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Iditarod Trail and the Kuskokwim Reconnaissance Survey

From June to September 1914, civil engineer and Seattle resident James Lennox McPherson led a seven man and twenty packhorse expedition on a survey across interior Alaska. The A.E.C. assigned McPherson to research the feasibility of building a branch railroad from Anchorage west to the mining districts on the Kuskokwim and Iditarod Rivers.

» View the survey trail and select photographs taken along the route.

The Kuskokwim Reconnaissance survey party, along with other A.E.C. surveyors, embarked from Seattle on June 5th and 6th, 1914, on two steamers, the Admiral Sampson and the Northwestern. The steamers reached Ship Creek (now Anchorage) on June 15, 1914. Under difficult conditions during the summer months when travel meant crossing large wetland areas and rivers swollen with rain, McPherson undertook the survey along the Government Winter Trail, customarily traversed during the winter months by dog sled.

On June 18th, McPherson's group left Ship Creek and traveled to the town of Knik, which they left on June 20th to go to a point near the mouth of Willow Creek, the survey's official starting point, on the eastern side of the Susitna Valley. After crossing the Susitna River, the surveyors went west through the Susitna, Yentna, Skwentna, and Happy River Valleys until they reached the headwaters of the Happy River in the Alaska Range. McPherson's team traversed thirty miles investigating four passes (Simpson, Rainy, Teocalli (Goodman), and Houston) to determine the best railroad route through the Alaska Range. Subsequently, the group traveled up the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River as far as Farewell Mountain. They headed west across the Kuskokwim Basin, reaching McGrath, a settlement at the mouth of the Tacotna River, on September 14th. The reconnaissance party traveled up the Tacotna Valley to the Innoko Divide, and then through the valleys of the Tacotna, Moose and Bonanza Creeks to reach Iditarod ten days later. At Iditarod on the Iditarod River, the crew boarded the last commercial steamer available for the year, embarking on a four-day trip down the Innoko and Kuskokwim Rivers to St. Michael. Finally, on October 5th, McPherson and crew boarded the steamship Victoria, which reached Seattle on October 15th.

In 1916, McPherson published his reconnaissance and engineering summaries in the A.E.C. report to the U.S. House of Representatives, but the complete body of his work was not made available to the public. McPherson supplemented the expedition report with maps and two photograph albums . The route McPherson surveyed was never developed as a branch railroad, but it includes a large section of the National Historic Iditarod Trail.


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