White Pass & Yukon Route, Skagway, Alaska - Explore! White Pass & Yukon Route, Skagway, Alaska - Explore!

White Pass & Yukon Route, Skagway, Alaska

Gateway to the Klondike Gold!

Main Street in Skagway, Alaska.

Broadway in Skagway - The Red Onion Saloon (1895), Washington Fruit Store (1899) and Washington and Alaska Steamship Company (1900) as they appear today.

George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie found gold on Bonanza Creek in the Klondike in 1896. They didn’t find much in the beginning, but it was enough – the gold rush was on.  Tens of thousands of people, thrown out of work by the depressed economy or just plain crazy for gold, headed for the Klondike by way of the Inside Passage to the Chilkoot Trail or the White Pass Trail.  The steamship trip to the trailheads gave no hint of the hardships to come.  The Chilkoot Trail was steeper and travel was by foot.  The White Pass Trail wasn’t quite as steep, but 3,000 horses died in attempts to reach the summit through the aptly named “Dead Horse Gulch.”  Access was difficult enough, but the Canadian government added one small requirement.  Everyone heading toward the gold fields had to bring one ton of supplies into Canada with them – half  had to be food.  That meant three months and multiple trips up the passes into Canada to get the requisite 2000 pounds cached there.  With the possibility of using pack animals,  the White Pass route became preferred by many.

White Pass Route 17 miles above Skagway.

White Pass Route 17 miles above Skagway. Photo by J.Doody, Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress. Circa 1915.

Getting over the pass was just the first adventure in a nearly 600 mile trek to the gold fields near Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada.  The trail led from Skagway, Alaska over White Pass to Lake Bennett a distance of about 35 miles.  The prospectors would settle in at Lake Bennett for the winter while constructing boats.  In the spring they would  head northward down the Yukon River toward  Dawson City.

As one of the leading access points for the gold rush,  Skagway quickly grew from a handful of forward thinking citizens in 1897 to as many as 10,000 people in 1898.  The right combination of manpower, financing and engineering skills came together that year and the White Pass & Yukon Route was constructed over impossible terrain in just 27 months.  The first passenger train to the summit made the trip on February 20, 1899.  The 110-mile route to Whitehorse was completed on July 29, 1900.  The trains hauled freight until 1982.  Today, the railway continues to offer an outstanding adventure for passengers.

An Engineering Marvel

The American Society of Civil Engineers designated the route an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994 saying: “The railroad passed through glacial terrain, far removed from supplies in the United States, and represented the first cold region engineered construction in Alaska.”  The rest of the story in a nutshell:

  • thousands of construction workers
  • $10,000,000 cost
  • 450 tons of explosives
  • 16 degree turns hanging from the mountainside
  • narrow gauge
  • two hard rock tunnels
  • the tallest steel cantilever bridge of its kind in the world (at the time it was built)
  • lots of trestles and bridges
  • 2,865 feet of elevation gain in 20 miles
  • 3.9% grades
  • harsh winter weather construction
  • gold shipments first week of July 1900: $1,450,000 (for example)

Truly – an engineering marvel.

Steel Cantilevered Bridge - White Pass and Yukon Route. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Our White Pass & Yukon Adventure

Chief Scout Trish aboard the White Pass & Yukon Train.

Chief Scout Trish aboard the White Pass & Yukon Train.

Our adventure takes the White Pass & Yukon Route 21 miles from Skagway to the White Pass Summit and back, a 3-1/2 hour journey.   It’s not the adventure of those that traveled the White Pass Trail or those that constructed the railroad, but it matches the adventure of the first passengers on the line.  Burton Holmes, producer of the 1918 film A Summer Day in Skagway was an early traveler on the White Pass and Yukon Route.  He wrote: “”Where the pioneers dragged their bleeding feet up the icy stairways of the White Pass or the Chilkoot, we rolled in all the luxury of railway cars and within sight of the death-dealing rapids, through which their boats were steered, with the fear of death for pilot, we glided smoothly over rails of steel, coming from Skagway on the coast to Whitehorse City, on the Upper Yukon as comfortably and as expeditiously as we could travel from New York to Boston.”

