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Printed July 30, 2019

North to Alaska VI

Across the wilderness, man overcame hardships, created an engineering marvel

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

Roy and I settled in the last car of the train for our ride to the summit. The White Pass & Yukon Route climbs sea level at Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the summit in just 20 miles. The grades are steep, and the curves are so tight that only a narrow-gauge railroad could be built through the pass.

The rails were three feet apart on a 10-foot wide roadbed, meaning lower construction costs. The 110 miles of track ran/runs through rugged terrain. In fact, we actually saw a Sasquatch, and further up in the snow belt, a Yeti on our sojourn. O.K., they were really plastic models stationed strategically along the route by someone with a sense of humor. But if these mythical creatures really do exist, this is where they would be.

The White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company was organized in April 1898 by paying a total of $110,000 for the right-of-way. Between 1897 and 1898, Skagway was a lawless town, described by one Northwest Mounted Police officer as “little better than a hell on earth.”

Nevertheless, construction began on the narrow-gauge railroad May 28,1898 with the railroad depot being constructed between September and December 1898. Building this railroad was difficult. To build it required cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees and building two tunnels, not to mention numerous bridges and trestles.

Mile 16 was constructed in the dead of winter with heavy snowfall and temperatures as low as 60 below zero. Yet, it was completed to the summit (where the train turns around today) on Feb. 20, 1899.

By July 6, 1899, the railway had reached Lake Bennett and the beginning of the river and lakes route to the goldfields. While some construction crews battled north, another set of crews laid rails from the north moving south.

They met in Carcross July 29, 1900, where a ceremonial golden spike was driven. Thirty-five-thousand men worked on the construction of the railroad. These men and 450 tons of explosives overcame the weather and challenging geography to create this wonder.

For these accomplishments, the White Pass & Yukon Route was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994 – only one of 36 achievements, including the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.

Our train ride today took us up the same route as the original route. We chugged past the Skagway river flowing to the sea, hugged sheer cliff walls, snaked through darkened tunnels and reached the summit, where we briefly crossed over into Canada before making the return trip down the pass. In the days of the Stampeders, the Canadian Mounted Police waited there, fortified with machine guns to inspect each miner’s required one ton of supplies (one year’s worth) to pass into the gold fields beyond. If miners did not meet the requirements, they were turned back - by force if necessary.

We passed by The Klondike Gold Rush Cemetery, which is like Skagway’s “Boot Hill,” and we were dwarfed by the tree growth and humbled by magnificent views, such as Bridal Veil Falls.

The headwaters of the Skagway were still partially frozen as we chugged by. We looked down on remnants of the original six- to eight-foot pathway over which thousands of gold rush stampeders toiled shoulder to shoulder.

Seeing the narrowness of this pass and knowing its history, you could almost feel the ghosts of the horrific scene when Jack London saw this pass, also referred to as “Dead Horse Trail.” Jack London described the pass: “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost, and from Skagway to Bennet, they rotted in heaps.”

Rolling back into Skagway, we were overcome with the spirits of the past. The gold Stampeders began in 1897, but by 1899, the stream of gold seekers had diminished, and Skagway’s boom town economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over, and Skagway was incorporated as the first city in the Alaskan Territory.

After leaving the train, we walked back to the cruise ship, ready for dinner and a good night’s sleep. We had a treat on the ship. The people leading the dog-sled trips brought aboard four-week-old puppies for tourists to pet. They were sleepy darlings. Made me miss my two pups at home. We would sail all night, and all the next day, making our last port of call, Victoria, British Columbia, at 7 p.m.

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)