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The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad
1. Origin and Construction
The clouds, draping the mountains like strands of silver steel wool, hung low over the Lynn Canal, gateway to the historic city of Skagway, Alaska, itself the origin of thousands of stampeders who had begun their 45-mile treks over the White Pass Summit toward the Klondike gold fields of the Yukon in Canada in 1897 and 1898. The throngs continued to infiltrate the area today from vessels which also sailed from Seattle, but all disembarked from one of the many daily cruise ships which docked a short distance away.
The passengers crowding the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Depot spilled out to the concrete platform and into one of many departing trains, including those to Fraser, British Columbia. I myself would trace the path of the gold seekers to the White Pass Summit, located 2,865 feet above sea level on the United States-Canada border, but would do so on the rail which had been built to replace the overland foot trail and capitalize on the demand for travel created by the historic event.
The imminent journey had actually had its origin some 110 years ago. Prospectors, searching for gold along the Yukon River, had not yielded their first crop until 1896 when George Carmack and two Indians, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, uncovered some gold flakes in Bonanza Creek in the Yukon, although it had been another year before the world had been alerted to the discovery when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its now-famous headline of “GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” in its July 17, 1897 issue shortly after disembarkation of 68 prospectors from the Steamer Portland in Seattle, Washington. The promise of seemingly instant, easy wealth, coupled with the deprivation of the Depression, sparked an historical event which involved 100,000 players and would ultimately shape parts of Alaska and the Yukon itself.
With the exception of seasonal steamship service on the Yukon River, and road and railroad construction not permitted in Alaska until Congress had passed the Homestead Act of 1898, there had been no internal infrastructure to support the stampeders’ access to the klondike gold fields.
The Yukon itself, the vast, thinly populated expanse of land located above the 60th parallel in northwestern Canada which shares its border with Alaska and accurately earns its self-proclaimed slogan of “larger than life,” is a topographically diverse, but ruggedly insurmountable territory of barren, treeless plains, boreal forests, rugged mountains, glaciers, and mirror-reflective lakes and rivers inhabited by Canada’s First Nations people and abundant wildlife.
Because of its high latitude, it experiences more than 20 hours of daylight in the summer, but fewer than five in the winter, replaced, instead, by the northern lights known as the “aurora borealis.” Aside from the major “cities,” most communities are only accessible by floatplane or dogsled.
The Yukon’s history is, in essence, that of the Gold Rush, and traces its path to five significant locations in both the United States and Canada.
The first of these, Seattle, Washington, had served as the gateway to the Yukon. Advertised as the “outfitter of the gold fields,” it sold supplies and gear stocked ten feet deep on storefront boardwalks, grossing $25 million in sales by early-1898, and was the launching point for the all-water route through the Gulf of Alaska to St. Michael, and then down the Yukon River to Dawson City. Despite the high fares, which few could afford, all passages had been sold out.
Dyea and its Chilkoot Trail, the second location, had provided a slower, more treacherous, alternate route, via the 33-mile Chilkoot trail which linked tidewater Alaska with the Canadian headwaters of the Yukon River.
Skagway, Alaska, the third location, quickly replaced Dyea as the “Gateway to the Klondike” because of its more navigable White Pass route which, although ten miles longer than that of the Chilkoot Trail, had entailed a 600-foot-lower climb. Located at the northern tip of Alaska’s Inside Passage, Skagway, now a major port-of-call on Alaska cruise itineraries, became the first incorporated city in Alaska in 1900 with a 3,117-strong population, the first non-native of whom had been Captain William Moore, who discovered the White Pass route into interior Canada.
Metemorphosed from a cleared, tent-dotted field to a boardwalk-lined town sporting wooden stores, dance halls, gambling houses, and some 80 saloons in the four-month period between August and December 1897 as a result of stampeders piling off of steamships in its port, it quickly swelled to a city of 20,000, its temporary inhabitants destined for the overland White Pass Trail and the Klondike gold fields themselves.
At Bennett Lake, the fourth location, 30,000 stampeders awaited the spring thaw, constructing 7,124 boats from whipsawn green lumber and launching their flotilla on May 29, 1898, fighting the Whitehorse rapids before following the Yukon River to Dawson City.
