Skagway, Alaska -The White Pass & Yukon Route was built to take miners and supplies to the newly discovered Klondike gold fields. That was over a century ago, but now the gold rush of Alaska cruise ships is bringing far more business to this narrow gauge railroad than the original gold rush ever did.
Queen of the fleet: Mikado number 73, built by Baldwin in 1947, was the last new steam locomotive acquired by the WP&YR and the last new narrow gauge steam engine built for US use.
Since the war, vintage Alco and GE diesels have been the main power of the White Pass & Yukon Route. The cruise ship in the background is tied up at Skagway's Broadway Dock.
Gold was discovered in 1896 along the Klondike River of the Yukon Territory, but, due to the extreme remoteness, it took quite a while for news to reach civilization: it wasn't until July of 1897 that the first successful prospectors arrived in Seattle telling their stories of great riches waiting to be scooped up.
I arrived in Skagway by ship as did so many adventurers on their quests after riches. My ship was one of four large, cruise ships that arrived that day. The Diamond Princess and the Golden Princess are moored along Skagway's Railroad Dock.
These were depression times, especially in the mining industry. The United States Government had committed to purchase large quantities of silver at a fixed, 16 to 1 ratio compared to gold. Silver mining boomed, but eventually the US treasury gold supply was nearly depleted. In 1893 the law was repealed. Mines closed - most never to reopen. Suppliers failed, railroads failed, the steel industry was in serious trouble. Soon the US sank into the worst depression it had ever known.
The station was pretty quiet: most passengers board directly from their ships.
Many of the preserved, historical buildings of Skagway are operated by the US National Park Service as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Site. In earlier years tracks ran down the middle of Broadway (shown here).
Silver had lost its luster, but not gold. Soon hordes of intrepid gold seekers were bound for the Klondike. Most of them took steamers from Seattle then packed their goods over one of two tortuous routes: the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail starting from Dyea or the longer but slightly easier White Horse Trail starting at Skagway. To make things worse, these hardy adventurers often traveled in winter. Of course they were in a hurry to be among the first, but also it was easier to move supplies over snow and ice than mud and sharp rocks, and plenty of survival goods had to be packed by every traveler: Mounties required each person entering Canada to have at least one ton of supplies - the amount they judged necessary for one person to survive for a year.
Engines 109 and 110 pull the first of their three trains for the day up the hill to White Pass. I rode these same Alco/Montreal units on their next trip.
By November of 1897 George Brackett began to do something about the hardships of the White Pass Trail. He built a wagon road part way up the pass, but because the toll was set quite high, many travelers ignored the toll gates. The Brackett Road was a financial failure.
Backing train down to the second ship along Skagway's Railroad Dock.
Construction of a three foot gauge railroad from Skagway, Alaska began in 1898. By that time the construction of a narrow gauge railway was unusual. Narrow gauge (any less than the "standard gauge" of four-feet eight and one-half inches between the rails) was a bit of a fad in the railway business. It was very popular for new construction starting about 1872 and then rapidly declined over the next twenty-five years. Basically the narrow gauge era was already a thing of the past when the White Pass selected it, but the advantages of cheaper and quicker construction for the narrower, lighter tracks which allowed tighter curves and less earth moving were just as compelling here as they had been in Wales and in Colorado years before.
President Gary Danielson of the White Pass climbs down from the cab of locomotive 109 while engineer Steve Caulfield looks on.
The last spike was driven and the White Pass was opened for business in 1900 extending for 110 miles to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. But by that time, the gold rush was nearly over. Business settled to a slower pace of haling mine concentrates and supplies.
A grand procession of four separate trains proceeded out of town, each within sight of the one ahead. Our ascent to White Pass began almost immediately and grew ever steeper: much of the way to the summit is built on a 3.9% grade.
Engine 73 led the fourth train as far as the engine house. The empty coach yard and the engine house lead are shown to the right.
Business really boomed during World War II as the US government built the new Alaska Highway - considered a high wartime priority. The railway was taken over and operated by the US Army; additional equipment was requisitioned from Colorado and elsewhere. As many as thirty trains were operated per day delivering materials for the new road.
At Rocky Point, there is a sharp curve to the right and a fine view looking back over the tree tops to Skagway, the Lynn Canal and Mt. Harding. Four cruise ships could be seen at their docks.
After the war, since there was still no highway between Skagway and Whitehorse, business continued. There was no interchange with any other railroad; therefore the narrow gauge was not a problem as it had been for other railroads. The White Pass became an innovator in container service, operated docks, ships and even airplanes. But by 1982 a highway finally was built. Business declined and the railway was shut down. It was truly the end of an era: the White Pass was the last narrow gauge freight railway operating in the United States.
The first train was experiencing wheel slip on one of the GEs, and we had plenty of time to photograph it as the crew resolved the problem.
Over the years, probably the most photographed spot along the White Pass is the Tunnel Mountain tunnel and trestle.
The old, steel, cantilever bridge didn't look like it could ever have supported all those trains. It was bypassed by a new tunnel in 1969, but it is still in place.
That looked like the end of the line for the narrow gauge, but, fortunately the Alaskan cruise business was growing quickly at about that time. Optimistically the White Pass reopened in 1988 and carried 35,000 passengers its first year of renewed service.
White Pass summit and the Canadian border.
For most trains, White Pass is the turning point for the ride back to Skagway. Our brakeman cut off the engine so that it could run around the passenger cars and recoupled to them at the other end. He pointed out that, "you have the best seat in the house." I could only agree. Then we backed out of the siding and pulled forward past the following train which by then had pulled into the siding for us to pass and on back to Skagway.
From the cab of the 110 we faced the last train.
Since reopening for the tourist trade the White Pass & Yukon Route has become the busiest tourist railway in North America operating as many as 14 passenger trains a day. In 2006 a record of 431,249 passengers were carried; and another new record is already anticipated for 2007.
For the White Pass line, the gold rush is finally here. The railroad itself is a triumph of nineteenth century perseverance and engineering - a fact recognized in 1994 when the line was designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. For passengers like me it is a bonanza of fascinating history and always impressive mountain scenery.
After two runs up the hill and switching duties at Skagway, it is the end of a busy day for engineer Steve Caulfield.