Thursday, September 22, 2011

Skagway – the romance of rail

The story of the Klondike Gold Rush is a famous one – for the most part a story of dashed dreams, suffering and lives lost – for a few, huge riches – in five months (July – November 1898) 10 million dollars of Klondike gold had been deposited to the US Mint, by 1900 a further $38 million. It was also the story of incredible human endurance and innovation. I came to Skagway planning to see results of this part of the tale and to ride the White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) railroad. Also I looooove trains.
The story starts in 1896 when George Carmack and two Indian companions found a small amount of gold in a creek in the Klondike. News of the find was reported (overreported) on July 17 1897 and the rush was on. Tens of thousands of men and women headed north from the Pacific west coast, up the inside passage to Dyea and Skagway to begin a 600 mile trek to the gold fields.
To get there they had two choices – the shorter steeper Chilkoot Trail from Dyea or the longer less steep trail out of Skagway – the White trail. The Klondike was in Canada and authorities required that each person carry a ton of supplies to ensure they were-self sufficient. Both trails converged on the interior lake country from where a 550 mile journey would begin on the Yukon River and end in the Klondike.
The tortuous trip made any alternate transportation very attractive. This was the time of the railroad. A few farsighted men had the idea, came up with the plan and the financing and on May 28th 1898 construction of the WP&YR began. It took engineering genius, 3500 brave workers, 450 tons of dynamite and $10 million to complete the 110.4 mile rail line in 2years, 2months and 2 days!! The challenges were enormous – the track climbs from sea level in Skagway to 3000 feet at the summit in 20 miles. The grade is steep, the path winding, the rail had to cross ravines on complex bridges and tunnels had to be blasted through solid granite.
Long after the gold rush the WP&YR carried ore and concentrates from the Klondike to be loaded on ore ships in Skagway. From the days of steam the company moved on in 1954 to diesel electric. In 1982 mining operations ceased and the line closed – to reopen in 1988 as an excursion railroad.
When I saw that Princess offered an excursion on the WP&YR from Skagway to the summit of White Pass I jumped at the opportunity – it was a 20 mile, 3 hour ride but with such a history how could I not do it – I loooove trains!
We docked in Skagway early this morning and you can see how close we docked to the train (and the mountain!). 

It was raining but no worries off we went to board – real conductors; great guides with a wonderful commentary.

The 80 passenger coaches were old and reconditioned or replicas and had a blazing fireplace for heat. 

The weather meant that the windows misted over so we had a tough time with some of the ‘photos but the view and the experience were hard to beat.

Along the way we passed the things that make such a story come to life – the cemetery in Skagway where the original residents are buried – the heroes and the villains; the beautiful mountains, waterfalls and ravines with their evidence of past avalanches – presenting the challenge. 

Alongside the railway in places you could see the trail used by the original prospective prospectors; narrow and dangerous. 

The tight curves the track had to take. The grade we had to follow – 3.9% in places.

The wooden bridges and the steel cantilevered bridge (no longer able to take the weight and replaced) 

then the tunnels 

and finally US Customs – 12 miles before the Canadian border; 

then, at the summit, the US Canadian border with the flags of the US, Alaska, Canada, British Columbia and Yukon Territory flying. 

At the top, the engines unhooked and took a branch line to what was the last coach; hooked up and off we went back down the mountain.
Back in Skagway we were reminded that these South Eastern Alaska towns are small and that some of the inhabitants are a bit quirky

Perhaps that’s what it takes?

1 comment:

  1. I think I can hear Johnny Cash in the background ... "Hey porter! Hey porter! Would you tell me the time? How much longer will it be till we cross
    that Mason Dixon Line?"