The journey begins at the wharf adjacent to the numerous cruise ships that arrive here regularly.  The original parlor cars, still used today, are enclosed, but not well ventilated and spartan by today’s rail standards.  Nonetheless,  the toughest part of this adventure was the continuous rain we encountered.  You’ll get the feel for that in the video below.  You’ll note the rain and  low clouds that restricted visibility of the distant landscapes.  As a result, our photos weren’t of the quality I like, so I’ve supplemented them with photos from other sources.

View from the White Pass & Yukon Route train.

Adventurers Enjoy the Rain-Soaked Views

This adventure is about three things:  history, scenery and the railroad.  I outlined the history and some information about the railroad itself above.  The railroad bills itself as the “Scenic Railway of the World” for good reasons. Even on the day of our journey, with low clouds and continuous rain,  the scenery was spectacular.  On a clear day the expansive views of Skagway and the cruise ships in the port from five miles up the line are said to be beyond belief.  The historic black and white photo above shows the outstanding view from about 17 miles up the line and the mountains through which the line was constructed.

The View of the Train from the Train

Through the windows of the train cars, the old White Pass Trail and the Skagway River can be seen in the canyon below the rails.  Enormous waterfalls crashing down the mountains below the train seem flat in the distance until one zooms in with binoculars – or video camera.  Many sections along the tracks  are screened from distant views by trees.  Still, the foreground views provide a lot of variety and regular glimpses of distant panoramas.

Building Your Own Adventure

Getting to Skagway is an adventure in itself.  Options include:

  • take a cruise – most cruise ships that travel to Alaska stop at Skagway
  • bring your car – the Alaska Marine Highway System will take you by sea from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway.
  • drive your car or RV through Canada on the Alaska Highway and the South Klondike Highway
  • take a jet from Seattle to Juneau on Alaska Airlines then on to Skagway on a prop plane operated by  Air Excursions or Wings of Alaska
  • make your own combination like the Marine Highway to Skagway then across Canada by car.

Once there, you might try one of the options offered by the White Pass & Yukon Route.   Our adventure was a bit constrained by time since we were embarked upon the larger adventure of an Alaskan cruise.  We took the shortest option – from Skagway to the Summit (21 miles) and back.  You can also take a longer trip (27 miles) to Fraser Meadow (with a steam locomotive) and back.  You can also continue on to Carcross on Lake Bennett in British, Columbia

If you can spend a few days in the area, you can use the train as the basis for your explorations and create an enhanced adventure.  The train stops six miles up the mountain to drop off and pick up hikers taking the  Denver Trail to Denver Waterfall and Denver Glacier (7 miles round trip from the rails) or 14 miles up the mountain for the Laughton Glacier Trail (8 miles round trip).  The most challenging adventure is to hike up the old Chilkoot Trail to Bennett (33 miles – 3 to 5 days) then return to Skagway on the train.  Be prepared for adventurous Alaskan weather and the possibility of bears along the trails.

Rating

RAting of the White Pass & Yukon Route Adventure.

While our adventure was great, there are options to build truly world-class adventures around the railroad.  History is all around and well interpreted for the visitor.  The railway even provides a running commentary of the history of the area as you travel.  Clearly the scenery is world class. I rated the variety high due to the combination of visual elements juxtaposed with travel on the train and the structural components of both the railway and the community of Skagway.   The train ride will get high ratings with kids, but they will be required to sit still for a few hours.  Overall I rated this adventure a 9.6 on our scale of 1 to 10.  If you’ve been here, please offer your comments in the form below.

Credits

Except as noted, all photographs are by Jerry and Trish Haugen and the text and video is by Jerry Haugen. ©2011 Global Creations LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

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