White Pass & Yukon Route

(or Dave gets his birthday present early)


            July 19 – The White Pass & Yukon Route aka the White Pass railroad is what guaranteed Skagway’s success.  It was started in May of 1898, well after the gold rush had started.  Two years, two months and two days later the final spike was driven, completing a 110 mile railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse in the Yukon territory of Canada.  The railroad would not have been built if it were not for a chance meeting in a Skagway hotel bar of Michael Heney, a railroad engineer with no money and a group of surveyors from England who had been sent to investigate the feasibility of building a railroad by investors.  The surveyors ran into Heney on the last day of their trip after concluding that it was impossible to build a railroad through the White Pass.  Heney had just arrived from his final walk (40 miles) of the route that he thought could be built.  They debated the feasibility of the railroad all night long and by morning the surveyors were convinced.  The railroad originally hauled a mixture of passengers and freight.  In the 30’s it became an almost all freight operation, hauling various ores from mines in the Yukon to ships in Skagway.  The White Pass also claims to be the inventor of container shipping, having used specially designed freight ships to bring containers to Skagway where they were loaded onto trains which ultimately transferred the containers to trucks at Whitehorse.  Over the years the railroad had its ups and downs and from 1982 to 1988 was shut down until the owners realized that running tourist trains could be profitable.  The railroad runs several trains each day using diesel locomotives on a 40 mile round trip to the top of the White Pass summit (any further and they would enter Canada).

            Dave is a big railroad fan and has ridden excursion trains all over the country, including one ride with an engineer, but this trip didn’t appeal to him much because it used diesel locomotives instead of a romantic steam engine.  The White Pass has also realized that steam engines are more appealing and in 2000 put a completely restored steam engine back in service, operating a few times a month.  As luck would have it the steam engine was being used today on a special extended run – 80 miles round trip to Lake Bennett, British Columbia.  Stacie had gotten tickets for the trip as Dave’s birthday present.

            The train left at 8am (Dave triple checked the alarm clock to make sure we didn’t miss it) for an eight hour trip.  The most amazing part of the journey is the first 20 miles which were blasted out of the side of the mountains.  On one side of the train is a cliff that drops to the valley below and on the other side is a shear rock wall.  Initially there were many bridges and one tunnel, but as the railroad grew another tunnel was added and the gorges below some smaller bridges were filled in with rock eliminating the need for a bridge.  About six miles into the trip the train stopped by a meadow and everyone was invited to get off the train to stretch and take pictures.  While our train had left at 8:00, there was also a regularly scheduled 8:00 diesel train that had left shortly after us.  Since the diesel train used three locomotives, any one of which was more powerful than the steam engine, it was faster and it had to pass us before we entered the steep parts of the climb to stay on schedule.  Our train backed up onto a siding and a few minutes later the diesel train passed us, giving a great photo opportunity.  Our train then pulled off the siding and paused for pictures blowing its whistle.  We all got back on board and continued chugging up the mountain.  At the twenty mile mark we reached the summit after climbing 2,860 feet and the tracks leveled off and we picked up speed.  Normally, the diesel train would have stopped at the summit and moved the locomotives to the back of the train and headed back down to Skagway, but since we were still working our way up the mountain the train continued on to Fraser, B.C. where it cleared Canadian customs, dropped off and picked up passengers, and waited for us (they didn’t have to wait too long as we had been moving quickly after reaching the summit).  While we were stopped in Fraser the engine took on water, pumping it out of a nearby stream.  We also added a box car to the front of the train (the diesel train had brought it up, making our load lighter).  Box lunches were handed out at this point, although it was only 11 am (technically it was noon because we had changed time zones).  With the engine’s thirst quenched we continued on to Lake Bennett.  We were now out of the mountains and crossing a tundra, above the tree line.  The scenery was very different as the trees were all stunted by the extreme weather so you could see for miles.  Before too long we arrived in Lake Bennett (we had been going downhill for most of the way). The town of Lake Bennett was at the head of Lake Bennett and was another gold rush town.  After having survived either of the two trails stampeders found themselves at Lake Bennett, still 500 miles away from the gold fields of the Klondike.  The good news was that they could load their goods into boats (that they had to build) and float downstream for a while.  The only problem was that the lake was frozen when most stampeders arrived and they had to wait until it thawed to continue their journey.  As a result the town of Lake Bennett developed.  After the ice broke and the stampeders moved on the town continued to survive as a rest stop for others who used the trails until the railroad was built and then there was no need for a resting point since everyone took the train.  Five years after it was built, Lake Bennett was deserted.  Only the church (St. Andrew’s Presbyterian) still stands today, most of the other buildings were dismantled and taken away.  Hikers who use Chilkoot trail are picked up by the train (it’s the only way, there are no roads) to be taken back to Skagway.

            We went on a walking tour of the old townsite with a Canadian park ranger who had many pictures of the town from its heyday.  Today there are just random boards laying around and piles of broken bottles and tin cans.  After exploring the area we returned to the train in time for the 10 minute warning whistle.  The trip back was as beautiful as the trip out.  Along Long Lake near Fraser the train stopped for another photo opportunity.  This time it backed up behind a curve.  When the train came back around the curve the engineer put on quite a show making the engine put out black smoke (steam is used to blast sand into the flue pipe which knocks soot off the inside of the pipe making the normally clear exhaust look black) and repeatedly blowing the whistle.  We continued downhill to Skagway and got a good view of the original White Pass trail below the tracks.  The stampeders often dropped items on the way to make their loads lighter and over the years hikers have found some of these items (mainly shovels) and placed them on the trail for all to see. 

            We knew that there was a diesel train behind us (as we had passed one in Fraser) and while we were on one side of a gorge, we saw it on the other side, snaking its way down.  Although it was ten cars long, it was actually considered a ‘regular size’ train as when there are cruise ships in town they routinely run fifteen car trains (in fact sometimes they have to run two long trains 10 minutes apart to accommodate the ships).  After a few more gorgeous waterfalls we arrived in Skagway and the trip was over.  We waited for the customs inspector to pass through the car and examine everyone’s ID and then we left the train and strolled through the gift shop.  Stacie got another pin.