MP 0 – The Waterfront
Setting the Scene: In July 1897, when ships filled with eager gold seekers arrived in Skagway, they saw a wide, open beach. This was a rarity since this area is part of a natural fjord, where steep cliffs come right down to the ocean. Less than a hundred feet from shore, the depth of the water plummets to hundreds of feet deep. This combination made Skagway unique, and along with men seeking gold came men seeking opportunities to capitalize on Skagway’s location at the end of maritime navigation and the beginning of a natural, ice-free, corridor through the mountains to the Interior of Canada.
When gold seekers began arriving in Skagway, there was only one dock. Most ships anchored offshore, and people, animals and their goods were thrust off the ships into small boats that landed on a gently sloping shoreline. Thousands of tons of freight were thrown onto the shore where hordes of people struggled to move their precious grubstake out of reach of the high tide. Within six months, four docks stretching into the sea covered Skagway’s waterfront. Today, the only dock remaining from that era is the Railroad Dock which sits next to the cliffs that line the eastern side of the harbor.
Railroad Dock—Historic Dock and Ship’s Registry
In 1887, Skagway’s original homesteaders, Captain William Moore and his son, Bernard, came here with a vision that one day this would be a thriving port with a road and even a railroad through the mountains. Even before they built their cabin, they spent weeks building log cribbing for a wharf along the east side of the valley. Moore’s Wharf was leased and later sold to the White Pass Railroad, and today giant ships anchor in the very spot where the Moores began building their dream.
During Skagway’s early days, ships began a tradition of painting their ship’s registry on the sheer walls alongside the Railroad Dock. Most had the date they first arrived in Skagway, the name of the ship and its captain, and sometimes the name of the company that owned the steamer. Most of these very early markings have long since washed away, but registries from the 1920s and 1930s can be seen at the south end of the railroad dock. Today, the tradition continues with modern cruise liners proudly painting their own ship’s registry on these rock walls.
Broadway Dock—Townscape and WP Rotary Snowplow
We are sitting at the foot of Broadway Street, Skagway’s main business thoroughfare from the Gold Rush era to the present. The thousands of men and women who arrived on Skagway’s shore in 1898 had a view much like we see at the present – a narrow valley carved by glaciers and a pass through the mountains to the north of us. Many of the buildings lining Broadway today are the same ones that were built in 1898, and are lovingly maintained and restored by the National Park Service and the people of Skagway. Most are privately owned.
Just north of us you can see a large engine. That is Rotary #1, an 1899 narrow gauge steam-powered rotary snow plow, one of ONLY TWO in North America that still work. It is an awesome sight to see it spewing snow off the tracks in a huge plume. It’s a little too warm to see it in action today, but for you railfans, you can see it in action in the DVD sold aboard our train, and in other products sold by our railroad depot gift shop. North of the snowplow, the large, 2-story building is the 1898 White Pass Railroad Depot which is now the headquarters for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. If you look closely, you can see a bay window that juts out over the street. The railroad tracks used to run right down the middle of Broadway, and that window is where the railroad dispatcher sat, and hung colored flags out of the window to control train movements.
Ore Dock—Ore Terminal
The dock on which we are sitting has an intimate link with the White Pass Railroad and mining in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Skagway has always been known as the “Gateway to the Golden North” because of its strategic location at the end of marine navigation and the beginning of land transportation over the steep mountains that you see all around us. In 1898, it was the reason this railroad was built, and it is the reason we still operate today. This dock was named the Ore Dock because it was a staging facility for the transfer of train loads of heavy lead/zinc ore that weighed two tons per cubic yard. The ore was trucked from a large mine in the Yukon to Whitehorse, where it was loaded onto waiting railcars for the 110-mile trip to Skagway. The ore is still there, but because the world prices are too low, the mines are closed down at this time. But the Yukon Territory is so rich in resources – gold, silver, lead, zinc, emeralds, copper, and coal—to name just a few! – that there are always proposals to reopen the mines. This railroad stopped carrying freight in 1982 when the zinc mines in the Yukon closed. Today we specialize in showcasing our spectacular scenery and our amazing history for the thousands of people who visit us every summer.
