White Pass And Yukon Route To The Klondike Gold Rush
When my wife and I recently stepped off a cruise ship in Skagway Alaska, we were excited to be revisiting some her family's history. In 1897 her grandfather Jim and her great uncle Albert, joined almost 100,000 gold-rush prospectors who were going to the Klondike to search for gold. They were among the 30,000 or so prospectors who actually reached the Yukon. The journey was long and arduous and they walked most of the way as their pack horse was used to carry their supplies. The Canadian Northwest Mounted Police insisted that each Klondiker must bring a year worth of supplies with them before they were allowed to go to the Yukon. There were two routes through the mountains to Whitehorse on the Yukon River: The first route was the Chilkoot Pass trail which was too steep for pack animals.
Klondikers had to stage their supplies and leapfrog back to carry their year's worth of supplies up the steep icy trail. Many prospectors abandoned their quest here or perished in the extremely cold weather. Jim and Albert chose the second route called the White Pass Trail, which climbed to almost 3,000 feet in elevation out of Skagway and was just as steep and treacherous, but could accommodate pack horses. This information was of doubtful value as over 3,000 pack animals were killed on this trail which was nicknamed “dead horse trail”. Jim and Albert lost their packhorse during the climb but eventually made it to Bennett Lake with their supplies.
They rafted down the Lake and onto the Yukon River while undergoing many difficulties and adventures, but reached Whitehorse and then Dawson City and the goldfields. Unfortunately most of the gold claims had been staked by locals and early prospectors and they ended up working as miners for the next two years until they had earned enough money to return home. The fact that they survived the extreme cold and harsh conditions was a tribute to their strength and indomitable spirits. Although they didn't bring home any gold, they brought home a lifetime of stories to pass onto their grandchildren. After my wife and I toured historic Skagway we then embarked on the most fantastic train ride of our lives - The White Pass and Yukon Route or WP&YR. We booked an all day excursion to Bennett Station British Columbia. The rail cars were authentic 1900 parlor cars or converted to look authentic and we joined our cruise ship passengers on a wonderful narrated tour back into history. The scenery was incredible and you had to marvel at the engineering prowess of the railroad builders as they constructed tunnels, switchbacks and hanging trestles up the steep mountain pass. The slow journey up the mountain gave us ample opportunity to view the steep and treacherous White Pass trail that Jim and Albert had climbed. We saw skeleton horse heads on the trail but whether these were of 1897 vintage or had been placed there by the local tourist board is not for me to say.
We eventually reached Bennett Station where we had a box lunch and were given a guided tour before making the return journey to Skagway. It was an incredible journey which prompted me to do a little more research on the WP&YR and its links to the Klondike gold rush. The WP&YR is a narrow, 3-foot gauge railway that connected the port of Skagway Alaska and Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon. It is the most heavily used tourist railroad in existence today and carries over 400,000 passengers each year during the May until October season. The railroad is isolated and not connected to any other system. The original line was over 110 miles in length but the most commonly used section today is the first 40 miles between Skagway and Bennett Station, although plans are to add some excursions to Carcross, Yukon. Originally the intention was to link Skagway at the northernmost end of the Inside Passage to the gold mining districts of the Klondike. British investment was secured and construction was started in 1898 and finished in July 1900. Three companies managed the railroad known as the WP&YR: - The Pacific & Arctic Railway from Skagway to the British Columbia border near White Pass. - The BC-Yukon Railway from White Pass to the BC Yukon border near Pennington.
- The British Yukon Railroad to Whitehorse. Traffic on the WP&YR dropped significantly after the gold rush with the severe decline in the population of the Yukon Territories. Tourist trade saved the WP&YR as they began promoting recreational travel off the steamships that stopped in Skagway. The Second World War brought about the need to build the Alaska Highway linking Alaska through the Yukon and BC to the lower 48 states. The WP&YR was the best way to move supplies to the highway site. The US Army leased the railroad from 1942 to 1946 and ran multiple daily supply trains during that period. After the war, increased mining activities in the Yukon maintained the rail traffic to 1982. Numerous spur lines were opened and closed to mines in the district. The WP&YR pioneered some of the first transshipment of containers from ships to rail during the post-war period. In 1982 extremely depressed metal prices forced the mines to close and the railroad shut down in October, 1982.
However by 1988 increased cruise ship traffic to Skagway prompted the WP&YR to reopen in 1988 and traffic has increased every year. The WP&YR rolling stock consists of approximately 20 diesel-electric locomotives, 2 steam engines and 70 antique and replica parlor car type coaches. 11 diesel-electric locomotives are ALCO 251A's built by GE between 1954 and 1966, and 9 are ALCO 251D's built by ALCO between 1969 and 1982. The two steam locomotives are Engine #73 which is a fully restored 1947 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado class unit and recently rebuilt Engine #69 which is a Baldwin 2-8-0 steam locomotive originally built for WP&YR in 1907. The parlor cars are antique or replicas of antique coaches with an average age of 50 years and with an average of approximately 40 seats per carriage. The parlor cars are named after lakes and rivers in Alaska, Yukon and BC and the oldest car is Lake Emerald which was built in 1883. The future of the WP&YR railroad looks promising with the continued increase in cruise ship traffic visiting Skagway. I urge all readers to visit Skagway and travel on one of the most scenic and historic train routes in operation today. Information on the schedules and fares can be found at www.
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