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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
The Father of Military Construction in Alaska: Colonel B. B. Talley  -  Testing the Tunnels to Whittier
By Virginia Talley « Prev   Page 2 of 4   Next »

Opening the port of Whittier for access by the Alaska Railroad was essential to alleviate a railroad bottleneck during the critical wartime transportation shortage. B.B. Talley, as Alaska Area Engineer, was the person responsible for overall supervision of the project.

A contract for construction of the Whittier tunnels, some 19,000 feet in length, was awarded in mid-June 1941 to a private contractor, West Construction Company. Workers faced many difficulties including glaciers, mountainous terrain, hazardous mountain and glacier climbing, and severe wind, rain and snow conditions. Nevertheless, the project was completed before the end of 1942, almost six months ahead of schedule. A holing-through ceremony was held in November 1942, and 56 explosions blasted the last rock barrier, opening what was then the fourth longest railroad tunnel in the nation.

In February 1943, the Alaska Railroad’s Silver Bullet, a self-propelled twelve-passenger speeder, was to make the first passage of an official passenger-carrying vehicle through the tunnel. Talley couldn’t pass it up and decided to ride along. The tunnels were open, but as it turned out, some problems remained.

At both ends of the tunnel, five to six feet of snow lay on the ground. The snow banks on the sides of the paths and roads varied from three to nine feet high. The temperature was just above zero, but it was a brilliant day.

Brigadier General B.B. Talley, circa 1940.
B.B. Talley recorded in his daily log: "All went well until we got to the Whittier end of the large tunnel when, lo and behold, we couldn’t get the Silver Bullet through the door, and there we stopped. So, as of this date, traffic has not yet gone through the tunnel, but there will come a time!"

Because of the peculiar weather circumstances, the north portals of the tunnels iced up to a distance of 2,000 feet in length and three feet in depth. Icicles up to three feet wide and fifteen feet long formed from the tunnel arch.

The party, undaunted, walked through the tunnel and had lunch at the dock camp of the contractor. They then started their return at about two p.m.

The snow was about six inches deep between the rails and it had compacted to ice. Drifts were varying heights along the tracks, but due to the wind, snow filled up the troughs of the roadbed, and two miles from Portage, the Silver Bullet was derailed due to the snowdrifts.

Colonel Talley recorded: "There were 12 of us in the party, 11 of whom were ‘bosses,’ the twelfth being Mr. Shinn of the Morrison-Knudsen Company, who exercised splendid judgment and remained in the speeder throughout our experience of getting the Silver Bullet back on the track."

The Silver Bullet weighed some seven tons. Eleven of the passengers got out, and ten of them set to work jacking up the rear end of the Bullet higher than the rails, as the front end was still on the track. The ten hearty men pushed mightily. The Bullet went completely over the track and off the other side. They began to jack up the engine a second time. Violent action and mighty rocking succeeded again in pushing the engine over the tracks on the other side. Mr. Shinn sat silently in the speeder.

Throughout this time, the eleventh member of the party, B.B. Talley, had been clearing the track of snow with a long-handled shovel. The other "bosses" had gotten nowhere in a little more than two hours, and night was coming on. Talley leaned on his shovel and asked if they would like to change their method of attack. He suggested that, rather than approach the situation brutishly and with such tremendous energy, it might be better to go about it quite calmly, to stop, look and speculate, and discuss the situation from time to time.

The 10 men had tried everything they could think of; they were tired; they agreed to let Talley direct operations. By the use of a jack and gentleness, they put the Bullet back on the track without difficulty.

By this time it was dark and the snowdrifts had become so deep behind the Bullet that they could not move back to Portage or ahead to Anchorage. Talley ordered a locomotive up to clear the track and escort the Bullet to Portage.

There was a freight train coming down the line heading toward Seward, and the group decided to let it pass before they left Portage. This necessitated a wait of about an hour, during which they had an excellent dinner of moose meat, which had been brought in by one of the trains. The moose had been caught in the train’s cowcatcher a few days earlier.

Those who had worked on the tunnels could be proud of what they had done. It is noteworthy that the total cost of the project was less than 11 million dollars in 1940’s currency, a small sum for what had been accomplished, including all of the construction of the bridges, tunnels, railroad terminal facilities, and housing for over 1,000 officers and enlisted men. By contrast, in 2000 converting one of the tunnels to accommodate both cars and trains on a rotating basis cost some 80 million dollars.

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