the Laundry Train Car
by Michael R Dougherty
There was only one place for my brother and I to sit on this run of the Alaska Railroad.
It was on a pile of dirty laundry in the luggage car. Yes, we had to sit on a big pile of dirty laundry from Whittier to Anchorage. But more about that shortly.
In 1966, my father, Ray Dougherty, was working on a tunnel through the mountains leading to Whittier, Alaska. So, our father and mother, Louise Dougherty, moved to Whittier and my brother and me, both teens, were left to keep the home fires burning.
Now days Whittier is a little over an hour's drive from Anchorage and thanks to the two and a half mile long, Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, you can drive to Whittier by car.
But back in 1966, you had to take the Alaska railroad from Anchorage, and pass through two tunnels to get through the mountains and into Whittier. But once you were there, it was Amazing.
As you came out of the tunnel and into Whittier, you were awestruck by the sight of a “mini city” complete with tall buildings nestled up against the majestic mountains.
However, after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, those buildings had all been abandoned, so what we were seeing was a “ghost town.”
In 2014, the population of Whittier was 217, with most of those residents living in Whittier Manor or Begich Towers.
But again, in 1966, everyone in Whittier lived in a big building that was actually a series of connected apartments, businesses, and facilities.
One of the businesses was a restaurant that had a standing offer. If you caught anything in the bay and agreed to share it with everyone in the restaurant, they would cook it up and serve it for free. My brother Tom was fishing off the peer one day and as he started to reel in his line, he was sure he was snagged on a log.
Then, as he continued to reel in his line, he could see a large Alaska King Crab hanging on to his bait. He reeled it all the way in and headed for the restaurant where everyone enjoyed his Alaska King Crab treat, right out of the bay.
One summer weekend, my brother Tom Dougherty went to visit mom and dad. While we were in Whittier, we decided to do a little exploring, so we walked over to the “ghost town” for a closer look.
We walked along the side walks and the streets and even went inside the first floor of several buildings. It was like being on the set of a movie back lot, or in the middle of a weird Sci-Fi move. Take your pick.
At the end of the day, we enjoyed one of mom's wonderful Sunday dinners and then headed over to catch the train that would take us from Whittier, back to Anchorage.
There was a fairly large group of people from Whittier who were going back to Anchorage, but when the train pulled into the Whittier station, we discovered that the train had been overbooked and there were no seats.
My brother and I kept moving around the train as it went chugging down the tracks, but we could find nowhere to sit or even stand. So, we took up residence by some restrooms. But after a while, when the conductor came by to punch our tickets, he told us we couldn't stand around the restrooms.
When we asked the conductor where he would suggest we sit or stand, he thought about it a minute and then said, “follow me.”
We walked all the way through the train to one of the last cars. It was a baggage car, and in the middle of the floor were two large dirty laundry bags. “There you go” said the conductor, “you can sit on these dirty laundry bags.”
My brother and I had paid good money to ride this here Alaska Railroad train, so we were a little put off by his suggestion. So being the big brother, I said, “we paid for tickets, and we have to ride back to Anchorage on a pile of dirty laundry?”
The conductor just smiled and said, “that's all there is son, and it's dirty laundry, so no one will mind.”
My brother and I were tired, so we flopped our teenage bodies down on two large bags of dirty laundry.
As we lay there taking in the unwelcome aroma of soiled clothing, we were eventually lulled to sleep by the motion of our train ride.
When we arrived at the Alaska Railroad Train Station in downtown Anchorage, we got up off our dirty laundry bags and headed for the exit.
As you might imagine, while we mingled with the other passengers, some of them gave us a sniff, a wide-eyed look and then moved as far away from us as possible.
Okay, so we smelled a bit like dirty gym socks.
It's now been many years since my last ride on the Alaska Railroad. But thankfully I never had to ride on a bag of dirty laundry again.