Born in the
Klondike Gold Rush
GOLD Flakes are found
Every railroad has its own colorful beginnings. For the White Pass & Yukon Route, it was gold, discovered in 1896 by George Carmack and two First Nations companions, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie.
The few flakes they found in Bonanza Creek in the Klondike barely filled the spent cartridge of a Winchester rifle. However, it was enough to trigger an incredible stampede for riches: the Klondike Gold Rush.
Summer Sluicing on Bonanza Creek, Klondike Goldfields
A Man of Vision
The rush for riches was actually predicted by Skagway founder, Captain William Moore. He was hired by a Canadian survey party, headed by William Ogilvie who had been commissioned to map the 141st Meridian, the boundary between the United States and Canada.
Because the known route, Chilkoot Pass, was so rough and rugged, Moore and Skookum Jim decided to head north over uncharted ground and seek an easier route to the Interior. They reached Lake Bennett, near the headwaters of the Yukon River, and named the new potential route, White Pass, for the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Sir Thomas White.
Moore had a 160-acre homestead claim in Skagway. He returned to his home and began to think about the changes he felt would soon come. The search for gold in northwest Canada and Alaska had been underway for the past two decades and Moore believed that it was only a question of time before gold would be discovered. He built a sawmill, a wharf and blazed the trail to the Summit of the White Pass. Moore even suggested to his son that eventually there would be a railroad through to the lakes, and to prepare for the coming gold rush.
Gold! Gold! Gold!
The headline of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 17, 1897, broadcast the news of the discovery of gold in the Canadian Klondike. Under the headline “Gold! Gold! Gold!” the newspaper reported that “Sixty Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland” arrived in Seattle with “Stacks of Yellow Metal”.
The news spread like wildfire and the country, in the midst of a depression, went gold crazy. Tens of thousands of gold crazed men and women steamed up the Inside Passage waterway and arrived in Dyea and Skagway to begin the overland trek to the Klondike. Six hundred miles over treacherous and dangerous trails and waterways lay before them.
Choices To Be Made
Some prospectors chose the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail, which began in Dyea. Each person was required to carry a ton of supplies up the “Golden Stairs” to the Summit of the Chilkoot Pass. Others chose the longer, less steep White Pass Trail, believing that pack animals could be used and would be easier. Both trails led to the interior lake country where stampeders could begin a 550 mile journey through the lake systems to the Yukon River and the gold fields.
Both the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail were filled with hazards and harrowing experiences. Three thousand horses died on the White Pass Trail due to the tortures of the trail and the inexperience of the stampeders.
Men immediately began to think of easier ways to travel to the Klondike. In the fall of 1897, George Brackett, a former construction engineer on the Northern Pacific Railroad, built a twelve mile toll road up the canyon of the White Pass. The toll gates were ignored by travelers and Brackett’s road was a failure.
The 19th century was the era of railroad building and an easier mode of transportation into the north was of interest to everyone. Two men appeared on the scene with essentially the same idea: build a railroad through the White Pass. Sir Thomas Tancrede, representing investors in London, and Michael J. Heney, an experienced railroad contractor interested in finding new work for his talents, joined forces. Tancrede had doubts about building a railroad over the Coastal Mountains while Heney thought otherwise. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose” he bragged, “and I’ll build a railroad to Hell.”
They met by chance in Skagway, talked through the night and by dawn, the railroad project was no longer a dream but an accepted reality. It was a meeting of money, talent and vision.
The White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company, organized in April 1898, paid Brackett $110,000; $60k and $50k in two separate payments for the right-of-way to his road. On May 28, 1898, construction began on the narrow gauge railroad.
“Give me enough dynamite, and snoose, and I’ll build you a railroad to hell.”
—“Big” Mike Heney, Railroad Builder
On April 12, 1898, E.C. Hawkins of Denver Colorado arrived in Skagway to take charge of the work. By May 27 construction had begun with the laying of rails at Skagway and by mid-July the first locomotive in Alaska, 2-6-0 No. 2 purchased from a Utah shortline, arrived on the scene. In common with the mountain-piercing railroads of Colorado, the WP&Y would be built to a three-foot gauge to ease the problems of construction and reduce costs.
As originally organized, the road would be operated as three separate entities: the Pacfic & Arctic Railway & Navigation Company in Alaska (20.4 miles), the British Colombia Yukon Railway Company in British Columbia (32.2 miles) and the British Yukon Railway Company in the Yukon Territory. The latter segment was projected to Fort Selkirk but eventually terminated at Whitehorse, 58.1 miles from the territorial boundary.
At no time during the construction period were fewer than a thousand men employed, and the figure often reached 1,800 to 2,000. They worked in relays through the summer when daylight lasts virtually around the clock.
Construction of the White Pass & Yukon began at sea level in the boom town of Skagway (then spelled “Skaguay”), during the spring of 1898. Here, on June 15th, work proceeds up the center of Broadway. Within just eight months the rails would reach White Pass Summit, 20.4 miles from Skagway at an elevation of 2,915 feet.
The obstacles facing the builders were almost unprecedented. When Hawkins arrived he found the mountain rising defiantly, buried in snowdrifts up to 30 feet deep and studded with sheer cliffs rising for hundreds of feet. There were no surveys completed, no rolling stock and precious little material with which to begin the work. He and contractor Michael J. Heney brought in an army of men from the States together with a commissary to feed them and $200,000 worth of supplies to equip the construction gangs.
It was quickly found that the native timber was almost worthless because it splintered too easily. As a result, every tie, every bridge timber had to be imported. Ships were hurriedly chartered and soon were discharging all types of construction materials at the Skagway terminal, including quantities of dynamite – developed just 30 years earlier – was far more effective for this purpose that the black powder used by early railroad builders. Altogether, more than 450 tons of explosives were required to push the railroad to the top of this seemingly impregnable barrier.