MP 1.75-2.0 – Coach Tracks and Shops
Our fleet of 75 passenger coaches is a mixture of vintage and modern railcars. All are named after the beautiful lakes and rivers that dot Alaska and Northwestern Canada. Many pre-date this railroad’s construction, and were acquired over the years as various narrow gauge railroads in the American West went out of business. One of our oldest cars is Lake Emerald (Car 244), built in 1883 and acquired by White Pass in 1927.
North of these sidings are the maintenance shops where the railcars are repaired and efurbished. In 1954, White Pass Railroad began the job of converting their engine power from steam to diesel. Today there is a fleet of 19 diesel engines, all either built by General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania, or by ALCO in Montreal, Canada Sometimes as we pass by the shops we get a glimpse of our two operating, historic steam engines. Number 73 is a 1947 Baldwin Mikado 2-8-2, built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Big engine number 69 is a 1908 Baldwin 2-8-0 Consolidation, the largest engine ever to run on these rails. It has just recently returned to our fleet. The second engine to ever run on these rails, brought to Skagway in 1898, is old number 52. It has been many years since this 1881 Brooks engine was in running condition, but it sometimes rests on a spur track south of the shops.
MP 2.5 – The Gold Rush Cemetery
We are approaching Skagway’s Gold Rush Cemetery, on the right-hand side of the train. Life in 1898 Skagway was dangerous—if you survived the harsh White Pass Trail, disease or foul play were waiting for you back in Skagway. The cemetery’s most prominent marker belongs to Skagway’s hero, Frank Reid, while the town’s villain, Jefferson Randolph Smith, lies within his view. Smith was an infamous con-man who had honed his skills in tough Colorado gold towns. There he earned the nickname of “Soapy Smith” by selling miners bars of soap that he conned them into believing had $20 bills hidden inside. Arriving in Skagway in the fall of 1897, “Soapy” quickly named himself Skagway’s uncrowned king, and ran the town ruthlessly.
On the evening of July 8, 1898 Skagway businessmen met to find a way to rid themselves of Soapy and his gang of thugs. Frank Reid and his rifle were posted outside. Hearing of the meeting, Soapy rushed down to the dock, armed with his Winchester and two revolvers. Angry words were exchanged between Soapy and Reid, and then shots rang out. Soapy fell, dying instantly, while Reid suffered an excruciating groin injury. Lying in agony for twelve days while his wounds festered, Reid, even on his deathbed, was happy that he had rid Skagway of its notorious criminal mastermind, whose gang had been quickly rounded up and dispatched out of town after Soapy’s demise. A grateful town erected a tall monument to its hero, Frank Reid, with these words inscribed in the marble: “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.” Soapy was buried in ignominy outside the legal limits of the cemetery. South of Reid’s burial, the brown wooden steps lead up to Soapy’s grave, which is surrounded by the only bars that could ever hold him.
As we begin our ascent through this beautiful valley carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, we will travel through a section of the Tongass National Forest. On the left-hand side you will see the churning Skagway River, fed by glaciers that surround us on all sides and where you will want to keep an eye out for eagles perched on trees or driftwood.
MP 5.8 – Denver Station
We will shortly pass Denver Station, a popular hiking destination even back in Gold Rush Days. During the 1920s and ‘30s, convicts from Juneau were sent to Skagway to serve their sentence. Since in those days the railroad tracks from town to Denver station were on the opposite side of the river, the convicts helped to build a road for automobiles so tourists could more easily come out here to enjoy this beautiful spot. The road was never finished, but out of the right-hand side windows you can sometimes catch a glimpse of rock abutments, above the railroad tracks, that are the only remaining features from the road that was never finished. Today, you will see a red caboose donated by the railroad to the Forest Service to shelter overnight hikers. The Denver Glacier has receded high up into the mountains, and is no longer visible from our train, but as we pass the caboose we will cross the East Fork of the Skagway River. There are beautiful views out of both sides of the train, and for you railfans this is a good photo op of our train as it makes a turn to the left as exits the bridge. [In spring there are beautiful purple lupines on the right side, and Western columbine on the left, when the train exits the bridge. Sometimes Boundary Peak is visible at the end of the Denver valley.)]
