The International Steam Pages
The White Pass and Yukon Route 2011
James Waite has written below at length about the railway. Other pages linked below illustrate his June 2011 trip:
For further information on this railway and its rolling stock, James recommends the following excellent articles:
Trevor Heath worked here during the 2010 season has added some background information to the current scene, you can get a further flavour of this special operation on his own pages:
It had been known for centuries that gold existed in the interior of the Yukon and Alaska. The Russians knew about it when they ran Alaska but had no realistic chance of finding it in view of the vast area of territory involved and its small population. The native Indians who lived here before the first Europeans arrived led a subsistence lifestyle and had no great interest in searching for it. A fairly small number of prospectors moved into the area from the USA after their country had purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Gold was first found in sizeable quantities in the Klondike River near what became Dawson City in August 1896. Word of this reached the outside world in July of the following year and at once the Klondike goldrush was under way.
Many thousands of stampeders, as they came to be known, headed north from Seattle, bound mostly for the neighbouring ports of Dyea and, to a lesser extent, Skagway. The Chilkoot Trail over the mountains from Dyea and the longer, but more gently graded White Pass trail from Skagway had been used by the native Indians as trading routes to the interior for centuries. The lakes and rivers on the far side of the mountains form the headwaters of the Yukon River which flows through much of the Yukon and right across Alaska, reaching the sea at the Bering Strait opposite the east coast of Russia. Once over the summit these trails converged on the shore of Lake Bennett from where an arduous voyage down the Yukon River led to the goldfields.
Within a year after the stampede began the potential traffic had grown to the point that a railway north through the mountains had become an attractive proposition despite the heavy engineering that was involved. Skagway was chosen as the starting point, a logical choice as it lies at the head of a deep water fjord and ships can dock there at all states of the tide whereas Dyea lies on a shallow tidal estuary. Construction of the 3ft gauge railway began in 1898 and the line was opened throughout to Whitehorse, 118 miles to the north, just over two years later. It was one of the last narrow gauge railways of any length to be built in North America. It was authorised to continue northwards for more than 200 miles as far as Fort Selkirk but nothing was ever built beyond Whitehorse which today is the capital of the Yukon.
The gold rush came to an end in the early 1900’s more suddenly and more completely than had been expected, leaving the railway to serve with somewhat diminished traffic as the principal route into much of the Yukon. Considerable traffic was generated by the opening of copper and other mines north of Whitehorse but the line barely survived through the depression years of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, traffic then often being down to just one train per week.
Things were quite different during the Second World War. Soon after Pearl Harbour the Japanese army invaded three of the westernmost islands of the Aleutian Island chain off the west coast of Alaska, the nearest they got to American mainland. Overnight Alaska became a military front line and part of the response was the construction of the Alaska Highway for several hundred miles through the Yukon and across Alaska to provide an overland connection to the Lower 48, as the Alaskans call the US heartland. The WP&Y provided one of the principal access routes for workers and construction materials and the line was leased to the US army for the remainder of the war.
In the 1950’s traffic increased as the Yukon slowly developed. The railway had always operated lake steamer and road services to points far beyond Whitehorse. In 1955 it started an integrated intermodal container service between Vancouver and the Yukon interior, the containers being carried on the railway’s own ship to Skagway. The line’s first main line diesels, the 90 series “shovel nose” machines entered traffic around the same time. They are still in service today being steadily rebuilt with British built (Daventry) Cummins QSK45L engines and are now called 140 class; two of them can haul 16 cars at 15 mph to White Pass summit. All the class (11) will be rebuilt by early 2012 and there is a search going on in Argentina for a 12th to make 6 pair. In 1969 the opening of a large lead-zinc mine at Faro, north of Whitehorse, brought about a sharp increase in traffic. In readiness for this the line was reconstructed to increase the permitted axleload, steel girder bridges replacing many of the old timber trestle structures.
The line remained the sole route to the interior until the opening in 1978 of the South Klondike Highway which provided Skagway with its first road connection with the outside world.
The mine at Faro closed suddenly in 1982, a victim of depressed mineral prices world-wide. The line tried to keep going for a few months but closed completely in October of that year. Happily a rapid growth in summer cruise ship traffic during the 1980’s saw large numbers of tourists visiting Skagway which became one of the main stopping off points for the cruise liners. The WP&Y reinvented itself as a tourist railway to tap into this traffic and reopened in 1988, initially only as far as Fraser, a few miles north of the summit. More recently the line has reopened as far as Carcross, 67 miles from Skagway. The track remains in situ over the remainder of the route as far as the outskirts of Whitehorse and may perhaps be reopened if there’s enough traffic on offer to make the reopening worthwhile.