For the first 20 miles out of Skagway the costs of constructions averaged $100,000 per mile, a staggering sum for that era. The first three miles along the Skagway River were relatively easy, costing just $10,000 each, but soon the difficult section near Rocky Point (milepost 7) was encountered, driving the cost per mile up to more than $125,000. At Porcupine Point a charge of 2,500 pounds of dynamite was detonated to blast off a huge slice of the mountainside, which fell with a deafening roar into the Skagway River below, changing its course. At Tunnel Mountain (milepost 15) workers were forced to lower themselves over a cliff on stout ropes, where there was scarcely footing for an eagle, in order to drill holes in the sheer rock and set explosive charges. A 250-foot tunnel had to be drilled here on the north side of a chasm, as the railroad ascended a grade of 3.9 percent. South of the tunnel Heney’s men stood on a narrow shelf which would soon support the railroad and gazed downward to the river more than a thousand feet below. Behind them, a mile downgrade, they could see the big loop above BridalVeil Falls, where an encampment known as “White Pass City” had sprung up near the railroad. At least 35 workers were killed in construction accidents before the line was completed.
On Jul 21, 1898 the WP&Y operated its first train from Skagway to a point four miles north of town. On August 15 an inspection train puffed all the way to Porcupine Point where the locomotive drew up to the very last rail laid. The party of investors, company officials and guests rode a flatcar roped in on the sides, detraining at the end of track to peer cautiously over the edge of a stone wall atop the precipice. Skagway, which in a year’s time had boomed from a sleepy village into a raucous city of 20,000, could clearly be see in the distance. By August 25 trains were operating as far as Heney station (12.7 miles), at the confluence of the Skagway River and its White Pass Fork, as the rails continued to advance rapidly up the face of the mountain.
Employing a switchback near milepost 19, the main track was completed to the summit on February 18, 1899, in the dead of a harsh Alaska winter. The first passenger train to complete the 20.4-mile trip struggled to the top on February 20, its passengers undoubtedly awed by the spectacular view down the canyon to Skagway and salt water just 14 miles away.(Two years later an immense steel cantilever bridge was built across Dead Horse Gulch, soaring 215 feet above the White Horse Fork, which eliminated the cumbersome switchback.)
According to legend, however, the first ticket on the new railroad had been issued some months earlier, in August 1898. A man going on to Dawson pleaded to be taken on board one of the inspection trains to the end of track. He paid 25 cents a mile and upon receipt his receipt was endorsed by an official as the first ticket sold by the WP&Y and the first to be issued in Alaska.
Rolling stock was purchased and delivered to Skagway as the need arose. By the end of 1899 the road rostered 13 locomotives, eight passenger coaches and 250 freight cards. A shop was constructed two miles north of town and several stations were erected, including a substantial depot at Skagway.
On July 6, 1899, the first train reached Lake Bennett in British Columbia, at milepost 41, amid the rejoicing of miners and prospectors who until that time had toiled for days to pack their outfits to a point now reached by rail in three hours. While snow was an implacable enemy of the construction gangs, the building of snowshoes and the use of a rotary snow plow made it possible to continue service except during the times that blizzards were raging. Snowdrifts were present much of the year but the fact that the railroad for the most part was built high in the rocks made it nearly immune from spring washouts.
WP&Y’s first locomotive, 2-6-0 No. 2, was purchased second-hand from the narrow-gauge Utah & Northern. Shown here upon its arrival in Skagway, the newcomer is photographed on July 30, 1898, the day before the railroad ran its first train.
Against All Odds
The White Pass & Yukon Route climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the Summit in just 20 miles and features steep grades of almost 3.9%. The tight curves of the White Pass called for a narrow gauge railroad. The rails were three feet apart on a 10-foot-wide road bed and meant lower construction costs.
Building the one hundred and ten miles of track was a challenge in every way. Construction required cliff hanging turns of 16 degrees, building two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. Work on the tunnel at Mile 16 took place in the dead of winter with heavy snow and temperatures as low as 60 below slowed the work. The workers reached the Summit of White Pass on February 20, 1899, and by July 6, 1899, construction reached Lake Bennett and the beginning of the river and lakes route.
While construction crews battled their way north laying rail, another crew came from the north heading south and together they met in Carcross on July 29, 1900, where a ceremonial golden spike was driven by Samuel H. Graves, the president of the railroad. Thirty-five thousand men worked on the construction of the railroad—some for a day, others for a longer period, but all shared in the dream and the hardship.
The $10 million project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting. Tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives overcame harsh and challenging climate and geography to create this wonder of steel and timber.
Engine No. 69 pulls a four-car passenger train up Broadway in Skagway’s historically picturesque business district, circa 1930. The track was relocated away from Broadway Street during World War II.
For decades, the WP&YR carried significant amounts of ore and concentrates to Skagway to be loaded upon ore ships. During World War II, the railroad was the chief supplier for the US Army’s Alaska Highway construction project. The railroad was operated by steam until 1954, when the transition came to diesel-electric motive power. White Pass matured into a fully-integrated transportation company operating docks, trains, stage coaches, sleighs, buses, paddle wheelers, trucks, ships, airplanes, hotels and pipelines.
The new 6,000 ton White Pass container ship, Frank H. Brown, enters Vancouver Harbour.
The 6,000 ton container ship Frank H. Brown was equipped with an ultra-modern Gantry Crane.
World metal prices plummeted in 1982, mines closed and the WP&YR suspended operations.
In 1988, WP&YR reinvented itself as a tourist attraction. The line reopened in 1988 to operate as a narrow gauge excursion railroad between Skagway and White Pass Summit. The active line was later extended to Bennett in the 1990s and to Carcross in 2007.