MP 6.9 – Rocky Point
In a few moments we will be traveling through Rocky Point, a 120 foot high, 20,000 ton plug of solid granite. It took railroad blasters 250 tons of black powder to dislodge enough rock to lay a sixteen-foot wide railbed through the solid rock walls. At $600 a ton, the black powder for Rocky Point alone cost the railroad $150,000. The work was so dangerous that they had an on-site hospital to treat injured workers.
Before we get to Rocky Point, we will pass a large boulder on the left-hand side. You will want to get your cameras ready because shortly afterward we will arrive at a clearing where you will have a spectacular vista of the Skagway Valley and the harbor where the cruise ships are moored. Across the water is the glacier-capped peak of Mt. Harding, named for President Warren Harding, who visited Skagway in 1923. As we ascend toward the Rocky Point sign at milepost 6.9, take a moment to look back over your left shoulder and you will see beautiful Denver Glacier Valley. We have gained over 200 feet in elevation in just one short mile!
MP 7.3 – Brackett Wagon Road
During the Gold Rush, Skagway was known as the “Gateway to the Golden North.” Across the narrow canyon from our train, where today we see the Klondike Highway, ran the original route of the White Pass Trail. Promoted as a wagon road by Skagway’s original homesteader, Captain William Moore, it was little more than a treacherous footpath where loaded packhorses fell to their death into the canyon below. A better road for wagons was built during the winter of 1897-1898 by George Brackett, a former mayor of Minneapolis. Having lost his hard-earned fortune in the Panic of 1893, Brackett, with six of his seven sons and their families, arrived in Skagway in the fall of 1897 to regain their wealth by selling supplies to the gold seekers. He quickly became part of a consortium to build a new toll road for wagons, but had to buy out all his dishonest partners before he could complete it in March 1898.
Coming up on the left-hand side of the train is one of the few surviving remnants of Brackett’s toll road. Advertised as the “easy route” over the mountains, Brackett charged $40 a ton for freight, $10 for every wagon, $1 for every horse, and 25 cents for every dog. Because the men operating the teams of pack horses resisted paying these tolls, the only way Brackett was able to recoup his investment was to sell his right-of-way, and eventually his entire toll road, to the White Pass Railroad for $110,000. Keep those cameras focused, because just past Brackett’s toll road is the churning Whirlpool Section of the Skagway River. These Class 6 rapids have never been successfully navigated!
MP 8.8 – “On To Alaska With Buchanan” Rock
Out of our left-hand windows we are beginning to get a glimpse of Skagway’s International Port of Entry, the blue building on the opposite side of the canyon. Although the official border between the United States and Canada is at the mountain summit, there was no room to build a border station there. The Klondike Highway, completed in 1978, is open year-round for people to travel between Skagway and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.
Below the border station, painted in six-foot high white letters is the slogan “On To Alaska With Buchanan.” This sign commemorates Alaskan trips for kids from 1922 until the late 1930s sponsored by George Buchanan, a wealthy Canadian industrialist who made his fortune selling coal in Detroit, Michigan. He wanted to instill values of hard work and thriftiness, so the children were required to raise 1/3 of the cost of the trip themselves by doing odd jobs. This was a trip of a lifetime for these youngsters, and sometime in the late 1920s they rewarded Buchanan by managing to get across the canyon to that steep rock face and painting that sign. Over the years, it has been repainted many times by volunteer groups from Skagway.
MP 10.4 – Black Cross Rock
During the Gold Rush, the competition between Skagway and its sister city of Dyea, about nine miles west of Skagway, was fierce. Both were trailheads for pedestrian trails through the surrounding mountains – Dyea sat at the foot of the Chilkoot Trail, while Skagway was the beginning of the White Pass Trail. A fierce competition erupted between backers for each town, and the key to their survival was to develop the best transportation system. Even though there was an aerial tramway constructed to move the stampeders’ goods over the steep final ascent of the Chilkoot Pass, it was the successful completion of the White Pass Railroad that ensured the doom of Dyea, and Skagway’s survival.
