Matchbooks from Central Florida's Past
1977 visit to the Stockton, Terminal and Eastern Railroad

The Empire Builder's Builder - Alexander McClure Lupfer

If you look back far enough, and closely enough, you'll usually find a family member that worked for a railroad. It's not really surprising, though. Railroads were the primary mover of both freight and passengers in the country until the 1960's, and employed hundreds of thousands of employees in hundreds of roles throughout their systems.

I know of three relatives who worked for the railroad, all on my mothers side of the family (Lupfer/Gilbert). I'll start with the one who seemed to do the most - and until recently knew about the least. Alexander McClure Lupfer was my great granduncle. Born in Blaine, Pennsylvania on September 17, 1855, he was the third of eight children of Samuel Lupfer and Matilda J. McClure. (Matilda was sister to Alexander McClure - who deserves his own blog post. Until then, visit Wikipedia to learn more about him.)

After Alexander McClure Lupfer earned an engineering degree from Lafayette College in 1880, he started his railroad career with the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad. He soon moved west and worked for other railroads until 1890 when he was hired by the Great Northern Railway, and worked for John F. Stevens, the railroad's Chief Engineer. (Mr. Stevens was later the Chief Engineer for the Panama Canal.)

Between 1890 and 1893, Alexander was the reconnaissance and location engineer during the construction of the switchback railroad line through the gap of the Cascade Mountains, now known as Stevens Pass, between Skykomish and Wenatchee, Washington.

Switchback alignment at Stevens Pass  WA

James J. Hill, President of the Great Northern Railway, and often referred to as 'The Empire Builder,' visited the switchback construction site for at least one inspection, and I have little doubt that Alexander met Mr. Hill during his visit to see the progress on the rail line.

A few years after completing the switchback railroad, Alexander returned to Stevens Pass to help construct the original Cascade Tunnel, a 2.6 mile shortcut under the mountains which was completed in December, 1900. 

Later, he spent time in Montana relocating and constructing 69 miles of the Great Northern Railway west of Whitefish.

Alexander traveled to Spain with John F. Stevens in 1912 on a project for the Spanish rail system, became Chief Engineer for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad, and provided his expertise on many other projects that are covered in his obituary below.

Even with a list of accomplishments so long, there is another part of Alexander that intrigues me - and that is his legacy. While it's difficult to find mentions of him today, it was a different story a century ago. Thanks to the help of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, I received the map below of the Stevens Pass Switchbacks from 1893.

Stevens Pass Switchbacks
Stevens Pass Switchbacks

When closely examined, there are two items I find fascinating. First, flowing into the Tye River (named after William Tye, a surveyor for the Great Northern), is Lupfer Creek, flowing south to north down Cowboy Mountain. Did Alexander name the creek after himself, or was it named in his honor? 

Second, in the upper middle section of the map, a pack horse trail is shown as a dotted line. A spur to the left leads to 'Engineers Camp A. M. Lupfer.' This location overlooked the valley and switchback on the opposite slope.

Here's a link to download the full size PDF: Download Wilse 1894 -Stevens Pass

Stevens Pass Switchbacks Closeup
Stevens Pass Switchbacks Closeup with Lupfer Creek and Engineers Camp A. M. Lupfer indicated on map.

I was imagining what the view would have been from the engineers camp when I happened upon the photo below, which was likely taken from the camp. I checked with one of the archivists at the Great Northern Railway Historical Society and he verified the location and that of Lupfer Creek descending down and under the switchbacks. Stevens Pass is to the left of the photo.

Stevens Pass Switchbacks from Engineers Camp
A view of the Great Northern Railway switchbacks at Stevens Pass. Lupfer Creek, near center of photo, runs down the north slope of Cowboy Mountain and under the switchbacks. This view is likely from the Engineers Camp. Photo by A. B. Wilse, ca. 1899. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress.

I must thank Robert Kelly and Stuart Holmquist of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society for their assistance. Without the map provided by Mr. Kelly, I would have never known of my great granduncle's important role in the building of Stevens Pass. These photos have inspired me to dig deeper, and with the help of Messrs. Kelly and Holmquist, I'm learning even more about Alexander McClure Lupfer.

I'll end this post with his obituary, though it isn't the end of his story. More to come.

Alexander McClure Lupfer, September 17, 1855 - February 3, 1920

Thanks for reading.