Duane LeVan was interviewed on April 11, 2010 by Karen Brewster in Seward, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Duane talks about the importance of the railroad to Seward, working for the Alaska State Highway Department after the 1964 Earthquake, and his early exposure to working on the railroad.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Railroads of Alaska
Date of Interview: Apr 11, 2010
Narrator(s): Duane LeVan
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Carol McCue
People Present: Sanna LeVan
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The importance of the railroad to Seward
Working for the Alaska State Highway Department after the earthquake
His early exposure to working on the railroad
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KAREN BREWSTER: So yeah, one of the things I find interesting about this is how important the railroad was to Seward
DUANE LEVAN: Uh hum.
KAREN BREWSTER: as a community. And how, then, that changed with the earthquake.
DUANE LEVAN: Well, yeah, it -- the railroad was it. I mean, all of us that worked on the waterfront at that time, well, it was getting less, like I told you before. Just before the earthquake, we was cutting down on the manning on the dock quite a bit. But there was still a couple hundred guys that made a living off of longshoring, or warehousing and longshoring for the railroad. And you know, the railroad was involved, in other words, because at that time, they were trucking freight out of here, too, besides besides going on the railroad. So there was -- the freight business was here but the freight was -- was here basically because of the railroad.
Because after the earthquake, it didn't continue. I mean, you know, after the earthquake, we lost all that. The fishery was quite a deal, but still, in all, the main thing here in Seward was the railroad, as far as I can see. I mean, you know, everything.
KAREN BREWSTER: So how did it change after the earthquake? They obviously -- they didn't rebuild all this track, so what did the railroad do? Where did it go?
DUANE LEVAN: Well, the railroad, it took them over a year or so, they cleaned up all this -- well, the didn't clean up, really, they did not clean up. The Corps of Engineers let -- let get by with a whole lot of things they should have done in Seward, Alaska. Most of the cleaning was up down at the dock, where the collapse all that and that. There's still a lot of stuff in the bay right there. And there's still a lot of stuff in the bay right here. You know. Besides that -- that part they didn't let it go. But the city of Seward was debating at that time, well, the railroad, if they'd wanted to, could have come this way.
But the railroad people that were in power were trying to get rid of Seward in a way, because of Whittier, and it's the haul. If you stop and think of it, the haul was such a less distance. Besides, it's all water level going to Whittier.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, right.
DUANE LEVAN: Where here you had two divides to go over. So that way, that added into it, too. And the truck freight was trying to beat into them a little bit this way. The truckers were starting to get some more freight off, you know, away from the railroad. So the railroad was, I think, when it come to rebuilding -- this is just me talking
KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
DUANE LEVAN: I -- I think they were a little bit reluctant to come back to Seward. I really do. I think they were. So -- but they did. They built a railroad yard out here, a whole yard. Dredged, had paid for dredging. Well, the Corps of Engineers did. And then they dredged that whole end of the bay there, that corner of the bay, rather, for the dock and the small boat harbor. So anyway, after that, it pretty much turned into tourist. But a lot of people left here, we went down to -- I've heard the rumors about 1700 people right after the earthquake.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when Alaska Railroad rebuilt a new yard and dock and they built it all for mechanized containers and cranes and everything?
DUANE LEVAN: Well, in a way they did and in a way they didn't. They -- they still put a warehouse out there, a large warehouse, and it had a depressed track in it, but our cargo was all going across the face of the dock. Really. It just -- what we had, you know. But see, by that time, they -- well, going back a little bit more. In Anchorage, the ships didn't want to go into Anchorage in those years. There was something about the cooling systems of their engines with the -- with the silt water in the inland, they were very reluctant to go into Anchorage.
The earthquake helped Anchorage because right away, then, they still had docks up there. They got these ships converted over to their cooling systems so they could handle the silt, and they got to go into Anchorage. Well, once they started going into Anchorage, of course, it's -- it made sense. I mean, really. I mean, I didn't like it but it made sense, that it was cheaper going straight in. That's where most of the freight was going. So then once they got established, then it's pretty hard to change a steamship company to, say, haul here and then they've got to pay for hauling the freight clear there where most of the freight was going.
So we just got out of the freight business. That was it, really.
KAREN BREWSTER: And why did you decide to switch jobs and start working for the State Highway Department?
DUANE LEVAN: I didn't have a choice. When the earthquake hit, I was out of a job. Everybody that worked on the waterfront was immediately out of a job. There was absolutely no dock left in Seward. We lost the Army dock that was straight down here from Madison, we lost the railroad dock, we lost a small dock that a private outfit had, a trucking outfit had across the bay. We lost everything as far as freight work out of Seward. Yeah. It was all gone. So yeah, we was just out of work, period. I didn't have a job. Worked volunteer for a couple weeks around here and, you know, with helping different things.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
DUANE LEVAN: And then jobs showed up. And I was fortunate, like I say, I got on with the Highway Department, highway maintenance. One of the guys that was working at highway maintenance, a good friend of mine, too, the highway wasn't paying enough, and these private contractors were coming in fixing things, and hey, they were paying good money, so he just immediately got mad and quit the state, so I was able to get on.
