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M.J. (Michael James) Heney (1864-1910) Alaska's Railroad Builder

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M.J. Heney was a railroad contractor of international renown, best known for constructing the first two railroads built in Alaska, the White Pass and Yukon RR. and the Copper River RR. The son of Irish immigrants, Heney rose to the top of his profession before his tragic death. His life inspired several books and at least one movie.

Michael James Heney was born on October 24, 1864, near Stonecliffe Ontario. He was the son of Thomas Eugene Heney and Mary Ann McCourt, Irish immigrants. His family farmed in the upper Ottawa valley.

At age 14, Heney ran away from home to work on the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR). Though the boy was soon found and brought home by an older relative, he stayed only until 1882, when he left home to work on the CPR in Manitoba. He started as a mule skinner and gradually worked his way up through all the aspects of construction. In 1883 he was included in a survey crew, spending the next three years learning more about construction as the CPR worked its way through the mountains of British Columbia.

At 21, Heney was ready to set up as an independent contractor. He returned east to earn the engineering degree his father wanted him to have, but was too impatient and was soon back in the west. In 1887 he was in Seattle, completing the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern RR in two years. The career of the "boy contractor" was launched.

Many construction projects in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska followed. When the Klondike gold rush came, Heney was ready. He visited the Skagway area to survey potential routes to the interior. By chance, he met London financiers also looking to build through the White Pass. A deal was struck and Heney was hired, first as labor foreman and then as contractor. Built through wilderness, far from supplies, using labor that was itching to leave for the gold fields, the 110 mile line was an outstanding achievement and gained Heney an international reputation.

Heney next turned his attention to the copper and coal deposits recently discover on the Copper River. He surveyed a route, bought land, founded the city of Cordova and started construction, while rival companies built on different lines. The dramatic conflicts between the various crews included gunfire and dynamited passes. The Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan owned the ore deposits. When the other routes proved impassable, they bought out Heney's work for $250,000 and later appointed him contractor. The Copper River RR was one of the most difficult construction projects ever undertaken. The line crossed two glaciers, under primitive conditions, far from any supplies. The Million Dollar Bridge, which is between the two glaciers, was completed just hours before the spring ice would have destroyed it.

At the pinnacle of his career, Heney left Cordova to complete some business arrangements in Seattle. On his way back north, his ship hit an uncharted rock and sank. Heney lead the rescue operations, but there was no room in the last boat, so he held on to the stern while it was rowed ashore. He developed pulmonary tuberculosis as a result and died a year later.

Widely popular, Heney was known as "Big Mike" or "The Irish Prince of Alaska". A glacier, mountain and range of mountains in Alaska bear his name.

See also his Wikipedia article, which is based on the above information, but has been edited.


Grit, Grief and Gold: a true narrative of an Alaska pathfinder was written by his friend Fenton B. Whiting, who served as doctor on Heney's Alaska projects. It is a rare book, but very interesting for its details of life during the gold rush. Now back in print and available through this site.

Alaska's Railroad Builder : Mike Heney by Edward A Herron is a young adult biography, but it has all the major events right. It is still available at some used book sites on the Internet.

Novelist Rex Beach used the Copper River construction as a setting for his The Iron Trail: an Alaskan romance. It is typical of fiction of its time (1913), with a plucky female reporter who falls in love with the handsome Irish railroad builder. The Irish Prince part is pure Heney, but the romance belongs to one of the main engineers of the line, who met his wife while building the Million Dollar Bridge. It is also available as a used book. Several silent movies were shot of this, but none seem to be extant.

E.A. Tower of Anchorage has produced Big Mike Heney : Irish prince of the Iron Rails, Builder of the White Pass and Yukon and Copper River Northwestern Railroads. Well researched, but pamphlet length, it is available from the author.

The Copper Spike by Lone E. Janson is a well written and illustrated account of the building of the Copper River Line. It is available as a used book.

The White Pass and Yukon Route : a pictorial history by Stan Cohen is a good history of the line, but manages to refer to Heney as Henry. Primarily photographic, this book does not contain much information about Heney or the detail of construction.

The White Pass by Roy Minter is the most complete account of the construction of the line. It is well researched and gives proper credit to each of the main players. It gives Heney his rightful place as the essential man in the team, but does not shortchange the others. Highly recommended. Available at

Other titles which were not used in this article include On the White Pass Payroll by S.H. Graves, which is available as a used book.