Scenic USA - Alaska
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
|Feature photo by Allison Haas - WP&YR MM
WP&YR Locomotive No 73 inset by Tony Hisgett
WP&YR inset photo by Jed Thompson
WP&YR Admin Building courtesy NPS
It wasn't the first gold rush frenzy, but the Klondike strike was definitely among the largest in North America history, drawing in people from around the world. When word leaked out of Skookum Jim Mason, Dawson Charlie and George Washington Carmack's gold discovery in the Yukon Territory, one of the largest armies of gold-seekers ever seen descended on the tent cities of Skagway and Dyea. Even though the majority of claims were already staked, thousands upon thousands of hopeful prospectors headed north to the Yukon.
Here on the coast at Skagway, miners were still 600 miles from the gold fields of Dawson Creek. What really separated treasure seekers from the gold was the rugged Coastal Range, where it took months to haul supplies up and over the Chilkoot or White Pass trails. The trails were so steep that the use of pack animals was limited. Trying to curb fatalities, Canada's North-West Mounted Police insisted that all prospectors must bring in a year's stock of supplies before they could enter Canadian territory. The trail was so brutal many gave up and some died in their attempts to reach the transportation route on the Yukon River. It wasn't long before aerial tramways were devised to haul tons of gear and supplies over the mountains, temporarily assisting mining ventures.
Answering the call for better transportation, plans for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad were developed during late 1800s. Despite the incredible grade and great expense, White Pass & Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad designers took on the challenge. The ten million dollar project employed thousands of men and used 450 tons of explosives to blast through rugged mountain terrain. Taking just a little over two years, the 110 mile WP&YR was completed in July, 1900. Considered an incredible engineering feat, the train track climbed 3000 feet in just 20 miles, requiring steep grades of nearly four percent, cliff-hanging turns, two tunnels and extremely high bridges and trestles.
After the Yukon’s mining industry fizzled, the railway was reopened in 1988 as a seasonal tourism attraction. Today, White Pass and Yukon Route trains travel from Skagway, Alaska, to the Canadian community of Carcross in the Yukon Territory. Carrying over 400,000 visitors during its five month season, the trains travel the first 68 miles of track in this popular shore excursion. The eight hour scenic train trip, now honored as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, features a layover at the Bennett Station House with enough time for a hot meal and a self-guided walking tour of the historic gold rush town. For rail fans who enjoy the historic aspects of railroading, Locomotive Engine #73, a 2-8-2 Mikado type Baldwin (built in 1947), leads an excursion train three times a week to Fraser Meadows on a 27 mile run.
Back on the coast, when train passengers catch their breath after an exciting train ride, more gold rush history is in store at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The best starting point begins at the NPS visitor center in Skagway, housed in the old White Pass & Yukon Route Depot. There are 21 restored buildings in the Skagway Historic District, including the WP&YR administration building.
Additional Points of Interest
Copyright © 2006-15 Benjamin Prepelka
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