On May 28, 1898, Skagway residents awoke to sounds of black powder blasting and steel hitting steel as railroad construction began. Two years, two months, and two days later the entire 110-mile long railroad between Skagway and Whitehorse was completed. Over 35,000 men were on the payroll during that time, but many worked for only a short time before they earned enough money to go on to the goldfields, or return home, disillusioned. It was hard, dangerous work, and 35 men died while building the railroad. We are approaching Black Cross Rock where Al Juneau (Jeneaux?) and Maurice Dunn were laboring on August 3, 1898. They were drilling holes into a rock that overhung the railroad grade when the 500-ton boulder unexpectedly broke loose and fell down into the clearing below our train. The small black cross that you see out your left-hand side window is on top of that boulder, which still rests on the crushed bodies of those two men and their mules. The man who was in charge of building the railroad, Michael Heney, later erected that cross as a memorial to all the men who died during construction, saying “No railroad worker could want a finer monument than that.”
MP 11.5 – Bridal Veil Falls
Through the trees of the Tongass National Forest, we are beginning to get a glimpse of a spectacular waterfall, Bridal Veil Falls. This waterfall has its origin in the Carmack Glacier, and even tired gold rush stampeders stopped to admire its beauty. There are falls and cascades its entire length as it drops over 5,000 feet to meet the Skagway River in the valley below. Only from the train do we get this view of its biggest waterfall. In just a few moments we will come to a clearing in the trees, and you will have an unobstructed view of this incredible sight.
MP 12.3 – Heney Station
During the Gold Rush, this valley that today looks so pristine was daily filled with hundreds of men and horses, all struggling along the White Pass Trail to get their year’s worth of supplies – a ton of goods! – to the summit of the White Pass. Just below was the largest settlement along the trail—White Pass City. By the end of September, railway workers, working in two 10-hour shifts, had laid rail to milepost 12.3, which was named to honor the contractor who built the railroad, Michael J. Heney. But costs were high, up to $120,000 a mile in the more difficult sections. By the fall of 1898, the railroad was taking passengers and freight to Heney Station, where they were unloaded. The freight was transferred down the 300’ incline to White Pass City by a winch-operated tramway to waiting pack horses. White Pass Railroad used profits from these rail operations to help finance the rest of the railroad construction.
Past Heney Station, there are some clear views of Slippery Rock, a sheer rockface discolored by constant water seepage. Alongside you can see our “High Line” track. We will shortly be up there! Blasting the grade and laying the rail along Slippery Rock took place in severe winter weather. Cold temperatures and wind limited the men to one-hour shifts as they dangled on ropes alongside the vertical, icy wall of granite. To drill holes to place the blasting powder, the workers used a technique called “double jacking”—one man held a steel bit between his legs, while the others took turns pounding it into the solid granite with their double-jack steel hammers. All for wages of $3 a day (30 cents an hour)!
MP 14.0 – Glacier Station
We are approaching Glacier Station, named for Laughton Glacier which filled this valley with ice thousands of years ago. Today it has receded so far up the valley that it is no longer visible from the train. It is an extremely popular hiking destination, some hikers riding the train to the trailhead while others take helicopter tours which land on concrete pads on the valley side of the train. An easy mile and a half hike will take you to an overlook of the glacier itself, and if you want to stay overnight, a cabin can be rented from the Forest Service for less than $40. After we pass the red boxcar on the right-hand side, we will be passing the trailhead and then crossing a bridge over the headwaters of the Skagway River. There are wonderful camera views on both sides of the train.
We are now beginning our ascent up the High-Line section, the steepest grade on the rail line. The grade along here is 3.9%, and we gain 206 feet for every mile we travel. This is about as steep a grade as any railroad can handle. As we ascend, the wisdom of the engineers in using narrow gauge track for the White Pass Railroad will become apparent. Our narrow gauge track is only three feet wide, and thus they only had to blast out a ten-foot ledge for the railbed.
MP 16.0 – Slippery Rock and Tunnel Mountain
In just a moment we will be hugging the mountainside at Slippery Rock, the sheer rockface we saw below. Imagine what it must have been like to get up every morning and have to hike all the way up here from the camp in White pass City–and backpack up all your equipment! Once around Slippery Rock, the men had the challenge of bridging the 900 foot chasm of Glacier Gorge with a wooden trestle. We are shortly going to be crossing this trestle bridge, and then entering a dark, 250-foot long tunnel that had a final blast on January 26, 1899. Many cameras over the years have clicked as our engines enter that tunnel.
