Part of a series of articles titled Denali History Nuggets.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
 Superintendent’s Monthly Report, July 1923, DENA Museum Collection.
 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.
 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.
Last updated: August 22, 2019