KAREN BREWSTER: So did you like doing the stevedoring work, the longshoreman? Did you like that work?
DUANE LEVAN: Yeah, the freedom of it. Yeah. It was -- it was a good job that way. The state was completely different because then I was into a position where you're working five days a week, you're off on the weekends except wintertime, then wintertime we split shifts to keep somebody on the weekends or, you know, for plowing snow during the day. And paywise went way down.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh.
DUANE LEVAN: Paywise. At that time, the state, in '64 I made $3 and something an hour for the state at that time. Yeah. I mean, I just -- and the longshoring, I think, was, oh, 7 or something like that.
KAREN BREWSTER: And with longshore, the freedom, you had big chunk of time off between in between ships?
DUANE LEVAN: Well, you do. I'm on -- I mean, you -- they had you regulated, by like, I said, whether we wanted to go somewhere in the sunshine. Well, you know, you just -- we had a system where, like I say, on the hiring, you -- you had what we give at the union hall, we have what we call a plug board, and you had a wooden plug, a dowel, a hunk of dowel plug on each side of your name on the board, and you could go down to the union hall and I could pull that one plug out beside my name, and the dispatcher knew that I wasn't available to go to work that day. And if my plug was in, yeah, I wanted to go to work. So -- but anyway, that's how we were -- I mean, you control yourself, in other words. So...
KAREN BREWSTER: And then how long did your father work for the railroad?
DUANE LEVAN: Well, let's see. Dad worked, what was it, about '52, somewhere in that area, he had a heart attack, and he couldn't work for the railroad. He was off, fifty -- yeah, '51 or '52.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh hum.
DUANE LEVAN: And then he was -- he lived here in town, of course, and Seward, had his house here in Seward, they opened some more land out in the flat country, down in Kenai
KAREN BREWSTER: Kenai.
DUANE LEVAN: -- or Soldotna, in that area for homesteading. It was opened first to veterans, and dad was a veteran of World War I, so he got a homestead down there, one that somebody had filed on it and they didn't do anything, and he ended up he got his homestead. So right there where Moose River -- well, just the other side of Moose River, about a mile the other side of Moose River.
KAREN BREWSTER: I was wondering if you went to work for the railroad your dad had worked there? Did you grow up hearing railroad stories?
DUANE LEVAN: Well, I had always been around railroads, see, when I was younger. I mean, in fact -- well, to go way back further, when we lived at Duluth, Minnesota, that was started, the World War II, and going to high school there, in fact, I quit high school and joined the Navy when I was 17, but when I was the first couple of years in high school there, us high school kids got to work for the company, the company, and there was railroad car -- or there was cars, what they hauled was iron ore from the iron range in Minnesota, down and loaded them on ships down at Duluth, down on the dock. But up where we were where the sorting yard was,
where my dad worked, they had to steam them cars, put steam in them to loosen them up because they would freeze before they got down to unload them. So to make sure they was unfroze to unload because they had just dumped out the bottom of the car, once they shoved them down onto the docks, they had you just dump them, you know. So they hired us kids, all the boys in high school, we had about a two or three week period there we weren't in school. We'd go down and put the steam pipes in the sides of the -- of the cars to steam -- steam ore. Yeah. We had a good job going.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So you started doing that kind of stuff at a young age.
DUANE LEVAN: It was at a young age. Yeah, I was, what, 14, 15. Yeah. So that was in Duluth. So anyways, but I had always been around railroads. When I was real small and dad, I can remember, gosh, 7, 6, 7, 8 years old, Depression times, of course, stacks of guys riding through our little town sitting on top of the boxcars trying to get from town to town looking for jobs, you know.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
DUANE LEVAN: A very tough time.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
DUANE LEVAN: Always coming by looking for something. Wanted to do some work. Yeah. Very hard. That was in Minnesota
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
DUANE LEVAN: and Minnesota is a hungry country anyway.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it is. Well, it sounds like your work with the railroad here was a good thing to have done.
DUANE LEVAN: It was what?
KAREN BREWSTER: It was good that the worked for the railroad here, that was a good job.
DUANE LEVAN: Yeah. Oh, no, yeah, it was fine. Yeah. In fact, one of the things in the Navy, when you got discharged, they asked you what kind of work would you like to do, because we were given preferences.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, yeah.
DUANE LEVAN: And I put down railroad.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh.
DUANE LEVAN: Yeah. Just that's what I put down on my sheet was railroad.
KAREN BREWSTER: All right. Well, I don't have any other questions. Is there anything else that you had in mind to tell me that I haven't asked about?
DUANE LEVAN: Gee, I can't think of anything.