MP 17.0 – Inspiration Point
Across the valley from us is “Mine Mountain,” nicknamed after the Inspiration Point Mine where silver ore was mined in the late 1920s. It sat 3,400 feet above the valley, and the owners built a tramway to move the thirty tons of ore over to our railroad tracks. While it only operated for a couple of years, remnants of the tram are still visible as a dark rectangle close to the top of the mountain. It is also an excellent place to spot cream-colored mountain goats sunning themselves on the warm rocks, or grazing in the small patches of greenery.
We are also almost at Inspiration Point, a spot that has been thrilling railroad passengers since the Gold Rush. If you look back over your shoulder out of the left-hand side of the train, on a clear day we can see all the way back to Skagway, the beautiful Lynn Canal, and all the surrounding, beautiful snow-capped mountains. In case you are wondering why the fjord is named “Lynn Canal,” it was given that name by one of George Vancouver’s lieutenants in 1794, named after Vancouver’s birthplace in England.
MP 17.5 – Dead Horse Gulch
We are now traveling along Dead Horse Gulch, commemorating the deaths of over 3,000 horses that died working on the White Pass Trail during the gold rush. The White Pass Trail had an infamous reputation as not being fit for man or beast. Commercial packers working on the White Pass Trail charged twelve to thirteen cents a pound to haul these goods on the backs of mules, horses, and oxen. The conditions along the White Pass Trail were horrendous–it was steep, rocky, and slippery. The horses were sick, overloaded, and underfed. They broke their legs on the rocks, got stuck in the bogs, and fell off the cliffs. It was so bad that people began calling it the “Dead Horse Trail.” Jack London wrote about this trail. He said, “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps. …Men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more. …Their hearts turned to stone …and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.”
MP 18.6 – Cantilever Bridge and Tunnel
Before the railroad could reach the Summit, the builders faced a monumental challenge: a yawning chasm over 1,000 feet wide and hundreds of feet deep. Their temporary solution was to build a grade along both sides of the canyon and install a turntable to simply turn the engines around. After the railroad was completed, they finally had enough money and time to find the solution: a steel cantilever bridge. Coming up on your left-hand side, this marvel of engineering was the highest bridge of its kind in North America when it was built. Used from 1901 until it was given a well-deserved retirement in 1969, it is one of the reasons that the White Pass Railroad was named an International Civil Engineering Historic Landmark in 1994, and is one of the most photographed scenes on our route. As we pass by, you can see that we wouldn’t want to be traveling across it today! In 1969, new tracks were laid in part of the old switchback grade, and a very long tunnel was blasted out of solid rock. This tunnel is 670’ long, and it will be very dark in there, so please be very careful if walking around.
MP 19.3—Trail of ‘98
Directly out of our left-hand windows you can see a narrow pathway. This is one of the few surviving remnants of the infamous Dead Horse Trail, where long lines of exhausted men and horses made their weary way to the summit. The trail and the many artifacts from the Gold Rush that still line the pathway are all part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Imagine that you are one of these stampeders, tired, dirty and worn out. It has taken you at least two days to make your way from Skagway to the summit, and along the way you have witnessed so many horrors that you are numb. No wonder when the railroad was completed to the summit in February 1899, now just a comfortable two-hour ride from Skagway, that the old horse trail was quickly abandoned. We are going to get closer and closer to this historic trail, until we actually merge, and we will be riding in the same spot trod by the stampeders and their pack animals so many years ago.
MP 20.4—White Pass Summit
You can see that we are now above treeline. We have gained almost 3,000 feet in elevation, and are in a sub-Alpine tundra zone. These short, twisted sub-Alpine fir trees may be short, but some were around to witness the gold rush. Because of the harsh weather conditions, they grow very little every year.
We will shortly be entering Canada. The international border is marked, on the left-hand side of the train, by an obelisk that is flanked by flags of United States and Canada. Since we left Skagway, we have gained almost 3,000 feet in elevation! Past the international border is a replica of the border station used by the Mounties during the gold rush, and waving out front are flags of the United States, Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and Canada.