The Faro mine reopened in 1986 but its output now goes to Skagway for export by road in what seems to be a constant procession of enormous 2-trailer lorries which lumber slowly along the main road, belching out fumes as they go. The environmental impact from the noise, visual intrusion and pollution of the otherwise pristine Alaskan atmosphere is obvious, as are the road safety hazards which the lorries pose. The minerals should, of course, be transported by rail. The Canadian authorities would like to require just this but political objections from the Alaskan authorities have prevented it from coming to pass. If this seems strange remember that this is Sarah Palin country. The good lady, incidentally, spent a part of her childhood in Skagway and her arrival on the world stage has made her very much a local hero. There’s now a shop in Skagway which is devoted to selling memorabilia relating to her and her activities.
The motherlode from which the Yukon gold riches came has never been found. Mining and exploration continue there and there’s been a rise in activity recently now that the world price of gold has reached a record high. Attention has recently focussed on the White River near Dawson City and there’s some prospect that the motherlode may finally be discovered in the next year or two. However there’s unlikely to be another gold rush as the old stampeders’ claims have long since been bought out by the multinational mining conglomerates – and little prospect that any of this will benefit the railway.
The cruise ship market has continued to grow exponentially although on the railway traffic is actually down from the heady days of 400,000 passengers per year of 5-10 years ago. On some days each week no fewer than four ships are in dock in Skagway for twelve hours or more with a combined passenger load of more than 6,000 people. For most of them a ride on the railway is the main focus of their visit. They are transported in trains which often exceed twenty coaches drawn by up to five locos and several paths are provided for a succession of these trains during the morning and afternoon peaks. Other trains are available for the general public including one train most days for the full length of the line to Carcross.2-8-2 no. 73 (BLW 73352/1947), the line’s most recent steam loco, was restored to working order in 1982 shortly before the line’s precipitate closure. In 2001 it was joined by 2-8-0 no. 69 (BLW 32962/1908) which had been sold back in 1956 after the arrival of the first diesels. It’s a most distinctive machine with its wooden cab and a firebox which projects almost as far back as the tender so that the controls are mounted on its left hand side. It required complete rebuilding and returned to service in 2008. 69 is actually a very inefficient locomotive being non-superheated and with slide valves. It barely makes Glacier (14 miles) before needing water. This means a MOW crew has to be at Glacier for the water stop and a water tanker is held there. Additionally the cab is not user friendly, the ergonomics are "horrible". Hence no. 73, as a more modern, faster and more powerful loco, is preferred for the public steam service. Currently this operates on Mondays and Fridays, running as far as the balloon loop at Fraser. The loco is detached there to work forward to Fraser station to take water before starting its return journey. With the volume of other traffic punctual timekeeping is essential, hence the preference for the more modern loco. When no. 73 bent a main rod last August, 69 which was not expected to operate in 2010 was pressed into service. Two weeks later (maybe four trips total to Fraser) no one wanted to drive it.... the rods off no. 72 that had lain in someone’s back yard for 40 years were recovered and refurbished to get 73 back in service for the remainder of the season. The railroad's management visited Dollywood theme park at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee over last winter where No. 73's sister locos no's. 70 and 71 are now based. No. 70 was restored to working order in 2010 and it shares its duties there with WP&Y no. 192, one of the MacArthur locos brought to Skagway by the US army during the Second World War see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dollywood_Express. Perhaps not surprisingly, the railway would like at least one of them back!
All told the railway now possesses 20 main line diesel locos, of which the 90 class are the the original 1950’s shovelnose machines, which are currently being rebuilt with modern, low carbon emission engines and reclassified 140 class. Others are more recent and more boxy-shaped Alco machines, some of which were sold to the Colombian railways after the 1982 closure but have now returned. These seem only to be used when traffic's busy and the railway is currently advertising some of them for sale, http://www.sterlingrail.com/classifieds/classified.php?id=1994. The coaching stock now numbers more than 80 vehicles. A significant number of these date from the line’s early years. Some are even older, having been bought by the railway over the years from other US narrow gauge railroads as they have closed. There are also quite a number of more modern cars, some of them replicas of the earlier designs and others more obviously modern steel bodied vehicles. Happily the railway has never departed from its traditional colour scheme of dark brown bodies for its coaches with brick red roofs.
The first twenty miles of the line climb from sea level at Skagway through the gorge of the Skagway River to the Canadian border at White Pass alongside Summit Lake at an altitude of 2,885 feet. Beyond here the scenery is open and largely barren, with bizarrely shaped rocks and strewn with boulders, a legacy from past glacial activity. The line climbs away from the lake for a couple of miles for civil engineering reasons to reach an altitude of 2,940 feet before beginning a gradual descent through Fraser station, where there’s a very traditional looking water tower and a run-round loop, to the lake shore at Bennett City. It’s a mostly level run alongside Lake Bennett for the remainder of the route to Carcross where the line crosses the river beyond the lake by an attractive steel cantilever bridge.
