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White Pass Yukon Narrow Gauge Railway


A trip from White Pass down to Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon narrowgauge railway line.

2 comments - What do you think?  Posted by - October 11, 2012 at 10:36 pm

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White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad – Steam Engine #73.MP4


In the video, you can see the steam Engine No. 73, a 2-8-2 Mikado type Baldwin Locomotive built in 1947, getting prepped to pull cars up the mountain. The steam locomotive was custom built for White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Before 73 comes into view, you can also see the WP&YR’s first engine, #52 (originally #2). A 2-6-0 was built by Brooks Locomotive Works in 1881 for the Utah & Northern Railroad; sold in 1890 to Columbia & Puget Sound; and sold again in 1898 to the WP&YR.

Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by - July 30, 2012 at 10:37 pm

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Yukon & White Pass steam train


A double-header pushing the steam rotary plow out of Skagway to clear the line over White Pass, followed by a trip up the line.

Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by - March 31, 2011 at 11:09 pm

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Yukon: Essence of the Gold Rush

1. Yukon

                The Yukon, the vast, rugged, 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, serenely beautiful, and intoxicatingly attractive 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.  Sparked by the August 16, 1896 discovery of a gold nugget in northwestern Canada at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, it began when some 100,000, seeking wealth and adventure, set off on what had later been designated the Klondike Gold Rush Trail between 1897 and 1898.  The event, which produced an instantaneous population boom and ultimately shaped the territory, 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.  The trail, quickly destroyed because of overuse, had ultimately been replaced by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad whose construction, financed by British investors, had commenced in May of 1898 and had extended to the White Pass Summit by February of 1899, Bennett Lake by July of 1899, and Whitehorse by July of the following year.  Skagway itself had been metamorphosed from a cleared, tent-dotted field to boardwalk-lined streets sporting wooden buildings with 80 saloons in the four-month period between August and December 1897.

                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 site of the first gold nugget 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.  Of the 4,000 who actually discovered gold, only a few hundred ultimately emerged “rich.” 

2. Whitehorse 

                Whitehorse, the Yukon’s wilderness capital on the banks of the Yukon River with a population of 23,000, had itself been shaped by the gold rush and the transportation means which developed to facilitate it.  Named for the rapids on the Yukon River, which resembled the flowing manes of charging white horses, the area had first served as a fishing encampment of the Kwanlin Dun First Nations people.  In 1987, the tent-comprised Canyon City served as the operational base of a horse-drawn tramway which, for a fee, carried people and goods, particularly gold rushers, round the treacherous White Horse Rapids on log rails.

                Three years later, in 1900, the tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad reached the city, today the only international narrow gauge railroad still operating in North America, and passengers transferred to the extensive riverboat service, which completed the journey to Dawson City by the Yukon River.

                In 1942, the US Army completed the 1,534-mile Alaska Highway in a record eight months, 23 days, and Whitehorse had been incorporated as a city in 1950.  Three years later, it replaced Dawson as the capital of the Yukon.

                Whitehorse itself is accessible by multiple travel modes.  The paved Alaska, Haines, and Klondike Highways provide road access within the territory and to Alaska, while the gravel Dempster Highway connects Dawson City with Inuvik above the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories.  The Alaska Marine Highway and multiple, daily cruise ships serve Skagway and Haines, Alaska, during the summer season.  The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad connects Skagway with Fraser and Bennett Lake, British Columbia, with service soon to be extended to Whitehorse.  And the Whitehorse airport offers daily service, via Air North, Air Canada Jazz, First Air, and Condor, to Yellowknife, Dawson, Fairbanks, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Frankfurt, Germany.  Floatplanes provide remote community access.

                The story of Whitehorse can be traced by its many diverse sights and attractions.

                The MacBride Museum, for instance, toted as “Yukon’s first museum” and housed in a log structure with a sod roof, had been established in 1951 by historian Bill MacBride in order to explore the Yukon’s history.  It features stuffed wildlife in its upper gallery; “Rivers of Gold,” an exhibit depicting Yukon prospecting and placer mining since 1883, and Yukon’s First Nations people, in its lower gallery; and early copper mining equipment, blacksmithing, and Sam McGee’s original, 1899 cabin in one of two outside exhibition areas.  The other contains overland stages used by the White Pass and Yukon Route between Whitehorse and Dawson, an 1895 Northwest Mounted Police Patrol cabin, and Engine number 51, built in 1881 and used on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad seven years later in 1898.