Welcome to Summit Lake, British Columbia! This lake next to us is one of a series of lakes that form the headwaters of the Yukon River, the mighty waterway that took stampeders to Dawson City to find the gold they sought. The Yukon River is the third longest river in the United States. The waters next to us are beginning a journey of over 2,000 miles that will eventually take them to the Bering Sea in western Alaska, quite close to Russian Siberia. This lake is frozen much of the year, and is used for snowmobiling and skiing in the winter. In the summer, an occasional fisherman will try to catch a trout or grayling. And, at the end of every tourist season, some of our crazy train agents take a quick swim in this very cold lake!
MP 22—Snow Fences and Winter Operations
Now that we are above treeline, you can see how the landscape has changed. We sometimes see a variety of wildlife along this stretch, from moose or caribou to eagles and ptarmigan, the Alaskan state bird. You may also notice sections of old wooden fences lining the tracks. These snow fences were built to keep snow from drifting too high. The summit had yearly snowfalls of twenty feet or more, and winds that could whip the snow into seventy-foot drifts. In the days when the railroad operated year-round, these conditions sometimes brought trains to a standstill for days. Before 1960, when steam locomotion was used exclusively on the White Pass, winter trains were guided by the railroad’s huge, 1898 rotary snowplows. Shooting a plume of snow almost fifty feet high, it was a magnificent sight! Today, we only operate during the summer months, from May to September, when we welcome over 400,000 visitors to our exciting train excursions every season.
MP 24.2—Red Line Transportation Company
On your left-hand side you will see a sign commemorating the Red Line Transportation Company. Michael Heney, the man credited with building our railroad, also owned and operated a fleet of wagons and sleighs that were used to haul freight between the Summit and points north until the railroad was completed to Lake Bennett in July 1899. Lake Bennett was considered the head of navigation for the Yukon River, and thousands of stampeders lived there in 1897 and 1898, building boats and waiting for the ice to break up in May. Because it was used for such a short time, and because it was often a winter road on hard-packed snow and ice, few remnants of the old Red Line road still exist today.
We have also reached the highest elevation on our trip today, 2,924 feet, higher even than the White Pass Summit! From here, we will follow the Thompson River down a steep grade through some gorgeous scenery.
We are approaching Fraser Station. In the days of steam locomotives, the two-story water tower that we will see on the right-hand side filled up thirsty locomotives and rotary snowplows. It is one of the few original railroad equipment buildings still surviving from the gold rush era.
Once we pull into Fraser, the train will come to a complete stop. It is important that everyone be in their seats at that time. This is a good time to get out your personal i.d.—passports or other photo and citizenship identification. Canadian customs officials will be boarding our train, and coming through each car to check your documents. You must remain in your seats until you have been cleared by the customs officials. Only then will you be allowed to detrain.
We are getting ready to continue our excursion into Lake Bennett. The lakes that we will be passing by were simply known as the “middle lakes” by the gold rush stampeders, but other names, such as Lake Bernard, named after Skagway’s original homesteader, Bernard Moore in 1898, and Lake Fraser were also sometimes added. To the Tagish and Tlingit Indians who roamed through this area before the arrival of white men, they were simply known as “small or ragged lakes.”
Much of the route that we will be following parallels the old White Pass Trail, and the later wagon road used by the Red Line Transportation Company before the railroad was completed from the Summit to Lake Bennett. During the winter, transportation through this tortured terrain, on the frozen lakes and streams, was actually much easier than in the summer.
When we arrive at Lake Bennett, we will be at the spot where the Chilkoot and White Pass trails meet. During the gold rush winters of 1897 through 1899, this was one of the sites where thousands of people wintered over, waiting for the lakes to break up in late May. Men who had worked in teams to get their ton of goods packed over the Chilkoot or White Pass trails now had to work together to build a boat to transport themselves and their freight through the lakes and down the Yukon River to Dawson City, a meandering 550 miles north of here. Lumber was scarce, and a few actually packed boats or pre-cut lumber over the trails. But most stampeders cut down the local trees, and constructed a ten-foot high saw pit where they used 4-5 feet long whipsaws to cut the trees into boards. One man stood above, and one below, and alternately pushed and pulled the flexible saw. It was a horribly difficult job, and men whose partnerships had survived packing their goods over the arduous trails often floundered on Bennett’s shores.
