The Alaska Railbelt Ministry

 The Railbelt Presbyterian Church covered the areas along the Alaska Railroad and communities contingent to the railroad, including the coal mines in the Suntrana, Usibelli, and Lignite areas -- 300 miles.

We learn from Presbytery records that seven persons met on March 22, 1949 at Healy Fork, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Don Tucker, to organize themselves “into a religious unit known as the ‘Alaska Railroad Mission - Presbyterian,’ with headquarters at Healy Fork. Those seven persons were:

Don and Myra Tucker

Mr. and Mrs. Carl A. Van Dyke

George W. Strickland

Earl Smith

Vannie Courtnay

(Editor’s note: After the death of her husband, Mrs. Courtney later moved to Anchorage, remarried, and became a charter member of the Hillcrest Presbyterian Church under the name of Mrs. Lawrence Davenport.) 

In 1949 at Healy Fork, George W. Strickland was elected elder, and Don Tucker, Earl Smith and Carl A. VanDyke were elected trustees. Mrs. Tucker was elected as women’s representative to the Presbyterian, and the Sunday school was put in charge of Mrs. Earl Smith with Mrs. Conners and Mrs. Middleton assisting. Carl A. VanDyke was elected treasurer.

At this meeting it was moved, seconded and carried that the group ask the Presbytery of Yukon to take them under its care and enroll them as a member church.

It was Bert Bingle who purchased on July 1, 1952 the former bunkhouse from the Diamond Coal Company at Healy for $200. The $200 purchased the building only -- the land it sat on rented for $12.00 per year. There a church was opened.

"The building has been used as a church for several years," the Rev. Myron White wrote in 1966. "The Episcopal clergyman from Nenana holds services for our people there now." In 1969, the Alaska Railroad wanted the building removed and terminated the annual lease.

What follows is a report written in 1956, by Bingle:

Someone has well said "this is the longest church in the world," 175 miles long and six feet wide. Humorously or not, we do have an organized church whose members are scattered all along that right of way for that distance. Until recently it was sixty miles longer. This last sixty miles has now been added as a unit of the Presbyterian Church at Wasilla whose pastor covers the lower end of the railroad as well.

Along this route one finds eight section headquarters, three or four work train units, either caring for the right of way or bridges and buildings, that move from section to section as work demands; one junction point of about seventy-five inhabitants and three coal mines with a combined population of at least 200 persons; and the McKinley National Park with its 200 miles of roads. Within this latter area we find the large hotel, the railroad unit, the Park headquarters and at least four Bureau of Public Roads or contractor construction camps.

There is no part of this parish that is not either in low rolling hills or in high mountains. The railroad runs over gravel terrain at certain points, over frozen tundra at other places. It skirts rivers that are ever changing its course and difficult to keep under the bridges. It traverses canyons that are deep and moving from changing of the earth's surface that at certain times of the year, after each train passes over the track, must be raised and leveled at certain small areas. Then the climax of it all as you move through the foothills of Mt. McKinley that on clear days a grandeur of beauty staggers your imagination so greatly that you cannot help but wonder if God did not love that place so well He just had to linger a little longer here than He did anywhere else.

The economy of this parish is mostly in its mines. Hunting, fishing, trapping are of course a part of the total livelihood of its people, Native and white or the summer visitor, but it is the mines that at present bring in its wealth. Some gold and antimony is produced in remote areas but coal produced brings in millions of dollars each year to the railbelt areas. While the coal that is produced is still young as to age in comparison with coal produced in the States, and the amount produced is small compared to our Eastern or Western mines, but here is unlimited miles of semi-bituminous black material that lays in layers of as much as forty or even sixty feet in thickness, layer upon layer with the oldest dirt formation between that makes one wonder just how long our Lord took when He laid the foundation of the earth's surface. It is the people who work the coal, who transport it to its destination, or who care for the right-of-way, so it can be transported, that makes up the greatest number of parishioners.

Recently to this work has been added, near Fairbanks, work with the men who produce the gold of Alaska. Some of the richest deposits of North America lie in this Fairbanks area. Much of it is adjacent to the railroad just a few miles west and south. Tremendous dredges are picking up the gravel with its rotary shovels, beat it with heavy iron balls in large cylinders, then pans it for final distribution, This happens after the hills have been torn down by great hydraulic giants that shoot water hundreds of feet to wash the underburden down the Chena River. A huge hydraulic also aids in taking away this non-bearing gravel that covers the gold. Five different areas that mine gold are included within the Railbelt Church Area, plus a number of Bureau of Public Road Camps north of Fairbanks. This combined work makes the parish of the pastor of the Railbelt Presbyterian Church, or the Sunday School missionary, whichever you may wish to call him, extend over 550 miles in length. Of course, when one gets to the end of the parish he must return. That makes another 550 miles.

In this parish during the year 1956, the missionary traveled 22,990 miles to do his work. He made 1,035 calls on individuals and homes, preached 140 sermons or held that many services. Three people were added to the church membership on confession of faith, one came by letter. Others made their confession of faith and had their children baptized. All in all compared with a few years prior, when all was pretty much in the rough, we have two particularly strong working units consisting of your families. In the other places the effort consists mostly of church attendance and support, when I am in the community. Those also are young families, many of whom are Eskimo. It is very encouraging to see young mothers plan for the Christian education of their children and their neighbor's children. They are true to their consecration vows when they pray for their children and with them, bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of their Lord.

To give an idea of costs to cover the field to guide us in future plans and program for this or similar work here is the following from the last week in February to December 1st, 1956:

$ 505.04 Car costs -- gas and oil

436.29 Car costs -- grease and repair

294.25 Meals away from home

37.00 Hotel

411.46 Railroad fares

86.15 Airplane fares

437.29 Misc. expenses including films, telephone long distance calls & telegrams

Total: $2,207.48

Total contribution from the field to cover costs: $2,055.22

Difference: $152.26

A description of materials used in different parts of the field may also be a guide. At the coalmines, the railroad junction and McKinley Park Head-quarters, I will have a regular worship service as you would have in any city church. At certain times of the year, I have recreation for them by use of group games. I take to them mis-sionary and travel films.

At the section houses and work trains and road camps and gold mining camps where Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or anti-church gather together, I have been using the Bell Howell projector and S.V.E. slide projector. I take travel films, missionary films, Cathedral Bible Films or Moody Mr. Fixit Films. My hymns are all on films with the organ playing and choir singing. My congregation looks at the lesson through the films, sing the songs and listen to that which I bring as a sermon and take part in prayer, including the Lord's Prayer. They love it, almost one hundred percent attend. The Lord's songs and Word is spoken in a strange land, a lovely land of His own making.

An addition to this total work of visitation and services is the sending of religious reading material to each section, work train or preaching point along the railroad. It includes highway camps and the far-flung DEW line to the north. The material I send are: "Presbyterian Life," "Railroad Evan-gelist," "Forwards," "Ventures," "Today," portions of Scripture from American Bible Society, "Science," "News Service," etc.

More About The Railbelt Ministry

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