White Pass & Yukon Railroad
After gold was discovered near Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1896, the Alaska communities of Skagway and Dyea became the jumping off point between the ice-free port at Skagway and the Klondike gold country to the north for more than 40,000 gold-rush prospectors. There were two routes to the Yukon River and the promise of gold: the steep “Golden Stairs” of the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, or the 40-mile long, but less steep, White Pass trail. Two men with the idea of building a railroad along the White Pass route, Sir Thomas Tancrede and Michael J. Heney, met by chance in Skagway and the White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company was organized in April of 1898.
While Tancrede represented investors in London and was somewhat skeptical about building a railroad over the Coastal Mountains, Heney was an experienced railroad contractor and bragged, “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a railroad to Hell.”
The White Pass & Yukon Route starts at sea level in Skagway and reaches nearly 3,000 feet. The route’s tight turns called for narrow-gauge track and the finished line features rails just three feet apart on a 10-foot wide roadbed with steep grades of almost 3.9 percent. When the railroad’s first engine went into service after the first four miles of track were completed, it was the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere. The route includes tunnels blasted through rock, teeth-clenching bridges and 16-degree turns. The “Railway Built of Gold” was completed July 29, 1900 at a cost of $10 million – around $275 million in today’s dollars. It employed 35,000 men and 450 tons of dynamite.
Nearly a century after it was originally constructed, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad was reopened in 1988 as a seasonal tourism rail line. A steam-powered, rotary snow-plow originally purchased by the railroad in 1898 is used to clear the line in early spring. The route still starts in Skagway, a town of around 800 people located the Inside Passage. The Inside Passage is a major marine route in Southeast Alaska and cruise ship traffic has helped make Skagway one of the most visited ports along the route.
Skagway was also home to one the most notorious characters in Alaska history, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith. A hustler and con man, Smith was known as the “uncrowned king of Skagway.” He was shot dead in a gunfight, just four days after acting as grand marshal in Skagway’s first Fourth of July parade sharing a stage with Alaska’s territorial governor.
Skagway is also accessible from the Alaska Highway to the north, and is just a 108-mile drive or bus ride from Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon. Skagway is a port of call for Alaska Marine Highway ferries and a smaller commercial ferry that provides a connection to nearby Haines. Scheduled air taxi service is available from Juneau, Haines and Gustavus.
Cruise ship passengers can book an excursion on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad as a shore excursion. Booking is also available online or by phone for independent travelers.
The White Pass Summit Excursion is a round-trip from Skagway to the 2,865-foot summit of the White Pass. It passes through two tunnels and over trestles and waterfalls. The Yukon Adventure takes passengers 67.5 miles over White Pass and into Carcross, Yukon, with a stop and lunch layover at the historic Bennett Eating House in Lake Bennett. Travelers can hop on one of the railroad’s steam locomotives, Engine No. 73 or Engine No. 69, to Fraser Meadows. Hikers can also use the train to access the Chilkoot Trail and the Denver or Laughton Glacier trailheads.
Click here for more information on Skagway and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.