                The Old Log Church Museum, an Anglican cathedral built in 1900, is one of the oldest buildings in Whitehorse and tells the story of the early Yukon missionaries, including that of the priest who survived a winter expedition by eating his own boots for sustenance.

                Perhaps the most popular sight, and one which serves as the very city symbol, is the S. S. Klondike, a National Historical Site of Canada.  The largest of the 250 sternwheelers to have plied the Yukon River at 64 meters long and 12.5 meters wide, it had been constructed in 1920 by the British Yukon Navigation Company, a subsidiary of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, in the city of Whitehorse itself, and had been an integral part of the inland water transportation system which connected Whitehorse with the remainder of the territory and hence served as the principle element of its own growth.

                The design, which traced its lineage as far back as 1866 when the first such steam-powered riverboat reached Selkirk, the S. S. Klondike I, with a 1,362.5-ton gross weight and powered by two 525-hp compound jet-condenser engines, had featured a revolutionary hull which enabled it to offer 50 percent more cargo volume than previous configurations without sacrificing shallow draft instability, enabling it to accommodate more than 300-ton loads for the first time, along with 75 first and second class passengers.  Of its three decks, the first, or main, deck housed the engines, boilers, and cargo; the second the lounge, communications office, dining room, galley, and sun deck; and the third the bridge and the crew quarters.

                Succeeded by the dimensionally identical Klondike II after the initial vessel ran aground in 1936, itself completing the 460-mile downstream run from Whitehorse to Dawson in 36 hours with only one or two wood-replenishing stops, it had been operated as a cargo boat between 1937 and 1952 and had ultimately been converted into a small cruise ship for service until 1955.

                The current dry-docked boat appears in its 1930 guise.

                The Whitehorse Train Depot, which replaced the originally constructed, but later fire- consumed structure, reflects the typical western Canadian architecture of the early 20th century, although alterations had been made during World War II and during the Alaska Highway project.  After scheduled railway service had been discontinued in 1982, the Yukon government had purchased the building and restored it, its passenger waiting room now reflecting its 1950s heritage.

                The Whitehorse Waterfront trolley, using the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad tracks and paralleling the Yukon River with stops at Rotary Peace Park, the Tourist Information Center, the White Pass Train Depot, Wood Street, Shipyard’s Park and Kishwoot Station, and Spook Creek, provides an excellent introduction to the city, using a single trolley car, number 531, for its hourly round-trip service.

                The car itself, in its original yellow color scheme, had been partially built by the J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia in 1925 for the Lisbon Electric Company which subsequently assembled the kit in its Santo Amaro shop.  Of the 202 cars constructed there, 24 had been of the car 531 type.

                Trolley 531 had operated in Lisbon until 1976, at which time it had been acquired for the Lake Superior Museum of Transportation in Duluth, Minnesota, where it remained until the Yukon government had purchased it in 1999.  Flatbed truck transport, through bitter cold and ice, enabled it to reach the White Pass and Yukon Route engine restoration shed in Whitehorse on January 6, 2000.

                The double-ended tram car, with controls at either end, has two 25-hp General Electric motors and two k.3 controllers, and had been intended to operate off of overhead electrical lines with a power pole, but the lack of such facilities in Whitehorse necessitated the temporary provision of a trailer-installed electrical generator.  The present 600-volt operation replaces its originally intended 550-volt current, and the installation of railroad wheels permits it to run on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad’s 36-inch tracks, although it had been designed, with its original trolley wheel base, to utilize the narrower, 34.5-inch rail width.

                Because of the equally standard-gauge body, it permits four-abreast, two-two, seating, sporting a varnished hardwood oak, mahogany, and cherry interior with original signs still in Portuguese.