Dawson City itself, the fifth location, had been the actual site of the first gold flake discovery and had begun as a small island between the Yukon and Klondike Rivers hitherto only occupied by the Han First Nations people, but exploded into Canada’s largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Vancouver with up to 40,000 gold seekers covering a ten-mile area along the river banks. Thirty cords of firewood were used to burn shafts through the permafrost to the mines themselves.
The White Pass trail in Skagway, quickly destroyed because of overuse, screamed of the need for a rail line replacement. Seeking to capitalize on the demand for safe, fast, and reliable transportation from its port to the Yukon, Thomas Tancrede, a London investor representative, and Michael J. Henry, a railroad contractor, had both proposed such a line and, after a chance, overnight meeting, sketched initial plans for the route.
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Company, established in April of 1898, had been comprised of three enterprises: the Pacific and Arctic Railway and Navigation Company, responsible for the Skagway-White Pass rail section; the British Columbia Yukon Railway, whose division linked the US-Canada border at White Pass with the provincial border between British Columbia and the Yukon Territory; and the British Yukon Railway, whose track ran from the Yukon Territory border to Whitehorse.
The railroad’s four principle directors included Samuel H. Graves, President; E. C. Hawkens, Chief Engineer; John Hislop, Assistant Engineer; and Michael J. Henry himself, Contractor.
Construction of the $10 million, three-foot-wide, narrow gauge rail, which permitted sharper curves than the standard gauge would have and entailed engineering obstacles of hitherto unimaginable proportions, commenced on May 28, 1898, and involved a ten-foot-wide road bed, an almost 3,000-foot elevation gain over a 20-mile stretch, cliff-laid track, 16-degree turns, tunnels, bridges, bitter cold and snow, and 450 tons of explosives.
Built in three sections, from Skagway to White Pass, White Pass to Carcross, and Carcross to Whitehorse, the first of these proved the most difficult, although its first seven miles of track had actually been completed in only two months. On July 21, 1898, the day after the first locomtove had been delivered, an excursion train for invited dignitaries operated for the first time, pulling three flat-bed cars with wooden benches. Two months later, in September, the prepared track grade stretched 17 miles from Skagway, but a gold discovery in Atlin enticed a majority of the laborers away, complete with the vitally-needed picks and shovels for the project. At Mile 18.7, the deep, v-shaped, 215-foot-high canyon could only be connected with a 400-foot steel cantilever bridge built up of three-hinged arches.
The first train to operate to White Pass did so nine months after construction had begun, on February 20, 1899.
Another significant milestone took place still five months later, on June 6, when the tracks had reached Bennett at Mile 40.6, providing the first intermodal transportation connection with the smaller steamers which navigated the lakes and rivers through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids. Some 20 miles later, the track reached Lewis Lake.
With the last spike driven at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, on June 8, 1900, the second of the three sections had been completed, permitting rail travel to Carcross, British Columbia, for the first time. This became the only overland route between the two cities until the South Klondike Highway had been constructed 78 years later.
With installation of the rails across the bridge in Carcross on July 29, 1900, and the driving of the last spike at 17:30 local time, the second of the three sections had been finished, thus completing the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, whose track extended 110 miles from the United States to Canada, of which 20.4 miles lay in Alaska, 32.3 miles ran through British Columbia, and 58.1 miles stretched through the Yukon Territory.
Skagway quickly became the “Gateway to the Klondike” and White Pass became the “Gateway to the Yukon.”
2. In Service
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad not only proved an engineering feat, but a sound commercial one with numerous, evolving purposes. Initially transporting mining equipment, materials, supplies, and tools on northbound runs, it carried copper ore destined for Washington smelters on return journeys in 1908, the commodity later replaced by silver lead in 1923, which it continued to carry until 1970. In fact, freight constituted an ever-increasing proportion of its revenue base until 1918, when the Depression had exerted its effects, and then re-increased, reaching 21,450 annual tons by 1940.
Perhaps the greatest increase in demand occurred in August of 1942 when the US Army commenced construction of the Alcan Highway, taking the daily tonnage from 200 to 2,000, and on October 1 of that year, the railroad had been altogether leased to the US Army’s 770th Railway Operating Battalion, which re-equipped it with much-needed personnel, locomotives, and rolling stock. Indeed, its all-time highest volume, as a result of the temporary transfer, totaled 34 daily train operations collectively carrying more than 2,000 tons of cargo per day-or 47,506 tons per month.
