WanderingTrader

White Pass And Yukon Route Railway In Alaska, A Most Scenic Mountain Trip

The White Pass and Yukon Railway links the port of Skagway, Alaska located in the United States and Whitehorse, the capital of the Canadian Territory of the Yukon. Normal commercial operations of the rail-line ceased in 1982, but was partially revived as a heritage railway in 1988.

In 2018, the historic line would be bought by Carnival Cruise Lines. This scenic mountain trip, a wonder of steel and timber, is the 26th stop in the travel series Off The Beaten Path.

The now purely tourist line, still uses vintage parlor cars. The oldest four of them were built in 1881, with four new ones created in 2007. The recent additions have followed the same 19th century design. Three of the cars, have been equipped with wheel chair lifts.

In 1896, gold was discovered by George Carmack and two native American companions, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie. As a result, the idea of a rail-line, quickly became seen as a viable business operation. Men and women were arriving in ever greater numbers, to mine gold, during the last years of the 19th century.

First train headed to White Pass, 1899.

At the time, the United States was in the midst of a depression. Tens of thousands of prospectors would come and make the arduous and dangerous 600 mile overland trek, to the supposed gold fields.

The original construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route began in 1898, during a period of time that has become known as, the Klondike Gold Rush. The new rail-line, was used as a means to reach the gold fields. Upon completion in 1900, it soon became the main route to the interior of the Yukon territory.

Three separate companies had been organized to build the rail link from Skagway, Alaska to Fort Selkirk, Yukon. Mostly financed by British investors, the 325 mile (523 kilometers) rail-line attempted to follow the difficult landscape, as much as possible.

Skagway, Alaska

There were a number of human obstacles, during the building of the railway. The local city government of Skagway and the town’s crime boss Soapy Smith, were among them.

Events would take a turn, when Samuel H. Graves the company president, was elected as head of the vigilante organization. The objective was to root out Soapy and his gang. In July of 1898, Soapy Smith would be killed in the infamous Shootout on Juneau Wharf, by guards at one of the vigilante meetings.

Graves would actually witness the killing. He helped manage railroad resources, in blocking off the escape routes of the Smith gang. This aided in their capture, which soon lead to a dramatic reduction in resistance, for general railway operations.

Train entering the main tunnel.

The same month, the line would now become the first train in Alaska, to go into regular service. The charter rights and concessions of the three companies, would soon be acquired by the White Pass & Yukon Railway Company Limited, a new company organized in London.

The following year, building on the rail-line reached the White Pass Summit, a full 22 miles (32 kilometers) from Skagway. At 2,885 feet or 879 meters, it was one of the most challenging points in the construction process.

The obstacles facing the builders of this rail-line were almost unprecedented. Sheer cliffs rising for hundreds of feet, with no real surveys.

Looking south from the tunnel in winter.

Snowdrifts in the winter time, could reach up to 30 feet and temperatures would sometimes dip to 60 degrees below zero.

While snow drifts remained an ongoing issue, the use of a rotary snow plow, made it possible to continue work and service on the line, except during times of blizzards.

However, the fact that the railroad was largely built in the rocks, this made it nearly immune from spring washouts, during the rapid spring snow melts.

A further complication was the reality that the local wood could not be used ,since it splintered too easily. Every bridge timber had to be imported, as were most of the other construction supplies.

More than 450 tons of explosives, would be required in the building of the railroad.

One of the present-day White Pass diesel locomotives.

For the first 20 miles coming out of Skagway, the construction costs averaged $100,000 USD (United States Dollar) per mile. This was a staggering amount for the time. It is equal to around $3 million USD, in today’s valuation.

In addition, a 250 foot (76.2 meters) tunnel, had to be blasted out of the rock. There is another tunnel and numerous bridges and trestles, throughout the rail-line, that were quite difficult and expensive to build.

The railroad features steep grades of almost 3.9%. The tight curves of the White Pass, called for a narrow gauge railroad. This meant that the rails would be only three feet apart on a ten foot wide road bed.

At least 35 workers would lose their lives, in the building of the rail-line. A total of 35,000 individuals would work on the railroad, during its construction.

White Pass and Yukon Route No 93

The railway was completed in July 1900, with service starting the following month. The entire project cost $10 million USD. It was the product of British financing, Canadian contracting and American engineering.

However by then, the Gold Rush was pretty much over and professional mining for copper, lead, silver had already begun.

The White Pass & Yukon Railway Company would survive the Great Depression of the 1930’s and would later be leased by the United States Army, during World War II.

White Pass & Yukon Route.

In the post war era, passenger traffic on the White Pass & Yukon Railway Company (WP&YR) was increasing, as cruise ships started to visit Alaska’s Inside Passage. Until 1978, there was not even a road from Skagway to Whitehorse.

