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The Katalla and Controller Bay Alaska Project

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Controller Bay Railroads

Aftermath of 1907 storm
trainwreckcrop.jpg
Courtesy of the State of Alaska Library

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Alaska Anthracite Railroad Stock Certificate 1921
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Courtesy of DPS

Alaska Anthracite Railroad locomotive "Ole"
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Abandoned near the Bering River, Alaska

From 1896 until 1903 discovery after discovery of minerals fueled a rush to riches in Alaska and Katalla was no different. It also shared the problems of other areas in this vast wilderness. How to get the minerals to a market? One answer seemed to give the most promise. Railroads!! If a rail network could bring together the mineral wealth of the region, then maybe Katalla could give eastern cities like Pittsburg some competition.

In 1904 and 1905 surveyors started to plan routes all over the region. They were trying to find good routes that would allow the Bering river coal, the Katalla oil and the Kennecott copper to all come together, be processed and then shipped to the lower 48. Many locations were considered and discounted for a variety of reasons. It was finally decided that Katalla would provide the terminus for the different railroads.

Two companies put the earliest efforts into construction of a railroad to Katalla. The Alaska Pacific & Terminus Railroad known as the Brunner Line and the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (CR&NWR) owned by J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheim mining company. One other small railroad was planning to start construction from the coalfields to the shores of Controller Bay. This company was being run by a man named Clark Davis, and was called The Catalla and Carbon Mountain Railroad.

The Morgan/Guggenheim company was called the Alaska Syndicate and incorporated the Alaska Steamship line, the railroad and the Kennecott mines into a powerful conglomerate. They had plans to use the coal to fuel their trains and steamships. They also planned to build a smelter on the Copper River delta to process the ore being mined in the interior. They felt that it would be best to build a harbor jetty in Katalla Bay and use the facility to load the copper ingots onto ships. The Brunner folks basically wanted to build a railroad, especially where rights of ways were tight, and sell it to the Alaska Syndicate. (Mike Heney would later use this tactic in Cordova and make tons of money.)

Both of these companies started construction in spring of 1907, and it seemed a clash over rights of way was certain. Just one month later on a trestle crossing Palm Lake this issue would be settled. This was called the Battle of B S Hill. It started when the Brunner Line posted no trespassing signs and blew up some equipment belonging to the CR&NWR. The Morgan/Guggenheim crews stormed the trestles of the Brunner line a couple of nights later and took over the right of way. Dispute settled.

The fall of 1907 saw some of the worst storms in the history of the region. These storms were so savage they destroyed the CR&NWR jetty. This is amazing considering that the jetty was constructed of huge boulders weighing several tons piled tens of feet deep for almost 1800 feet into the bay. They also had parts of their railroad bed wash away and at least one engine was knocked off of its tracks. The Brunner line faired no better, the bridge being built by them out to Martin Island was destroyed in the same storms. This massive damage caused a halt to all construction after just 5 months. The Morgan/Guggenheims moved their operation to Cordova and the Brunner line went bankrupt.

Other Railroads would be planned but only one would see anything near completion. The little Catalla and Carbon Mountain Railroad would change its name in 1910 to the Alaska Anthracite Railroad. Construction started in 1916 and by 1918 it was hauling some small amounts of coal from the Bering River fields to a terminus on Controller Bay called Goose City. The problems with this railroad were a lack of adequate funds and interest in the coal it carried. In 1921, the company reorganized and tried to raise enough money through stock sales to complete the road. In 1923, the small railroad folded and went into receivership.

The hopes of an entire region died with this little railroad.

Map of Brunner Line Survey 1906
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Courtesy of the Loussac Library Anchorage