As we pass along these middle lakes, we often see a variety of blooming wildflowers, and sometimes some of the Trumpeter or Tundra swans that migrate through here. Hoary marmots also live here, but they blend into the surroundings.
We are approaching the spot where, during the gold rush, there was a portage across the fast-rushing stream that connected the middle lakes. The original White Pass Trail then continued northwest, partway up Turtle Mountain, high above our railroad grade. Railroad employees knew it as an excellent spot to fish for grayling and lake trout, and built weekend retreats between the rail and the lakeshore. In late summer, the ripening blueberry bushes attract both humans and brown or black bears.
MP 32—Log Cabin
We will shortly be slowing down the train as we cross the Klondike Highway. The parking lot on the left-hand side is maintained by Parks Canada and is used by people hiking on or off the Chilkoot Trail. It is also an extremely popular staging area for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing during the winter months. At the end of every March, Skagway hosts the Buckwheat Ski Classic, and trails of 10, 20 and 50 kilometers branch out from here.
During the Gold Rush, there was a sizable community here named Log Cabin. The Canadian North West Mounted Police had a much larger station here than at the summit of the White Pass. The village was located in the woods on the right-side of the train. After 1898, there was also a winter trail, the “Fantail,” that left from here that followed the frozen lakes eastward to Atlin, British Columbia. There was a huge gold discovery there in 1898, one nugget was recorded as weighing 83 ounces. Gold is still mined in Atlin, but on a much smaller scale.
MP 34 to MP 36.5—Meadows and Beaver Lake
Out of both sides of our windows, you can see that we are now in a large, open area. This is a good spot to look for moose and caribou, who like to browse in these natural pastures. If we stepped off the train here and tried to walk across, you would quickly find that what looks like pasture is in fact a large, boggy area. During the gold rush, stampeders created trails out of logs laid down over the bogs, otherwise the sucking mud would have made it almost impossible to cross. As they crossed these fragile log paths, they cursed the hordes of stinging mosquitoes and black flies that made life miserable for man and beast.
In just another mile we will travel along an area where beavers have created their distinctive, dome-shaped homes in the small, glacial tarns that dot this area. Busy cutting down timber to dam small lakes into bigger ones, their lakes often wreaked havoc, flooding our railroad tracks. Over the years, White Pass employees spent many hours knocking down their dams to preserve the railroad tracks.
MP 39—Lake Lindeman
Coming up on our left-hand side we will get a glimpse of beautiful, blue-green colored Lake Lindeman. Known to the local Tagish people as “Murky Lake,” to stampeders coming over the Chilkoot Pass, it was a place to drop their heavy loads and rest. During the winter of 1897, a town of 4,000 grew up on its southern shore. Lindeman was a city of tents, very few permanent buildings were built there. Lakes Lindeman and Bennett are connected by the One Mile River, filled with dangerous rapids. But some men decided to try their luck in navigating its dangerous currents rather than pack their ton of goods around it. John Matthews is one man who never made it past the portage. In the fall of 1897, he twice tried to navigate his handmade boat through the rapids and boulders, each time foundering. He had just lost everything he owned, with nothing to show for all his months of hard work. In total despair, he cried out, “What will become of Jane and the babies?” and put a bullet through his head. The grave of this 26-year old man, far from his Idaho home, still watches over those dangerous rapids.
MP 40.6—Bennett Station
We will shortly be arriving at our historic railroad depot on the shores of beautiful Lake Bennett. First, we will travel on a loop track so that we can more easily reposition our train. On that loop, you will have an excellent view of the historic railroad station, the lake, and on the bluff over the track, you will want to watch for your first view of St. Andrews’s Church, the only other gold rush era building still standing in Bennett. Today, this site, which during the gold rush was filled with thousands of voices, tents and log buildings that lined the lake shore, is shared by Parks Canada and the Tagish-Carcross First Nation band. For centuries before the arrival of white men, the First Nations people came to Bennett’s shores to exchange goods with the coastal Tlingit Indians, and to hunt and fish. Today, there is still a First Nations family that calls Bennett home, and you can see that residence from the train depot. It is extremely important that their home’s privacy be protected. However, up by St. Andrew’s Church, the family often has handmade craft items for sale, and if they are here, they would welcome your visit.
