Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Alaska Journal #17: All Aboard! We're Riding the White Pass & Yukon Railway


The White Pass & Yukon Route was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994.  This is an honor shared with other marvels such as the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.
  The WP&YR is recognized for the many difficult and hazardous obstacles that construction overcame:  design challenges, granite mountains, steep grades, cliff hanging turns and unimaginable weather conditions.  The courage and brave acts of the workers under the leadership of dedicated builders are recognized by this prestigious designation.
 (This information is taken from All Aboard, the complimentary onboard magazine.  Most of the following picture captions also were taken from this magazine).

In Skagway, here we are at sea level.  Our ride eventually took us up to 2,865 feet at White Pass Summit.

Born in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the White Pass & Yukon Route is a rare story in the history of railroad building.

GOLD!  GOLD!  GOLD!  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.

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 U.S. 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.

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.

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 it 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 because of the tortures of the trail and 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.

""...a Railroad to Hell"

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 some 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.

The WP&YR climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 3,000 feet a 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.

On July 21, 1898, two months after construction began, the railroad's first engine went into service over the first four miles of completed track.  The WP&YR was the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere.

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 10, 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 on July 29, 1900, in Carcross 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.

In only five months, between July and November of 1898, the U.S. Mints in Seattle and San Francisco received ten million dollars worth of Klondike Gold.  By 1900, another thirty-eight million dollars had been recorded--the result of the largest gold rush the world has ever known! 

The old steam engines of the WP&YR guzzled enormous amounts of fuel and water as they worked their way over the Summit of the White Pass.  The railroaders called them "hogs" because of their insatiable fuel needs and an engineer was called a "hoghead."

A famous engineer and hoghead, J.D. True, spent 40 years riding the rails and telling stories of his adventures.  He recalls charging moose, runaway trains and snows  higher than a train's caboose.  J.D. True filled two books with his adventure tales.

The zenith of the Klondike Gold Rush had passed by the time the railroad was completed.  Despite conquering the significant snowfalls with the rotary snowplow and spanning Dead Horse Gulch with the tallest cantilever bridge in the world at the time, it was time to diversify to survive.  The WP&YR evolved to encompass wharves, stage lines, paddle wheelers, hotels, aircraft, buses, pipelines, trucks and ships to cater to emerging market conditions. 

Self-sufficiency and the need for continuous progress made innovation a hallmark of WP&YR operations.  WP&YR pioneered the "Container Route"--the intermodal movement of containers by ship, train and truck in 1955.

In 1988, the company reinvented itself as a tourist attraction for a tourism market after shutting down as a fully integrated transportation company 6 years earlier.

Since 1988, WP&YR's survival and prosperity has been based on the spirit of accomplishment in the face of adversity. 

The WP&YR rail fleet consists of 20 diesel-electric locomotives, 82 restored and replica passenger coaches and 2 steam locomotives.  The diesel-electric locomotives are Alco units dating back to the 1960's and General Electric units from the 1950's, the latter of which have all been completely modernized over the last several years.

The pride of the fleet is Engine No. 73, a fully restored 1947 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado class steam locomotive, which was joined by No. 69 in 2005, a Baldwin 2-8-0, built for WP&YR in 1908.

The WP&YR passenger coaches are named after lakes and rivers in Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia and are on average 43 years old.  The oldest car, Lake Emerald, was built in 1883 and is on the line each day.

Lake Tutshi, vintage 1893, starred in the 1935 Universal Studios movie " Diamond Jim Brady."

The Lake Lebarge car carried Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on a royal tour out of Whitehorse in 1959.

The WP&YR has enjoyed a rich and colorful history throughout its century of operations.  The Klondike has gone from the gold mining operations of the first stampeders to operations by large corporations who have gained control of mining in the Klondike.  

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 U.S. Army's Alaska Highway construction project and later gained international fame as an excursion railroad.

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.
World metal prices plummeted in 1982, mines closed and the WP&YR suspended operations.  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 1990's and to Carcross in 2007.

For over one hundred years, the WP&YR has been an economic lifeline to the north.  Freight and passengers moved about the north with ease and the railroad adapted to the changing times.  It was the ability to adapt that kept it going--from freight, stampeders and gold to tourism--each has been embraced and has given the railroad a new mission in the north.

One hundred thousand men and women headed north, but only between 30,000 and 40,000 actually reached the gold fields of the Klondike.  Four thousand or so prospectors found the gold but only a few hundred became rich.

What about the discoverers of the gold--George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie?  Carmack's gold allowed him to have a more adventurous life with two wives, and investment in real estate in Seattle and California.  

Dawson Charlie sold his mining properties and spent his years in Carcross.  Skookum Jim continued as a prospector and died rich but worn out from his hardy life.

****

I did the math and discovered that I took 444 photos during our ride on the railway.  I've only shared about 50 so far.  I'm not kidding.

Needless to say, I'll be sharing photos from our narrow gauge railroad ride for days to come.  I hope you're enjoying the scenery and the information from the All Aboard! magazine.       

2 comments:

Cap Chastain said...

AH YES ..

T'WAS THERE ON THE MARGE OF LAKE (LACH) LEBARGE I CREMATED SAM MCGEE ..

NOW SAM MCGEE WAS FROM TENNESSEE WHERE THE COTTON BLOOMS AND BLOWS .. WHY HE LEFT HIS HOME IN THE SOUTH TO ROAM ROUND THE POLE GOD ONLY KNOWS ..

HE WAS ALWAYS COLD BUT THE LAND OF GOLD SEEMED TO HOLD HIM LIKE A SPELL .. THO HE'D OFT'N SAY IN HIS HOMELY WAY HE'D SOONER LIVE IN HELL .. GOD REST YOUR WONDERFUL SOUL ROBERT W. SERVICE !

AH YES .. T'WAS THE ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE WHO REQUIRED THE MINERS TO CARRY A TON-OF-PROVISIONS .. SOME OF THE MINERS .. MAYBE MOST ALL OF THE MINERS .. HAD TO MAKE FIFTY (50 count them) INDIVIDUAL TRIPS UP THE MOUNTAIN AND BACK DOWN THE MOUNTAIN AND UP THE MOUNTAIN TO GET THEIR PROVISIONS UP THE MOUNTAIN ..

Loving This .. Cap and Patti ..

Cheryl aka Shaddy said...

CAP: Gold cast a spell on thousands. 50 trips to carry a ton of provisions seems a bit much!!!! Yet for gold, many gave their all.

Loving your comments,
Shaddy