Railroad Roadmaster

Veteran worker chooses outdoors over desk job

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2003

HEALY - Steve Love seems to know every rock slide, mud slide and sinkhole that has struck the roughly 125 miles of the Alaska Railroad from Gold Creek Station to Rex Crossing.

Just take a ride with him in his orange Alaska Railroad three-quarter-ton Chevy suburban with hy-rail wheels, which allow him to cruise on the tracks. While you're taking in the stunning mountainside or the truculent Nenana River, Love is scouting the track and listening carefully for an interruption - a BANG! - in the wheels' clack-clack-clack-ing along the rails.

Love is a roadmaster for the Alaska Railroad Corp. No one has worked longer for the railroad than he has. Of his 44 years on the job, he's spent 28 looking after this 125 miles of track south of Fairbanks.

He's turned down promotions because that would mean a desk job and a move to Anchorage.

"I'm not an office person," he said. "I'm happier out in the field."

Love has so earned the esteem of his fellow railroad employees that they chose him to help drive the commemorative Golden Spike at the railroad's 75th anniversary celebration in 1998. The spike drive was a re-creation of the 1923 event when President Warren G. Harding drove the final spike upon the railroad's completion, in Nenana.

Love, who has never married but came close a couple of times in the 1960s, is a strapping man with rosy cheeks and a silver mustache. His typical uniform is a pair of black Carhartt overalls and an Alaska Railroad hard hat.

A Normal Rockwell print with the saying "People will take notice of excellent work" hangs down the hall from Love's office. He earns about $80,000 a year.

Love arrived in Alaska in 1957 from Olympia, Wash., after his junior year in high school. He spent the summer fighting fires.

Love finished his senior year in Anchorage, and the following summer went back to firefighting. But that work stopped in about mid-June because of a rainy summer.

Love checked with the railroad several times and couldn't find work.

Late in the summer, still jobless, he decided to flip a Benjamin Franklin 50-cent piece. Heads, he'd try the railroad one more time, tails, he'd go talk to an Army recruiter.

It was heads, and there was a railroad job, repairing track.

Love survived autumn layoffs after one worker moved to another section of track, another quit and a third ruined a suit, borrowed from the boss, at a wild wedding party in Fairbanks.

"I was packing and (crew boss Charlie Curtis) came back and said, 'You once indicated a desire to stay on through the winter.'

"I said, 'Yes.' "

"He said, 'Well, start unpacking. I just fired someone.' "

Four or five trains a day normally pass over Love's 125 miles. Between trains, he, or one of his four three-person crews, heads out onto the track to check for problems.

"I like this country around here," Love said. "Nothing's ever the same."

Every day, one particularly onerous 15-mile stretch of track across Nenana Canyon - called Healy Canyon by locals - must be checked.

"Through the years, it's been a very difficult piece of railroad to maintain," Love said. "Because of curves, the falling rock and when we get enough moisture, there's places where the track wants to start sinking."

The stretch is also breathtaking. It runs across the side of a mountain and above the Nenana River. And a narrow, wooden tunnel has an old-timey feel to it.

At one curve, old pilings stick out of the mountain. They're the remains of a tunnel that caught fire in 1917 or 1918 - when the Alaska Railroad was under construction. At other places the track seems to flirt with danger as it snakes alarmingly close to the edge of the cliff.

In 1990, some new rails were laid to replace track erosion had brought too close to the edge of the mountain. Ten days later, a chunk of the old track broke free and fell off the hillside.

Another year, a rock slide knocked the track 3 feet out of alignment for about 150 feet.

And yet another year, a sink hole swallowed a piece of track and crews had to bring in gravel to raise it back up.

Heaters have to be placed inside the old wooden tunnel. They keep water that drains down the mountain from freezing and swelling the wood, which one year swelled so much that clearance shrank to about 6 inches.

Flumes snake down some of the mountainside to help with drainage.

"Things have gotten so wet, the whole mountain wants to move down toward the river," Love said.

Not that Love is complaining. After all, he wakes up every morning and goes to work in a place most people dream of seeing, and some pay thousands to behold.

"If that 50-cent piece had turned up tails and I'd have gone into the Army, who knows how my life would have turned out," he said.

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