By Clark Fair
Leon Merkes and Cliff Darnell had missed the train out of Whittier.
The freight train they had ridden in on had been their only hope for a ride back to Portage where the two men were employed, and now nearly a dozen miles of empty track and the dark maw of the Whittier tunnel lay between them and their warm beds.
Young men fresh from the Midwest, Merkes and Darnell were employees of the Alaska Railroad in 1950. They were gandy dancers (paid $1.52½ an hour to lay and line track) on an “extra gang,” a work group hired to add sidetracks and switches for pulling out train cars and moving them off the mainline.
A few weeks earlier, they had been working with a buddy named Joe Desjardin. After Desjardin was re-stationed on a section of track near Whittier, Merkes and Darnell decided use their weekend to hop a freight train and head east for a visit.
They had had no intention of spending the night on that side of Maynard Mountain. On the Turnagain side, they had warm beds in the outfit cars that had been established as portable barracks for the extra gang. So missing the train meant walking home.
Travel between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm had never been a simple affair. A barricade of mountains, snow and ice blocked easy access, forcing Chugach Eskimos to cross Portage Pass and Portage Glacier as they hunted or dealt with the Athabaskan Indians on the Cook Inlet side. Starting in the late 1800s, miners used similar routes to reach the gold fields of the Kenai Peninsula and upper Cook Inlet.
In 1943, the military established a base at the foot of Whittier Glacier and completed a railroad spur through the mountains from Portage to Passage Canal. In creating the spur, railroad workers blasted two tunnels through the mountains. While the shorter tunnel, through Begich Peak, was only about a mile long, the Maynard Mountain tunnel stretched two and a half miles.
At the time Merkes and Darnell eyeballed the entrance and pondered the task at hand, the tunnels were unlit, rail-only affairs that discouraged anyone venturing forward on foot.
But Merkes and Darnell, despite the fact that neither of them carried a flashlight, were undaunted and not overly concerned about the extra work their walk was about to entail. Both men were in their early 20s and former farm boys; both were accustomed to difficulties.
Merkes had come to Alaska a year earlier, driving with his cousin, Hubert “Huppy” Merkes, in a 1937 two-door Ford sedan that Leon’s father said wouldn’t make it out of their home state of Wisconsin. The Ford had been rear-ended, and a damaged gas tank had been removed. Merkes placed a new gas tank in the trunk, and he and Huppy stuffed their suitcases into the back seat, covering the luggage with blankets, upon which they slept each night, their legs dangling over the front seat.
Merkes, who homesteaded in Sterling in 1956, was leaving the Midwest in 1949 because he had decided there was more to life than working on the dairy farm on which he had been raised.
“I picked spuds in North Dakota,” he said. “I picked cantaloupes in Idaho. I did a little bit of everything. Geez, when I came to Alaska, I could see the opportunity was great for working. If a guy wanted to work, you could get a job. And I didn’t mind working. I had two hands, and I knew how to work, so I could make a living.”
When he and Huppy arrived in Anchorage, they were broke, Merkes said. “So I set pins in the bowling alley to make us money to eat, and we still slept in the car. We slept by Spenard Road because the cops sent us out of Anchorage. We slept in the car. We washed in the creek.”
Fortunately, Merkes’ work ethic quickly brought him better times. Soon he was working for the railroad, then for a crane operator, then a truck-driving company — and finally he purchased his own dump truck in 1952. The owner of Merkes Enterprises, Merkes, 84, has been hauling gravel now for more than half a century. But in 1950, he and Darnell needed a strategy.
“To begin with, we chopped a brush — each one (of us) had a brush to slide along the rail — to guide our way in there and through the dark,” Merkes said.
Fortunately, the ballast — the fill between the crossties holding the rails in place — was high, Merkes said, making the walking fairly level, and they were able to move along with relative ease in the pitch-black interior of the mountain.
With their sense of sight effectively canceled, they focused on their other senses. They could feel the cool dampness of the tunnel. They could hear the dripping of water, the scraping of their sticks along the rails, their own feet crunching the gravel and broken rock. “It was spooky in there,” Merkes said.
At one point in this blind trek, Merkes decided to have a little fun with his buddy. “I said to Cliff, ‘Let go my arm!’ He said, ‘I don’t have your arm!’” After a few moments of uncertainty, Darnell laughed, and Merkes laughed, too.
They continued, hoping at this point that there would be no traffic entering the tunnel from the Portage side. “No train we didn’t think was due in, but there was a space there, and we had it figured out; we were going to lie up against the bank and let the train go by,” Merkes said.
Luckily, no trains arrived to make them test their plan. Eventually, they exited the long tunnel, and several hours later they had traveled the shorter tunnel and the remainder of the line to Portage.
Once they completed the Maynard Mountain section, Merkes said, “the rest was easy.”