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 “Headline in the Feb. 27, 1910 issue of the Baltimore Sun.”

The Pinchot-Ballinger Controversy

In March 1909, when President William Howard Taft replaced Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior with Richard A. Ballinger, conservationists were disappointed. Ballinger quickly restored to private use three million acres Roosevelt had protected. Most Alaskans were delighted. Gifford Pinchot, appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service in 1898 by President William McKinley, accused Ballinger of favoring private trusts with access to Alaska coal fields. That coal issue would, of course, involve the Chugach National Forest and the Morgan-Guggenheim Alaska Syndicate working on their railroad out of Cordova. Taft tried to placate both sides, exonerating Ballinger but at the same time affirm Pinchot’s conservative position.

In 1910 Pinchot rebuked Taft openly and asked for congressional hearings. He was immediately fired, which alienated Republican progressives and led to a split in the party during the 1912 presidential elections. Congress held hearings, and Ballinger was cleared but chastised for favoritism and misuse of natural resources. Seward didn’t appreciate Pinchot’s conservationist agenda, especially regarding coal. At the same time, the town didn’t welcome Ballenger’s favoring the Alaska Syndicate. During the controversy between Ballinger and Pinchot, the Alaska Northern Railway (ANR) out of Seward struggled. When Pinchot visited Alaska in the fall of 1911, he arrived in Seward aboard the Northwestern. As he headed along the gangplank to shore, the Coleman Hotel house dog, named Bruiser, “hot-footed it for a coal pile, grabbed a chunk of coal between his teeth, and when the distinguished visitor stepped upon the dock, deposited it at his feet. ‘You’re all right,’ was the comment of the ex-forester, as he patted the dog on the top of the head.” Even the canines were against him, Pinchot must have thought.

In October 1911, a special agent for the U.S. General Land Office showed up in Seward. W. J. Lewis’ mission was to investigate land issues and charges of excessive rates on the ANR. Lewis had worked in Alaska a number of years and had traveled the rail tracks out of Seward as early as 1908. In 1911 he reported that the condition of 71 miles of track was “very bad indeed.” The only maintenance done was some repair early in the season. There were no section gangs as with most railroads. “After a storm,” he wrote, “when logs, trees, or rocks are found on the track, the car stops while the employees and passengers get out and remove the obstacles.” A ride on the ANR could be quite an experience: “So rickety is the road becoming that the gasoline car rocks and sways as though she would never keep the rails. Timid passengers declare that if they ever get home they will never ride the car again. But they have so far had no accident, probably due to the caution with which the car is driven.”

In 1912 Alaska became a territory, and the federal government began seriously looking into opening the Interior with a railroad. Taft had sent an expedition to Alaska to consider a possible terminus. They came back with suggestions, including Seward and Cordova. Woodrow Wilson became president in 1912. The need for a railroad into Alaska’s interior became more important. Wilson sent another team to investigate rail routes. An act of March 12, 1914 required the government railroad terminate on an ice-free harbor on the south coast of Alaska. In March 1915, Wilson selected Seward as the new government railroad terminus. Seward not only had a deep, ice-free harbor, but also 71 miles of track that would provide access to the resources of the Kenai Peninsula, and the ANR owners were willing to sell at a fair price. 

The Interstate Commerce Commission estimated the railway had invested $5,250,800 as of June 1912. The Alaska Engineering Commission purchased the railway for $1,157,399. “The commission acquired not only the terminals and physical properties of the railroad, but also – a very considerable value in the work which been done by the formal Alaska Northern Railway at various points along Turnagain Arm,” according to documents. But the government got much more. What has often been neglected is that they obtained, “the benefit of the studies, maps, profiles which they had prepared as a result of their field surveys form Seward to Fairbanks over the entire present adopted route of the Government railroad and of the Matanuska Branch line.”

Much of this was due to the vision and work of John Ballaine and his Alaska Central Railway surveys. The government made their first payment to the ANR owners in Aug. 1915 “when litigation over the title had ceased.” The final payment of $650,000 was made on in June 1916, “at which time the government came into full possession.”

But Seward’s selection as the terminus may have had as much to do with politics as it did with location and other factors. Perhaps it was connected with Valdez and its Keystone Canyon right-of-way shooting, and Cordova with its connection to the Ballinger-Pinchot coal controversy. In an era of trust-busting and public sentiment against monopolies, perhaps Valdez and Cordova had too much negative political baggage. There had been corruption with the Seward railways as well, but compared to the Prince William Sound projects, Seward may have been safer political ground. At least the railway out of Resurrection Bay wasn’t connected with J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims.

On July 24, 1916, Joseph P. Cotton, a federal attorney and member of the Alaska Engineering Commission, left Washington, D.C. to inspect construction progress of the Alaska Railroad. The report he submitted on Oct. 1, 1916, is enlightening. Now that Valdez and Cordova were no longer competitors, Seward had a new rival – the growing town of Anchorage along Ship Creek. They not only fought over coal and port access – but also on the baseball diamond.


Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.” He is an authority on American artist Rockwell Kent and has written the forewords for two of his books, “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska,” and “Northern Christmas,” both published by Wesleyan University Press. Several sources were used for this series. I wish to especially acknowledge William R. Hunt’s “Golden Places: The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining, With Particular Reference to Alaska’s National Parks” published in 1990 by the National Park Service, Alaska Region; and “The Copper Spike” by Lone E. Janson.