Close to White Pass summit the line passes a huge and impressive cantilever steel bridge which was widely acclaimed as an engineering masterpiece when the line was built. An alternative route was built to bypass it when the line’s axle loading was increased for the new mineral traffic in the late 1960’s. A few of the old timber trestles survive, notably one on an S-bend a little before milepost 16 after which the line plunges straight into a tunnel and there’s a good view of the bridge and the loco to be had from the train window at this point. A little further on is Inspiration Point, a spectacular viewpoint which looks right down the gorge to the fjord south of Skagway. The balloon loop at Fraser was originally provided to turn the line’s rotary snowploughs and is now used for some of the out-and-back cruise ship trains from Skagway which don’t need to call in at Fraser as well as the steam trains.
This is a superb railway in every way. The scenery through which it runs is nothing short of spectacular and, with its flourishing traffic, maintenance is at a high level. Skagway itself became a backwater after the end of the goldrush, thanks to which retains many of its period buildings. Many of these have been acquired by the US National Parks service and restored to their original appearance in recent years. One of the finest is the original railway station dating from the line’s opening. It’s now a museum and visitor information centre. The small town is a visual delight, quite in contrast to the somewhat bland appearance that characterises many similar-sized towns throughout North America. On the edge of the town, just beyond the WP&Y’s shops, is the cemetery where many of the characters who contributed to the town’s rollicking lifestyle during the goldrush years now lie. Some of them were just plain rogues who don’t deserve the posthumous fame which they’ve now acquired. They’re accompanied by a disparate collection of other people mostly from the same era including at least one of Chinese origin, so Yuehong Dickinson assures me from the script on his grave marker.
The wildlife and scenery nearby are also spectacular. There’s a daily fast ferry to and from Juneau, the state capital around 90 miles to the south, which is probably the best place nearby on the coast to see the orcas and humpback whales which frequent the Alaskan coast during the summer. There are also boats to Glacier Bay, another fjord to the west of Skagway which is home to impressive tidewater glaciers at its head. Two centuries ago the entire fjord lay beneath an enormous glacier. The remaining glaciers are rapidly retreating, not good news in the long run but in the short term it means you’ve got a good chance of seeing a glacier calve, i.e., have chunks drop off into the sea, during a day trip there. The sight and sound of this are truly memorable. Back on the railway wildlife abounds along the entire route. There can’t be many lines where caribou, mountain goats, bears and bald eagles amongst other creatures can regularly be seen from the carriage window!
Skagway isn’t the easiest place to reach. The airstrip there can only handle small planes. These fly in from Juneau, the state capital, to the south and from Whitehorse which are served by direct flights from some of the major US and Canadian cities respectively. There are also direct flights between Frankfurt and Whitehorse during the summer. The Alaskan Marine Highway System operates ferries all along the coast between Bellingham, near Seattle, and the ports near Anchorage. Skagway is a major port of call for them though you need plenty of time if travelling this way.
We flew into Whitehorse from Fairbanks in central Alaska, a service which only operates twice a week. We hadn’t appreciated until we arrived at the airport that the plane would be a Hawker Siddeley 748 turbo prop, clearly a venerable machine and a delightful form of transport. On the way it stopped at Dawson City where we cleared Canadian immigration. Our Dawson City passport stamps were a source of great fascination to the officers at both the US border post near Skagway and its Canadian equivalent alongside Fraser station, one of the Canadian officers commenting that she had no idea it was still possible to enter the country that way. At the US post we were asked by the customs officer, one Carl Mulvihill, why we were visiting and on being told that it was for the steam festival he promptly put a splendid Skagway stamp in our passports showing a White Pass loco. We weren’t altogether surprised to find him riding on the train a couple of days later and it turned out that he’s the author of one of the best small histories of the line.
We stayed out of town in a log cabin at the Chilkoot Trail Outpost near Dyea (www.chilkoottrailoutpost.com), a delightfully peaceful rural spot on the coast ten miles or so away from Skagway. Dyea itself is nowadays a ghost town. It was abandoned after the railway opened and virtually all traces of it have disappeared.
A final word of warning. If you’re planning to venture off-road to find the perfect phot-spot keep in mind that this is bear country and go equipped with suitable bear gear. Bears have expanded their range in recent years and are now a common sight even along the coast. Kathy Hosford, our hostess at Dyea saw, and photographed, a grizzly behind our cabin during the first night we were there. We kept the place well secured for the rest of our stay!
Much of the info in these notes comes from Trevor Heath and Bob Turner. They both know the railway far better than I ever will and I'm very grateful to them for their help.