                The Whitehorse Rapids Fish Ladder and Hatchery, located five minutes out of town, had resulted from the late-1950s construction of the Whitehorse Rapids Hydroelectric Facility by the Northern Canada Power Commission.  The Alaska and Klondike Highways, linking many communities and obviating the need for the then-vital sternwheeler river transportation system, ultimately led to the transfer of the Yukon’s capital from Dawson to Whitehorse, and its population expansion could no longer be supported by the downtown diesel generator electricity method.  Construction of the greater-capacity hydroelectric dam, commencing in 1956, formed Schwatka Lake, and this produced the city’s first electricity two years later, in 1958.

                Although the facility improved the quality of life for the human population, it proved the detriment to the salmon species in the river.  Salmon had traveled up the Yukon River to spawn for thousands of years, laying their eggs in gravel which, after the winter gestation period, hatched into alevins in early-spring, and fed and developed in the cold, clear waters for up to two years.  Swimming out to the ocean, they returned several years later to the exact location of their births to lay their own eggs and begin the process anew.

                In order to circumvent the new hydroelectric dam and permit them to continue their life cycles, the world’s longest wooden fish ladder, at 366 meters, had been built in 1959.  Progressively rising in steps by 15 meters from the Yukon River to Schwatka Lake, it enables salmon to safely pass round the dam and continue their migration process.

                A two-hour boat cruise on Schwatka Lake by the appropriately-named m/v Schwatka, a 28-ton, dual-decked, 40-passenger boat, provides an excellent introduction to Whitehorse’s wilderness side and sails through Miles Canyon, the turbulent “Devil’s Punchbowl,” and the Yukon River itself.

                Several interesting attractions are located along the Alaska Highway, up Two Mile Hill Road.

                The Copperbelt Mining Railway and Museum, the first of these, provides a 1.8-kilometer figure-eight loop from its red McIntyre Station building through the skinny spruce forest, using an abandoned spur line of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad located in the historic Whitehorse Copper Belt mining district.  Its two engines, 10- and 20-hp Loke diesels, were manufactured by the Jenacher Werks in Austria in 1969 and 1967, respectively.

                The Yukon Transportation Museum depicts the territory’s Gold Rush transportation heritage, displaying unusual travel modes associated with the north, from the snowshoe to the dogsled to the airplane.  Exhibits include a Canadian Pacific DC-3 mounted on an outside pedestal; a full-size riverboat, the “Neecheah,” and a steam locomotive.  Inside exhibits include a gasoline-powered Casey car, which transported workers on the rails; a passenger car used by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad; a White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad model train layout; a Ryan B-1 Bougham designated “Queen of the Yukon,” a sister ship to Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” which served as the first commercial airplane to have operated in the Yukon after its purchase from the San Diego factory by Yukon Airways and Exploration, Ltd., in 1927 for $10,200.00; dog sleds; a 1927 Chevrolet convertible; a five-cylinder Kinner engine; a Lycoming R-680 engine; a 1965 International Travelall ambulance; a welded steel frame from a Fairchild FC-2W2; a Smith DGA-1 “Miniplane” homebuild; a bus from the B.Y.N. Bus Lines; military vehicles, including a seven-passenger Dodge Carryall used by the US Army’s Northwest Service Command during construction of the Alcan Highway; and a log rail tramway which used parallel logs as “tracks.”

                The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center examines Beringia, a sub-continent of the last Ice Age which had been located in the Bering Strait and had encompassed Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon.  Although the remainder of Canada had laid under massive ice sheets, Beringia itself had been untouched by glaciers because of the 125-meter reduction in sea levels, producing tundra whose tough, dry grasses had supported a wide range of herbivores and carnivores.

                The woolly mammoth, among them, had been the predecessor to the modern Asiatic elephant and the museum sports a full-size cast of the largest example ever recovered.  The short-faced bear, which had been one foot taller than today’s grizzly counterpart, had been the largest, most powerful land carnivore in North America during the last Ice Age.  The museum also features a reconstruction of the 24,000-year-old Bluefish Cave archaeological site.

                The earliest human inhabitants, following bison and mammoth herds 24,000 years ago, had migrated from western Beringia to current Canada. 

