Alaska's Golden Spike

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian
black and white photo of a man holding a small replica bridge
President Warren Harding and First Lady Florence Harding inspect a model of the Tanana River Bridge in 1923. The bridge was the final piece connecting the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks

Alaska State Library ASL-970-86

In May, 2019, the National Park Service celebrated the 150th anniversary of the “Golden Spike” which signified the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869. The railroad revolutionized transportation and expedited the development of the Western United States. Golden Spike National Historical Park in Utah was designated to tell this important part of American History, but Alaska has its own “Golden Spike” story that occurred in 1923, one in which Mount McKinley National Park had a role.

On July 15, 1923, President Warren Harding drove the “Golden Spike” at Nenana, signifying the completion of the interior Alaska Railroad. Before arriving in Nenana, Harding stopped at McKinley Park Station and became the first—and only—sitting president in history to visit Denali National Park (then called Mount McKinley National Park).[1]
map titled alaska railroad with connecting road and river routes, showing southcentral alaska
Early map of the Alaska Railroad showing the 470-mile alignment between Seward and Fairbanks

James Steese Papers, Dickinson College

Superintendent Harry Karstens recounted the occasion:

The Presidential party arrived at 10:30am, and departed at 10:50am. While at McKinley Park station, the President and party mingled with the local people. During their stay the press representatives kept me busy giving them information concerning the Park and Mt. McKinley and its ascent. Thinking it might be good policy to get McKinley Park and its needs before as many of this party as possible, I asked for and received permission to board the train and accompany them to Fairbanks and return. During the trip I had an opportunity to talk to a number of the party regarding this park’s needs. At Fairbanks the President and party were received with a royal welcome and the whole populace turned out in holiday attire. The city was decorated with flags, bunting and arches.[2]

crowd of people watching a spike being driven into a railroad bridge over a river
President Harding driving Golden Spike at Nenana on July 15, 1923

CIHS Collection, Anchorage Museum, AMRC-B75-134-186

The Alaska Railroad and the National Park

The completion of the government-owned Alaska Railroad was no small engineering feat. The rail line between Seward and Fairbanks broke ground in 1915, and when it was finally finished in 1923, it spanned nearly 470 miles. The final two major projects needed to complete the railroad were the 900-foot-long bridge at Riley Creek, completed in February of 1922, and the 700-foot-long bridge at Nenana, completed in February of 1923.[3]

The Alaska Railroad was a mixed blessing for Mount McKinley National Park. The development of Interior Alaska threatened the wildlife the park was established to protect. At the same time, the park was irrelevant to Congress if tourists could not access it. Due to the Alaska Railroad project, conservationists Charles Sheldon, Belmore Browne, and others worked urgently to get the national park established and funded. The interior railroad gave (and continues to give) tourists the opportunity to visit one of the country’s most beautiful and unique landscapes.
a man hammering a spike into a railroad while surrounded by a crowd
President Harding driving the Golden Spike. Commerce Secretary (and future President) Herbert Hoover is on the right. It's possible that Supt. Karstens is standing behind and to the right of Hoover

Marguerite Bone Wilcox Collection, Alaska State Library, ASL-P70-85

The railroad was significant for Alaska’s economic development as various extraction industries could finally access markets faster and more efficiently. In addition, numerous communities were established along the rail belt, some of which still thrive today.

Harding’s Denali Legacy

Besides being the only sitting President to visit the park, Warren Harding was involved with several important decisions regarding the park’s early history. As an Ohio Senator in 1916, he was a member of the Committee on Territories which hosted hearings on the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park. He listened to and questioned Charles Sheldon, James Wickersham, and other park proponents who testified (see Senate Hearings attachment below).
railroad bridge over a snow-covered creek
The Riley Creek Bridge was built in the winter of 1921-22. This photo is from February 10, 1922

Frederick C. Mears Papers, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections, University of Alaska Fairbanks, UAF-1984-75-155a

In January 1922, as President, Harding signed into law the “Sutherland Bill," which expanded the park boundary east to the 149th meridian.[4] That same month he signed an Executive Order 3617 that withdrew 2,440 acres “for use in connection with the administration of Mount McKinley National Park and to protect a right of way for a proposed road into the park.” In March 1923, Harding signed Executive Order 3800 that withdrew an additional 80 acres just south of Riley Creek near the bridge—also for the purposes of national park administration.
low buildings in a snowy forest near a railroad track
The Riley Creek railroad camp contributed to McKinley Park Station's early and colorful history

Alaska Railroad Collection, Anchorage Museum, B75-134-59

[1] Some argue that Harding technically did not visit the park because he was only in the area of the train station, and the train station was outside the eastern boundary of the park at that time. In 1932 the boundary expanded to include McKinley Park Station. Commerce Secretary (and future President) Herbert Hoover was also on the trip. This summary of Harding’s trip gives historic context.

[2] Superintendent’s Monthly Report, July 1923, DENA Museum Collection.

[3] The Riley Creek Bridge was started in December 1921 and completed in February 1922. The bridge at Nenana was the longest truss span in the United States at the time.

[4] The 149th meridian is just west of Park Headquarters about Mile 4 of the Park Road. The original boundary was located about Mile 18.4 of the Park Road.

Part of a series of articles titled Denali History Nuggets.

Denali National Park & Preserve

Last updated: August 22, 2019