The steel bridge looming high above you looks much the same as it did upon its completion in early 1922, with one exception. Gone is a wooden trestle — 400 feet long and 60 feet high — that originally connected the steel structure to the north bluff. In the 1950s, hundreds of tons of rock and earth were hauled and dumped here to extend the bluff to the edge of the first concrete and steel support. Except for increased vegetation, the view of the bridge to the south is unchanged.
The Alaska Railway Act of 1914 authorized the federal government to construct a railroad to connect vast mineral resources of Interior Alaska with an ice-free port. In April 1915, President Woodrow Wilson selected a route that spanned from Seward to Fairbanks. The impact of his decision brought the railroad here and, in turn, contributed to the establishment of a national park in 1917 to conserve wildlife.
Over the 470-mile Alaska Railroad route, the Riley Creek to Healy River segment was the most challenging section of the project. The very last gap to complete the line was a bridge over the mighty Tanana River ** miles north at the town of Nenana.
Here, sheer canyon walls funnel the silty Nenana River through a narrow gorge. Early prospectors and explorers declared the whitewater unnavigable, and forged an eastward detour around it. The water volume rises dramatically after every rain with the pounding waters threatening to wash away the rock itself. Surveyors, who located the rail route, viewed the river’s standing waves and powerful hydraulics with dread.
The Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) established Camp Riley on the south bank of the creek directly across from where you are now standing. The camp grew quickly in 1921, and included a field hospital, crew quarters, blacksmith shop, mess halls, barns, and sundry businesses like a barbershop and laundry. In less than a year, the camp swelled from an initial force of 14, mostly surveyors and teamsters, to more than 120 workers to fill the roadhouse and every available cabin. Downstream of Camp Riley, on the opposite bank, was a cluster of structures providing the "amusements" common to any Alaska boomtown — women, liquor, and gambling.
The Riley Creek Bridge, manufactured in Pennsylvania and shipped north on 24 rail cars loaded with 600 tons of steel via the Panama Canal, consisted of seven steel towers decked with 30-foot and 60-foot steel plate girders. When finished, the creek crossing would measure 900 feet in length.
In the first week of January 1922, despite blizzards, sub-zero cold, and limited daylight hours, workers installed the first steel "bent." Less than a month later, a steam crane crossed the bridge from south to north.
A few days later, with a minus-30°F wind chill, a celebratory train left Seward for Nenana, arriving on February 5. With the completion of the bridge, Camp Riley quickly emptied and soon resembled an abandoned gold camp.
• Federal law forbids the removal, disturbance, or destruction of historic artifacts of any kind. Any disturbance, no matter how slight, might affect future research and understanding. Enjoy your exploration of this pioneer community but please take only pictures and leave only footprints.
Last updated: April 14, 2015