The Turtle Creek Central Railroad Story

Clarence and Richard Ayers were two brothers that grew up on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.  Through out their younger years the two were inseparable however they chose to follow different careers in their lives.  Clarence chose to go to college and became a Civil Engineer while Richard chose a military life, serving his country in several conflicts.

Upon retiring from the military, Richard pursued a new career in the logging industry.  Acquiring the logging rights to a 128,000 acre tract of land, roughly 5 miles east of the town of Palmer, Alaska.  To oversee the engineering of the project, to construct a saw mill, town and a railroad, Richard called on his brother Clarence and his civil engineering skills. 

Construction started in early spring and by the end of the first summer, the mill was ready for operation along with company housing, company store and a town known as Ayers. A railroad connection was made by extending the Knik River Ry. approximately 3 miles to the north from Butte.  To bring the logs from the woods to the mill the standard gage Turtle Creek Central Railroad was formed and constructed in an easterly direction for about 2 miles.  The construction of the railroad was contracted to the lowest bidder, the Slip-Shod Rail Construction Company.

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To aid in construction of the rail line, Slip-Shod Construction utilized a 3 truck Shay Locomotive known as Ina.  The shay was also a cost-cutting move as birch wood cleared from ROW construction could be used for fuel.  This however proved to be a bad decision when one afternoon sparks from Ina started a fire in the dry grass from the previous year.  All hands turned to and along with the Butte Fire and Forestry crews were barely able to get the fire under control, burning only about an acre but nearly burning down the mill.  From that time on, the shay was never used again and a Turtle Creek Railroad GP35 was placed in construction service.

Turtle Creek Central Shay 34 is dumping ballast along the ROW at Plumley Junction.
After the fire, Turtle Creek Central 531, a GP35 replaced the Shay.  Having a turbocharged prime mover, the 531 created little chance of starting a fire.
One morning during the construction of the rail line, the grading crew was surprised to find 3 VW mini buses painted in some weird sort of camouflage colors blocking the right of way along with a band of hippies wearing what they thought to be Halloween costumes.  The hippies it turned out were protesting the harvesting of the trees.  For much of the day the rail construction was at a stand-still and as evening approached the construction crew warned the hippies to be gone by nightfall and returned to their camp at Ayers.  The next morning, there was not one trace of the hippies and strangely, there was about 500 feet of new roadbed graded ready for rails.  By noon the rails were in place and the entire incident was forgotten.  Strangely enough, there were never anymore sightings of the hippy band.

With the railroad and mill ready for use, a crew of lumber jacks spent most of the winter falling trees and skidding them logs over to the newly constructed rails.  The following spring and as soon as the snow could be cleared from the rails, railroad operations commenced bringing the logs to the mill.  Soon the saws were operating and several loads of lumber a day were heading out over the Knik River Ry. to markets in the lower 48.

An engine house and car repair shop were constructed adjacent to the mill at Ayers.  Here we see caboose 67 and engine 521 and 531 awaiting their next call to haul logs.
During the first summer of operation, the 531 and 521 were kept busy hauling logs to the mill at Ayers.
During that first summer of operation the mill at Ayers and Turtle Creek Central RR were in full operation paying off the construction costs and starting to bring profits to the company coffers.  The plentiful black spruce was the main source of income; however much of the birch slash was also harvested and sold by the cord to local residents for fire wood.  Only the cottonwood and alder was found to be of little value and left to rot.  During the following summer, Slip-Shod Construction was again the low bidder to extend the rails another 2 miles in a South-Easterly direction to the shores of Mud Lake.

That summer came to an abrupt end when a heavy mid September snow storm ended rail operations for the season.  Cutting crews however continued to do their falling weather permitting through out the winter and by the spring there was an ample supply of logs along the rail line to be transported to the mill.

A map of the Knik River Valley showing the system map of the Turtle Creek Central Railroad and connecting Knik River Ry.
Over the next several years, leases were obtained to the north along McRoberts Creek and to the south in the Plumley Valley.  As the near by timber was harvested, the rails were pushed further to the south-east into the Turtle Creek Valley and the shores of Jim Lake.  Eventually rails were pushed into the Friday Creek watershed and further east into the Metal Creek watershed.  With each extension, the operating costs for the railroad increased and now with the timber mostly exhausted Richard decided to sell everything and retire.

Operations at the mill ceased at the end of the summer and the mill was sold to a group from Chickaloon.  The logging rail line was scraped with the rails, usable ties and locomotives were sold to a mining operation near Talkeetna.  No buyer was found for the log cars and they were eventually scrapped.  Real estate developers paid top dollar for the partially cleared land to the west of McRoberts Creek.  Today Maud road sits on the old Turtle Creek Railroad roadbed.  Thus through Igor’s imagination over a period of roughly 10 years a logging operation flourished in the Butte area of Alaska.

A Trip on the Turtle Line as Engineer
By Big Joe

I think that it was the fall of the fourth year of operation of the Turtle Line, as we called it.  It was mid October and we had already got hit with a couple inches of early snow. To keep the mill working through the winter, there were still several train loads of logs to be hauled to the mill.  Mr. Ayers had called for the train crews to work double shifts, however after several 20 hour days; the Turtle crew was totally exhausted.  As I was on the Knik River Ry. Extra Board, I was asked if I would like to work one day for the Turtle Line.  Accepting the offer, along with Conductor Al we took the velocipede to Ayers and signed on at the Engine House at 12 Midnight. 

We were assigned Turtle engine 521, a GP 35 and instructed to go to the Turtle Creek Valley with the empty log train.  There would be a crew waiting to load the logs on our train.  No pilot was provided and as I was totally unfamiliar with the road, I was a little concerned.  I was also concerned by the fact that the log cars did not have air brakes and 3 brakemen were assigned to help control the train.  Heading into the woods at around 1 AM, the light empty train was easy to control with the engine and dynamic brakes.  Soon after leaving Ayers the 3 brakemen were asleep back in the caboose.  Upon arriving at the Turtle Valley loading site there was no crew around to load the cars.  After several long blasts of the locomotive horn, the crew was finally rousted out of the sack to go to work.  Not knowing the loading procedure, it took several hours to load the train and do a run around ready for the run back to the mill at Ayers.

I think that it was now around 9 AM and the sun was finally starting to shine over the mountains across the Knik River Valley.  There was a good layer of frost on the rails and as the engine sanders were not working, it took a fair amount of coaxing to get out of the Turtle Valley.  Finally we crested the hill and were on a long down hill heading for the mill.  Now in full dynamics, 400 Amps the train speed continued to increase, I called for brakes back on the log cars.  I soon realized that all 3 Brakies were still sound asleep back in the caboose.  Fortunately after a wild ride, the track at Ayers leveled out just enough and I was able to stop the train just short of going into the Matanuska River.  The brake shoes on the engine were smoking, what a ride.

After another hour and a half, we had the train unloaded and returned to the engine house at 1:30 PM.  Along with Conductor Al, I finally signed off the Turtle Line and then stopped off at the company store for some beans.  Then along with Conductor Al, we took the velocipede back to the Knik River Ry. Engine house for some much needed rest.