However, WP & YR would still rely on the movement of ores, from the mines to the coast, in order to stay in business.

In 1982, as metal prices plunged, the mines starting closing, soon dooming the railroad as a commercial enterprise.

The railway although closed, was the focus of the first episode of the BBC television series Great Little Railways in 1983.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Building is now a museum and home of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

The 2018 purchase of the WP & YR by Carnival Cruise Lines for $290 million USD, will ensure the survivability of the line, and possibly even pay for further extensions, if there is enough tourist interest in new projects.

Visitors from the train can now view a breathtaking panorama of mountains, with glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, and historic sites, as well as the trek of the railway itself.

The present length of the line is 107 miles (172 kilometers) from Skagway to Whitehorse. Another line runs for 67.5 miles or 108.6 kilometers from Skagway to Carcross (originally known as Caribou Crossing), in the Yukon Territory of Canada.

The small city of Skagway is now a tourist spot, home to Gold Rush era buildings, now part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

Location

The White Pass and Yukon Railway can be accessed from Skagway, Alaska a compact city in a southeast portion of the state, along the popular Inside Passage.

Arranging A Tour

Phone Number for reservations on the White Pass and Yukon Route

1-(800-343-7373) or by e-mail: info@wpyr.com

Fax number: (907) 383 – 2734

Mailing Address

231 Second Avenue

PO Box 435

Skagway, Alaska 99840-0435

Website: https://wpyr.com/

One way trips and overnight camping, are also available for tourists, outside the main rail excursions.

Entrance Fee

Reservations are required, on all of the train excursions.

There are a number of different reservations that can be made, depending on your interest and time available. The White Pass Summit Excursion, the most popular, allows a visitor the opportunity to retrace the original route to the White Pass Summit, passing Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point and Dead Horse Gulch.

The cost of an adult fare is $125.00 USD.

For a child (ages 3-12 )the cost is $62.50 USD.

Infants under 3 are admitted at no cost.

If you are arriving by cruise ship, the tour is available through the Shore Excursion Department of your cruise line. This will provide you dockside service, so you can board the train on the pier.

The Bennett Scenic Journey cost for an adult fare is $234.00 USD.

For a child (ages 3-12 )the cost is $117.00 USD.

Infants under 3, are admitted at no cost.

Days and Hours of Park Operations

The White Pass Summit Excursion is 40 miles round trip and will take a total of 3 to 3.5 hours, to complete. Complimentary bottled water is provided and each rail car is equipped with a restroom. No passport is needed, for this particular excursion.

Skagway to White Pass is at 8:15 AM to 12:45 PM daily local time – 4:30 PM on Tuesday and Wednesday only, from the end of May to the end of August.

The Bennett Scenic Journey allows a traveler to go the 67.5 miles by train (120 miles round trip) between Skagway and Carcross, in the Yukon Territory. It is along the same route that the Klondike adventurers traveled in 1898. The trip will take about 8 hours.

Lunch will be provided and will be served on board. Dietary options provided, if requested in advance.

Bottled water is included. Each rail-car is equipped, with a restroom. This train is not outfitted, with a wheel chair lift.

The excursion features a 45 minute layover in Bennett Station. One can visit the White Pass Museum and a self guided walking tour, of the historic gold rush town.

A passport is required, since you will be entering Canada.

The train to Carcross leaves at 7:45 AM on Tuesday,Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday from the end of May, to the beginning of September. A bus will return you to Skagway.

The Bus to Carcross, with a train ride to Skagway leaves at 9:30 AM. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion was not running, throughout all of 2018. Normal operations to resume in the near future. The 54 mile round trip, takes the tourist from Skagway pass White Pass Summit, to Fraser Meadows. The duration of the trip is about 4 hours.

The fully narrated tour, passes through two tunnels and by waterfalls, as one goes over sky high trestles.

The train is not equipped with a wheel chair lift, but each car does have a restroom. Complimentary bottled water is provided.

A passport is required since you will be leaving the United States and entering Canada.

Lodging

Is available in Skagway.

Helpful Hints

  • Remember the sun can be intense during the day. Apply sunscreen if you are taking a one way trip, instead of the regular train tours.
  • Use sunglasses, to protect your eyes in the bright sun.
  • Wear suitable footwear (closed-toes shoes), for walking and hiking outdoors.
  • Stay hydrated, bring bottled water, if you will be hiking.

2 Comments

  1. Scenic rail journeys are my secret passion. I adore taking the train when it passes through wonderful landscapes. It’s so relaxing! This is one train trip we haven’t done yet, but it’s now on my must-do list, along with the Trans-Siberian Express, although I’ll have to save up a bit to do that one! In the meantime, we have a visit to the Cayman Islands to look forward to, so my wife can soak up some sun!

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