, but I -- I certainly don't feel that mining has caused our loss of resources and the loss of fish. But a dredge is -- it's just difficult to move it from one stream to another. But it's -- it's a real efficient way to mine.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How hard was it -- can you describe what it took for you to move your dredge this summer? Like when you said, I moved the dredge, that's -- you just don't move
RONALD ENGSTROM: Well, it -- I built that dam behind it, and then I floated it, got it floating again. I built a place to put it, you know. We call it a bench. Then we floated it off. We did have -- I did turn it around because I wanted it going upstream.
Our remaining ground here, our remaining gold is -- is upstream from where the dredge sits now. It's -- it's getting near the end of its -- the resource, but it's -- you know, it's been a lifetime, so, you know, that's -- that's understandable.