White Pass and Yukon Route railway, Skagway, Alaska
By Don Woodwell
It was on the Yukon River at Dawson (Yukon Territory)
that gold was found in the 1890's. When the first loads of gold
were brought into Seattle in 1897, the gold rush stampede began.
People from all over the U.S. flooded into Alaska seeking riches.
For most seekers, however, the arduous 20-mile climb from Skagway
at sea level up to the White Pass summit, and another 20 miles
to Bennett at the head of the water route to the Klondike, was
enough to discourage even the strongest wills. Since Dawson is
another 550 miles from Bennett via a water route across Bennett
Lake and down the Yukon River, miners still faced a rugged and
Captain William Moore, Skagway founder and visionary, predicted
this rush for riches. Captain Moore surveyed a new route through
the White Pass that was deemed easier and less steep than the
Chilkoot Pass. Finding an easier way over the steep and treacherous
coastal mountains was of great importance to the miners who walked
with their equipment on their backs or prodded packhorses up the
Skagway, situated at the top of the inside passage at the end
of a 1,000 mile steamship journey from Seattle, was the perfect
starting point for prospectors heading to the Klondike gold fields.
Almost 20,000 prospectors and gold miners passed through Skagway
over the White Pass summit to the town of Bennett. In order to
enter Canada, Customs agents required that each miner carry at
least a ton of supplies, enough for one year. This meant that
miners often took 20 to 30 trips up and down White Pass mountain
trails in order to get 2,000 pounds over the summit.
Early in 1898, two men came north intent upon solving the transportation
problem over the coastal mountains. One was Sir Thomas Tancred,
a representative of British financiers who sensed a business opportunity.
The other was a Canadian railway contractor named Michael Heney.
Both Tancred and Heney surveyed the mountain route. Tancred concluded
that it was impossible to build a railroad over the rugged coastal
mountains to the White Pass, but Haney was convinced otherwise.
By chance Haney and Tancred met one night in a Skagway hotel bar.
They talked through the night and by dawn the railroad project
was no longer a dream but reality. Tancred and his financiers
raised $10 million, and Haney built the railroad.
Organized April 18th, 1898, the White Pass and Yukon Route received
its first shipment of supplies and construction began on a narrow
gauge railroad. Narrow gauge was chosen for two reasons: the 3
ft. gauge of the track would only require a 10 ft. wide roadbed;
and, narrow gauge track requires a small turning radius. The latter
is extremely important in order to negotiate the tight curves
of the White Pass canyon.
Construction started and within three months the first four miles
of track were completed. The first engine started service over
this limited right of way making the WP&YR the northernmost
railroad in the Western hemisphere. From there on, though, the
going got really tough. From Skagway, at sea level and milepost
0.0, the canyon climbs vertically over half a mile to the summit
at White Pass at milepost 20.4 with grades as steep as 3.9%.
The first crews surveyed the route to the White Pass, and determined
where the track would be laid. Next timber cutters cleared a passage.
As many as 2,000 laborers at any one time hacked and blasted the
route for the rail bed. Carpenters, engineers, and welders constructed
tunnels and enormous bridges amid this grand landscape. It's estimated
that more than 35,000 men worked on the WP&YR construction
at one time or another. Although a very dangerous undertaking,
only 35 workers lost their lives.
Over 450 tons of explosives were used in the construction from
Skagway to the summit. Workers often dangled in harnesses on the
sides of 1,000 ft. high cliffs to drill holes for the explosives
to blast a roadbed out of these sheer granite walls.
Not only the precipitous geography but also the weather was a
major factor in the progress of railroad building. Heavy snows
and temperatures as low as 60O below zero hindered the work. In
the winter, men could work only one hour at a time in cold frigid
In spite of the hardships, on February 20, 1899, they reached
the White Pass summit. Four months later the railroad construction
reached another 20 miles to Bennett (B.C.), the beginning of the
river route to the gold fields at Dawson in the Yukon Territory.
The next challenge for Heney was to construct the railroad all
the way to Whitehorse, 70 miles beyond. It was done in two stages:
Between Bennett and Carcross; and, between Carcross and Whitehorse.
Each segment was constructed with its own track gang. On July
29th, 1900, both track gangs met at Carcross where a ceremonial
gold spike was driven by the company's first president.
