HENEY, MICHAEL JAMES, railway contractor; b. 24 Oct. 1864 near what is now Stonecliffe, Ont., son of Thomas Heney and Mary Ann McCourt, farmers; d. unmarried 11 Oct. 1910 in San Francisco and was buried in Seattle, Wash.
The son of Irish immigrants, Michael J. Heney ran away from his Ottawa valley home when he was 14 to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. An elder brother soon found him and returned him to the farm. There he remained until June 1882 when, at the age of 17, he headed west to the CPR’s construction front at Elkhorn, Man. He worked at first as a mule-skinner and then graduated to laying rail, but his ambition was to absorb everything known about building railways. His chance came in 1883 when he was selected to join a survey crew. During 1884 and 1885 he worked in the mountains of British Columbia, gaining a thorough grounding in all phases of railway construction.
Although Heney was only 21 when the last spike was driven on the CPR, he already felt competent to act as an independent contractor. He returned to eastern Canada to earn an engineering degree, which his father wanted him to have, but he soon went back to British Columbia, where he was awarded a number of construction contracts by the CPR. In 1887 he moved to Seattle and built the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad, completing it in two years and becoming known as “the boy contractor.”
In 1896 Heney constructed a mine hydraulic plant at Anchor Point, Alas., a project that heightened his interest in the north. Two years later, at the peak of the Klondike gold-rush, he made a preliminary survey of the White Pass, Alas./B.C., seeking a railway route to the Yukon interior. In Skagway, Alas., he encountered by chance three surveyors for Close Brothers and Company of London, a British financial house that had undertaken to build the White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway to Whitehorse, Y.T. As a result of this meeting, Heney was hired as labour foreman, but he completed the last two-thirds of the 110.7-mile line as contractor of record. He and other officials drove the last spike at Caribou Crossing (Carcross), Y.T., on 29 July 1900. It was during this period that Heney gained his international reputation as an outstanding railway contractor.
By 1901 important Alaska copper claims, in which J. P. Morgan and Company and the Guggenheims’ American Smelting and Refining Company had interests, had gained Heney’s attention. He founded the Copper River Railway Company and had a route surveyed through the Copper River valley that could serve those interests and the large coal deposits in the area. With the support of Close Brothers and engineer Erastus Corning Hawkins, Heney began constructing his line on 1 April 1906. Ignoring Heney’s survey, the American companies started building their own railway. Later, when they found that the route was unsuitable, they were forced to pay Heney $250,000 for his survey and to give him the contract for completion of the line, the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad.
In July 1909, having finished the most difficult sections, Heney left for Seattle on business. He was returning north a month later on the steamer Ohio when it struck a rock and sank in Milbanke Sound, B.C. After leading rescue operations, he caught a cold which developed into pulmonary tuberculosis. He died about a year later. His estate, valued at a million dollars, was left to various relatives, friends, and charities.
Courageous, resolute, and gifted with an intuitive understanding of complex engineering problems, Heney was affectionately known to his associates as Big Mike or the Irish Prince. In recognition of his great service to the continental northwest, a range of Alaskan mountains, a mountain peak, and a glacier have been named after him.
[In addition to the sources cited below, this text draws on the author’s interview with Archibald Williamson (Archie) Shiels, Michael James Heney’s personal secretary during the construction of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad.
American novelist Rex Ellingwood Beach used one of Heney’s exploits as a base for The iron trail; an Alaskan romance (New York, 1913), a tale about railway building in Alaska. r.m.]
Calif. State Board of Health (Sacramento), Medical certificate of death for M. J. Heney. Daily Alaskan (Skagway), 24 Aug., 2, 8, 9 Sept. 1900. Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Wash.), 14 Oct. 1910. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12, 20 Oct. 1910. Skagway News, 25 Nov. 1898. M. J. Barry, A history of mining on the Kenai peninsula ([Anchorage, Alas., 1973]). F. W. Burch, “Alaska’s railroad frontier: railroads and federal development policy, 1898–1915” (phd thesis, Catholic Univ. of America, Washington, 1965). Dictionary of Alaska place names, comp. D. J. Orth (Washington, 1967). [S. H. Graves], On the “White Pass” pay-roll, by the president of the White Pass &c Yukon route (Chicago, 1908). E. A. Herron, Alaska’s railroad builder, Mike Heney (New York, ). L. E. Janson, The copper spike (Anchorage, ). Roy Minter, The White Pass: gateway to the Klondike (Toronto, 1987). F. B. Whiting, Grit, grief and gold: a true narrative of an Alaska pathfinder (Seattle, 1933).