Demand had also been created by the crude oil refinery in Whitehorse and the pipeline connecting it with Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories.
Modernizing its increasingly outdated equipment after the war, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad acquired new locomotives and rolling stock, replacing its traditional steam engines with diesel-electric propulsion in 1954. The very last steam operation occurred ten years later, in 1964.
In 1955 it operated the world’s first integrated, intermodal container service from Vancouver to Whitehorse when the first purposefully-designed container ship, the Clifford J. Rogers, transferred cargo at the Port of Skagway to the railroad’s flatbed cars for ultimate transfer to semi-trucks using the Alaska Highway.
In order to cater to the transportation demands of the lead-zinc open-pit mine operation in the Yukon’s Anvil Range, the railroad embarked on a significant modernization program in 1969, acquiring heavier, higher-capacity locomotives, 50-ton flatbed cars, and ore containers; rebuilding bridges and tunnels; constructing a warehouse in Skagway; and dredging a deep-sea fishing wharf.
Passenger transport had equally factored into its revenue base, with 16,000 having been carried as far back as 1901. During the 1970s, it carried passengers during the day and ore concentrates at night, accommodated in trains 80 to 100 cars long.
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad had been the principle transportation means to and within northern British Columbia and the Yukon for 84 years, from its 1898 construction to 1982 when the Anvil Mine had closed and obviated its need. Because the remaining demand had been insufficient to sustain profitable services, it ceased operations at that time, ending a long history whose match had been lit by the Gold Rush of 1898.
But an invisible flame continued to flicker in the ensuing years of darkness. Gradually increasing demand, spurred by cruise ship arrivals in Skagway, sparked the railroad’s 1988 seasonal, passenger-only service re-inauguration, its centennial year, resulting in an annual passenger count of 39,000. Both the increasing number of ship operations, and their increasing size, took the annual passenger total to over 100,000 in 1991 and 290,000 in 1998, all within a short, five-month season. By 2006, it carried more than 430,000 yearly passengers.
As the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Yukon” and “Railway built of gold,” the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad had been designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994, one of only 36 world designs, including the Panama Canal, to do so, because of the obstacles surmounted during its construction, and today it is the only international narrow-gauge railroad still operating in North America.
Its current fleet consists of two steam engines, a restored 1947 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mokado designated Engine Number 73 and a 1907 Baldwin 2-8-0 originally built for the railroad and designated Engine Number 69; 20 diesel-electric locomotives, comprised of 1950 General Electric and 1960 ALCO types; and 80 restored and replica passenger coaches, the oldest of which dates back to 1883.
3. To White Pass Summit
The original White Pass Depot, a wooden, dual-floor train station facing Broadway where the tracks had originally been located, had been constructed in 1899 and had been adjoined to the Railroad Administration Building the following year. Upon its closure in 1969, at which time it had been taken over by the National Park Service, it erected a new, single-story structure on Second and Spring Streets and, with increasing passenger numbers, added a second floor in 1997.
Following the street-embedded, narrow-gauge tracks at 1245 past the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Maintenance and Restoration Facility, my 12-car train, pulled by three diesel-electric locomotives, paralleled the shallow, rock-embedded Skagway River beneath the deep green, spruce-carpeted mountains of Tongass National Forest, commencing its slow ascent on the 3.9-percent grade of track.
The six-track coach yard just beyond the maintenance facility had been used for rolling stock overnight storage, servicing, and cleaning.
Curving to the right at Mile 5.8, the train, moving through 402 feet, crossed the east fork of the Skagway River, near the Denver Glacier Trail, which had been marked by the red White Pass and Yukon Route railroad caboose available for nightly rental from the US Forest Service.
Re-curving to the left at Mile 6.9, the train passed Rocky Point, affording dramatic views of Mt. Harding and its glacier-carved canyon. Skagway and its now-tiny cruise ship armada had been reduced to miniature proportions, dwarfed by the treeless, snow-capped mountains towering above them.
Clifton Station, at a 638-foot elevation with a 792-foot-long side track, had formerly served as a section house staffed by foremen, sectionmen, and cooks, but had been removed in the 1960s after track and roadbed improvements had eliminated its need. Its name had emanated from the granite ledge hanging over it.