More than 3,000 ties imported from Oregon were required for each
mile of track. In addition to blasting through the hard granite
mountainsides, enormous bridges and tunnels had to be built. The
most impressive was a steel cantilever bridge that spanned a wide
canyon. It was the tallest in the world when built. Today it is
still in its place but is no longer used as the trains became
much too heavy during the Yukon mining days.
While locomotives were imported, the rolling stock was crafted
locally. The WP&YR built its own freight cars and passenger
coaches in their own shops saving them the cost of importing them.
The machine shops allowed rail cars to be built with northern
conditions in mind. The harsh environment meant that these railcars
must be sturdy but easily and quickly maintained by local crews.
Some crews built trains, others laid track, and still other teams
of carpenters constructed a network of train depots, water towers,
and coalbunkers. These specialized buildings assured the railroad's
Maintaining the railroad was more challenging than anticipated.
At the White Pass summit, 20-foot snowdrifts were common. Storms
hit suddenly and lasted for days. A steam driven rotary snowplow
mounted on the front of a train and handled by a 10-person crew
ate a tight ten foot wide path through the massive amounts of
dense Coastal snow. In the worst conditions, a second train would
attack the snow from the opposite direction to assist in clearing
By 1901, many of the pick and shovel gold miner’s claims
were consolidated by large corporations who gained control of
ore mining in the Klondike. Concentrated copper ores were shipped
by WP&YR sternwheelers on the river route to the railhead
at Whitehorse and carried by train to tidewater Skagway. At the
port, giant cranes lifted the ore into sea carriers for transport
back to the warmer weather ports along the West Coast of the US
During World War II, the railroad was the chief supplier for
the U.S. Army's Alaska Highway construction project. Steam locomotives
were the primary power until 1954 when the railroad began purchasing
custom built diesel electric locomotives from either Alco (Toronto)
or GE. The railway matured into a fully integrated transportation
company complete with modern container ships and highway tractor-trailers.
In 1982, world metal prices plummeted and major Yukon ore mines
shutdown. The WP&YR also was forced to close that year, but
not for good. Increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers visiting
Skagway with hopes of sampling the Klondike adventure resuscitated
the railroad. It opened in 1988 exclusively as an excursion train,
and 14 years later it is still one of the most breathtaking excursion
trips in North America.
The WP&YR was declared an international civil engineering
landmark in 1994 putting it in the same class as the Panama Canal
and the Eiffel Tower.
The restored depot in Skagway is well stocked with railway memorabilia,
clothes, and model trains. Both Bachman and LGB provide models
of WP&YR locos and rolling stock. You can order their products
on http://www.whitepassrailroad.com/. This excellent site is worth
your time to visit.
I recommend a fine book called "The White Pass and Yukon
Route Railway" written by Graham Wilson and published in
1998 by Wolf Creek Books Inc., Whitehorse. Order this book through
the railway's Web page. The book is a compilation of many pictures
and newspaper articles from the period as well as several narratives
of the railroad's construction and the transportation network
An interesting video called "The Engineers View" is
also available from the WP&YR depot. An engineer handling
the controls of a GE diesel describes the rail journey from Skagway
The railway is a great source of modeling ideas for your own
layout. On30 trains are 1/4 inch to a foot but run on HO track
to approximate the WP&YR's three-foot gauge. While it may
not be possible to model the entire 20 mi. from Skagway to White
Pass, many of the sections including the trestles, the spindly
cantilever bridge, and the tunnels certainly could be included
in our layouts.
For those of you who may be traveling to Skagway via a cruise
ship, airplane, or the Alaska Highway, be sure to ride the WP&YR.
The rugged mountain pass is no less difficult nor the scenery
less spectacular today than when the miners tackled it on foot.
Looking 800 feet down into the Skagway river gorge from the coach's
platform, you almost feel like the people who first rode the new
railway one hundred years ago.
|1. - Into the clouds: as we approached the White
Pass, the clouds covered it.
||2. - Into the tunnel: this was one of several tunnels
as the railway climbed the mountains.
3. - Depot: Modern depot was actually the WP&YR
store for souvenirs, trains, and lots of memorabilia.
|4. - Platform: The train crew loaded passengers
from several cruise ships.
5. - Yard: Three GE diesels were coupled to
a second excursion train. The handcar was a relic.
|6. - Over the river: the train passed over the Skagway
River at this point.
|7. - Over the bridge: many old wooden bridges were
replaced by up to date steel structures.