GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
Every railroad has its own colorful beginnings. For the White Pass & Yukon Route, it was gold, discovered in 1896 by George Carmack and two Indian companions, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie.
The few flakes they found in Bonanza Creek in the Klondike barely filled the spent cartridge of a Winchester rifle. But it was enough to trigger an incredible stampede for riches: the Klondike Gold Rush.
“A Man of Vision”
The rush for riches was actually predicted by Skagway founder, Captain William Moore. He was hired by a Canadian survey party, headed by William Ogilvie who had been commissioned to map the 141st meridian, the boundary between the United States and Canada. Because the known route, Chilkoot Pass, was so rough and rugged, Moore and Skookum Jim decided to head north over unchartered ground and seek an easier route to the interior. They reached Lake Bennett, near the headwaters of the Yukon, and named the new potential route, White Pass, for the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Sir Thomas White.
Moore had a 160-acre homestead claim in Skagway. He returned to his home and began to think about the changes he felt would soon come. The search for gold in northwest Canada and Alaska had been underway for the past two decades and Moore believed that it was only a question of time before gold would be discovered. He built a sawmill, a wharf and blazed the trail to the summit of the White Pass. Moore even suggested to his son that eventually there would be a railroad through to the lakes and to prepare for the coming gold rush.
The Rush to the Klondike Begins
The headline of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 17, 1897 broadcast the news of the discovery of gold in the Canadian Klondike. Under headlines “Gold! Gold! Gold!” the newspaper reported that “Sixty Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland” arrived in Seattle with “Stacks of Yellow Metal”.
The news spread like wildfire and the country, in the midst of a depression, went gold crazy. Tens of thousands of gold crazed men and women steamed up the Inside Passage waterway and arrived in Dyea and Skagway to begin the overland trek to the Klondike. Six hundred miles over treacherous and dangerous trails and waterways lay before them.
Choices To Be Made
Some prospectors chose the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail which began in Dyea. Each person was required to carry a ton of supplies up the “Golden Stairs” to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. Others chose the longer, less steep White Pass trail believing that pack animals could be used and would be easier. Both trails led to the interior lake country where stampeders could begin a 550 mile journey through the lake systems to the Yukon River and the gold fields.
Both the Chilkoot Trail and the White Pass Trail were filled with hazards and harrowing experiences. Three thousand horses died on the White Pass Trail because of the tortures of the trail and the inexperience of the stampeders.
Men immediately began to think of easier ways to travel to the Klondike. In the fall of 1897 George Brackett, a former construction engineer on the Northern Pacific Railroad, built a twelve mile toll road up the canyon of the White Pass.
The toll gates were ignored by travelers and Brackett’s road was a failure.
THE WP&YR STORY BEGINS
“…a Railroad to Hell”
The 19th century was the era of railroad building and an easier mode of transportation into the north was of interest to everyone. Two men appeared on the scene with essentially the same idea: build a railroad through the White Pass. Sir Thomas Tancrede, representing investors in London, and Michael J. Heney, an experienced railroad contractor interested in finding new work for his talents and interests. Tancrede had some doubts about building a railroad over the Coastal Mountains while Heney thought otherwise. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose” he bragged, “and I’ll build a railroad to Hell.”
They met by chance in Skagway, talked through the night and by dawn the railroad project was no longer a dream but an accepted reality. It was a meeting of money, talent and vision. The White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company, organized in April, 1898, paid Brackett $60,000 for the right-of-way to his road. And on May 28, 1898 construction began on a narrow gauge railroad.
Constructed Against All Odds
The White Pass & Yukon Route climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 3000 feet at the summit in just 20 miles and features steep grades of almost 3.9%. The tight curves of the White Pass called for a narrow gauge railroad. The rails were three feet apart on a 10-foot-wide road bed and meant lower construction costs.
On July 21, 1898, two months after construction began, the railroad’s first engine went into service over the first four miles of completed track. The WP&YR was the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere.
Building the one hundred and ten miles of track was a challenge in every way. Construction required cliff hanging turns of 16 degrees, building two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. Work on the tunnel at Mile 16 took place in the dead of winter with heavy snow and temperatures as low as 60 below slowed the work. The workers reached the summit of White Pass on February 20, 1899 and by July 6, 1899, construction reached Lake Bennett and the beginning of the river and lakes route.
While construction crews battled their way north laying rail, another crew came from the north heading south and together they met on July 29, 1900 in Carcross where a ceremonial golden spike was driven by Samuel H. Graves, the president of the railroad. Thirty five thousand men worked on the construction of the railroad – some for a day, others for a longer period, but all shared in the dream and the hardship.
The $10 million project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting. Tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives overcame harsh and challenging climate and geography to create the “Railway Built of Gold.”
Life After The Gold Rush
The White Pass & Yukon Route has enjoyed a rich and colorful history throughout its century of operations. The Klondike has gone from the gold mining operations of the first stampeders to operations by large corporations who have gained control of mining in the Klondike. For decades the WP&YR carried significant amounts of ore and concentrates to Skagway to be loaded upon ore ships. During World War II the railroad was the chief supplier for the US Army’s Alaska Highway construction project and later gained international fame as an excursion railroad.
The railroad was operated by steam until 1954 when the transition came to diesel electric motive power. White Pass matured into a fully-integrated transportation company operating docks, trains, stage coaches, sleighs, buses, paddle wheelers, trucks, ships, airplanes, hotels and pipelines.
World metal prices plummeted in 1982, mines closed and the WP&YR suspended operations. It reopened in 1988 to operate as a narrow gauge excursion railroad.
The Adventure Continues
The end of the story of one of history’s dynamic events: the Klondike Gold Rush. One hundred thousand men and women headed north, but only 30,000 or 40,000 actually reached the gold fields of the Klondike. Four thousand or so prospectors found the gold but only a few hundred became rich.
What about the discoverers of the gold? George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie! Carmack’s gold allowed him to have a more adventurous life with two wives, and investment in real estate in Seattle and California. Dawson Charlie sold his mining properties and spent his years in Carcross.
Skookum Jim continued as a prospector and died rich but worn out from his hardy life.
For one hundred years the White Pass & Yukon Route has been an economic lifeline to the north. Freight and passengers moved about the north with ease and the railroad adapted to the changing times. It was the ability to adapt that kept it going – from freight, stampeders and gold to movement of ores and concentrates to tourism – each has been embraced and has given the railroad a new mission in the north.