3. Kluane National Park               

                One of four contiguous national and provincial parks, inclusive of the Yukon’s 21,980 square-kilometer Kluane National Park, Alaska’s 52,600 square-kilometer Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska’s 13,360 square-kilometer Glacier Bay National Park, and British Columbia’s 9,580 square-kilometer Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, Kluane National Park itself is topographically diverse, encompassing massive mountains, valleys, lakes, boreal forests, valley glaciers, and ice fields.  Of the two mountain ranges—the Kluane and Icefield—the latter sports Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, at 19,545 feet.  The largest non-polar ice field in the world, a remnant of the last Ice Age, is also located here.

                Of the two types of populations—human and animal—the former includes the Southern Tutchone people, who had previously lived a nomadic lifestyle, but continue to practice a culture which closely revolves round the natural world, and the latter includes grizzly bears, lynx, mountain goats, moose, wolves, black bears, caribou, coyotes, 180 species of birds, and the world’s largest concentration of dall sheep.

                Haines Junction, which is located two hours from Whitehorse via the Alaska Highway and serves as the national park’s base, is a year-round, full-service village whose modern history began in 1942 with the completion of the Alaska Highway itself at Milepost 1016.  A year later, a branch road, over the Chilkat Pass, connected it with Haines, Alaska, and Kluane National Park had been designated a preserve in 1972.

                Its few sights, always flanked by the breathtaking, purple-hued St. Elias Mountains, include the Village Monument, a local wildlife sculpture; the eight-sided log St. Christopher’’s Anglican Church; and the Our Lady of the Way Catholic Church, which had been constructed in 1954 from an old army Quonset hut remaining from the Alaska Highway project.

                The ubiquitous slender, dark green spruce, encountered during my own tour of the national park, lined either side of the deserted Haines Highway, the vertical ridges of the St. Elias Mountains of Kluane National Park on the right side hues of purple, chocolate brown, and velvet-green at their bases.  The silver surface of Kathleen Lake reflected between them.

                Kluane National Park and the adjacent Wrangell-St. Elias National monument across the border in the United States had been jointly nominated to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.  Together, the properties present an unbroken, pristine natural system, with a rich variety of vegetation, patterns, and ecosystems.

                The first stop of my own drive revealed a pebble beach, which, acting like a threshold, led toward the emerald green water of Kathleen Lake, bracketed on either side by tall, silent, fragrant spruce, the water itself interfacing with the green-carpeted mountain on the far side in seamless transition, taking the eye up to the brown, vegetationless top, from which a slender “s” of snow still snaked, a remainder of the long winter and short summer “pause” between the next frigid cycle.  Since it had been August, that beginning had not been very far way in these northern latitudes.

                The Kokanee salmon, living in the fresh water lake for the first three years of its life, swims the short distance to Sockeye Lake in the fourth year, at which time it dies.  In the 1700s, the Lowell Glacier had surged across the Alaska River, blocking its drainage into the Pacific Ocean and thus creating an enormous lake.  When the dam suddenly burst in 1856, the waters had been released in torrential floods, draining the basin.

                Kluane National Park sports both glaciers of ice and rock, the latter formed in cold, alpine environments on mountain slopes.  During the last 8,000 years, brittle bedrock shattered into fragments by the freezing and thawing action of the winter-summer cycle.  Lubricated by meltwater and riding a core of glacial ice, a continually accumulating mass of rock slowly ground its way down the mountainside, forming rock glaciers.

                The huge, deep blue of Dezadeash Lake, encountered at another stop, had been surrounded by considerably-distanced mountains, whose soft-curved, inverted bowl-like peaks had been reduced to gray and green, almost indistinguishable silhouettes in the early-afternoon beneath the high, unobstructed, gleaming sun.  The sky had been a flawless blue.

                Klukshu Village, dotted with tiny log cabins and a gift shop, had been an important place for many Champagne and Aishihik families, particularly during salmon-spawning season between June and September when king, sockeye, and coho salmon migrate up the river. 

4. Conclusion

                 The Yukon, with its capital city of Whitehorse and wilderness Kluane National Park, indeed provides an interesting journey through its Gold Rush legacy and the transportation means which had developed to facilitate it.

Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by - April 26, 2010 at 3:48 am

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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-equiped 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 “human” of white, foamy water “skipping” down the dark green pine path from its 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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