Bridal Veil Falls, at Mile 11.5, descended 6,000 feet in a series of curved steps, a “humans” of white, foamy water “skipping” down the dark green pine path from their Mt. Cleveland and Mt. Clifford glacier parents. The cloud quilt tore open to reveal patches of blue sky.
The thin, barely visible silhouette of the 1230 Fraser train, equally pulled by three yellow and green diesel-electric engines, could be seen hugging the mountain ahead and at a higher elevation.
The tracks arced into a 90-degree right turn again. At Henry Station, which had been named after a White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad contractor, cargo had been transported down a steep tramway to packhorses stationed at the mostly tent-comprised White Pass City in the valley below for final delivery to the summit.
Shortly before reaching 1,871-foot Glacier Station at Mile 14.0, the tracks doubled, and then briefly tripled. The station itself had served as home to railroad section crew who had maintained the rail bed and replenished steam engines with water during their uphill climbs.
The wider roadbed of Box Canyon catered to the prevalent spring snow slides which carried streams of rock, gravel, and vegetation with them.
Crossing over Glacier Station Bridge, the train, whose 12-unit, vintage-car chain now snaked behind it, surmounted the deep, dark green mountain, covered with western hemlock and shore pine, as evidenced through the left coach windows. It yielded to the gray, lightly snow-covered Mine Mountain ahead, its jagged peaks partially obscured by the soft touch of marshmallow cloud puffs resting atop it. A cable car had once spanned the canyon to the silver mine’s portal on the other side.
The two parallel mountains, descending into the gulch 1,000 feet below, formed a velvet green “v” whose base had been cut by the now-minuscule “slice” of light blue river.
Traversing the wooden trestle at Mile 16, the train plunged into the 250-foot-long Tunnel Mountain, the chasm of Glacier Gorge disappearing into it as the horizontal light beams cast on its granite walls flickered into progressive darkness at its center, leaving a dead, perceptionless, breath-inhibiting void.
Inspiration Point, at Mile 17.0 and 2,400-foot elevation, once again afforded breathtaking views of Mt. Harding and the Chilkat Range, while the train passed the branch track leading to the no-longer used cantilever bridge, which had been constructed in 1901 and had constituted the world’s tallest such design at the time.
Swallowed again by the unpenetrable, sense-defying blackness of the 675-foot tunnel at Mile 18.8, the three-locomotive, 12-coach chain bored through the mountain, a path obviated by the circumventing suspension bridge prior to 1969, at which time it had closed.
The multiple-layer valley, draped in deep green, stretched out below on the left side.
Reducing speed to a crawl and threading its way through craggy rock walls, which appeared to scrap against the outside coach windows, the train inched past the sub-arctic pine toward the 2,865-foot White Pass Summit, named after Canadian Minister of the Interior Thomas White in 1887 and located on the US-Canada border, the narrow-gauge tracks multiplying into three branches. The locomotive gently griped its brakes and the 15-unit chain ceased motion in the cold, stark, thin air.
The silence, a sharp contrast to the steady buzz at its Skagway origin, almost screamed of the closed history chapter which had sparked the railroad’s engineering feat, of the gold seekers who had once passed this way, but were no longer existent. It had been at the White Pass Summit where mounted police had cleared the thousands of stampeders, overburdened with their year’s worth of supplies and gear needed for survival in the frigid north, to enter Canada and continue their expedition to the gold fields of the Klondike, in hopes of attaining wealth. Of the some 40,000 who had made the journey, only ten percent had actually discovered gold and of that, only a few hundred had actually fulfilled their dreams of becoming “rich.”
For the others, the journey itself, and not the destination, had proven the ultimate value of the adventure. Like life, whose ultimate “purpose” remains elusive, it sometimes seems that the path followed to a destination offers a better reward than the destination itself. Yet, without anticipation of destination or purpose, it is unlikely that the trip would be undertaken at all. If anything, the gold rush had provided a life lesson.
Disconnecting and following the 1,296-foot-long spur line, the three locomotives reattached themselves to the (now) front of the train, pulling it over the White Pass Summit and commencing its gradual, path-retracing descent down the mountain toward Skagway. During the return journey, I would think about that lesson…
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