At this time, I would like you to remain seated because we will stopping the train a couple of times. Once we arrive at the station, the brakeman and conductor will put down the steps. Only then will it be safe to get off the train. At the railroad depot, the station will be opened. The north side of the building is the dining hall, where for many years roast beef—often called moose meat!—and other treats were served at the long tables. Today, we have box lunches that we will take off the train and hand out to you as soon as possible. Please let us know if you ordered a special dietary lunch.
If you do not wish to eat in the railroad depot, there are other picnic tables around the depot. However, it is very important that you remember YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY. Leave all your trash in the bags located in our dining hall, and if you eat outside, leave no food discards on the ground for the wild animals.
In the south side of the railroad depot are restrooms which we will open for your convenience. Parks Canada also has a photo exhibit of what Bennett was like during the gold rush. The Parks Canada warden will conduct a walking tour of this historic site. He/she will be in uniform, and requests that you meet outside of the exhibit area. If you do not want to take the walking tour, please feel free to walk around on your own. However, remember that this is a very fragile area, and to avoid further damaging the site, you must stay on the designated walkways. There are many gold rush artifacts that still line the lakeshore and hills. THESE ARTIFACTS ARE PROTECTED BY FEDERAL LAW, and must not be removed. They help to tell the story of the gold rush, and lose their meaning when they are removed. Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints!
As we leave Bennett Station, we will have a beautiful view over our left shoulder of the Bennett townsite, with St. Andrew’s Church prominent in the background. Far in the background are the beautiful mountains of the Chilkoot Pass.
The rails between Bennett and Carcross were the last to be laid. Before the railroad was completed in 1900, Bennett was a transfer point between the riverboat steamers and the rail line to Skagway. These riverboats were moored all along this section of our rail line, and large warehouses extended out over the lake waters. Pilings and piers from these docks and warehouses are still visible on the lakeshore.
During the building of the railroad, Michael Heney had to find a way to move thousands of tons of rail, locomotives, ties, wagons, horses from Bennett to Carcross to build the line from Carcross to Whitehorse. The riverboats just could not handle that amount of freight. Heney subcontracted the job to his trusted foreman, “Stikine” Bill Robinson, a giant of a man who was best known for his ability to talk to horses, and to chew and spit tobacco. “Stikine” Bill built a cigar box-shaped scow that could carry 150 tons at a time. No one could tell which was the bow and which was the stern, until he painted “stern” on one end. Even though there were three propellers to push it through the water, no one was sure the thing would work!. When freight was loaded on her for the first time, she rebelled. Nicknamed the “Torpedo Catcher,” the heavily laden ship was slowly backed away from the shore and as “Stikine” Bill attempted to turn the craft to head towards Carcross, it began to spin around and around. The crowd lining the shore began to laugh, and then began singing a popular song of the day, “Waltz me around again, Willie,” as “Stikine” Bill took off his hat and bowed. Finally, he got the boat under control, and it made the first of many successful supply trips to Carcross.
As we travel along this stretch of rail, the lake will get closer to our tracks. All the orange mile markers will be on the mountain side of our tracks. Keeping the lake and train separate was a continuing chore for White Pass’s section crews over the years. Recently, the entire rail line between Bennett and Carcross has been upgraded to meet all Canadian railroad safety codes. The views along the lake are gorgeous, and have for many years been unavailable to rail passengers.
MP 43.1—Guard Rail Curve
Our train normally slows down to 6 mph for the tight turn up ahead. Guard Rail Curve is the sharpest curve on the entire railroad route. Along the bend, on the lake side, you will see the metal framework of an old avalanche cannon. Up until 1982, this cannon was used to trigger planned avalanches during the winter, and especially in the spring, when warmer temperatures could cause precariously-balanced snow to come swooping down. Today, the Yukon highway department uses the same type of technology to keep avalanches off the Klondike Highway during the winter and spring months.
When the railroad was being built, Michael Heney and Chief Engineer Erastus Hawkins knew that the rail grade between Bennett and Carcross would require much blasting before a rail line could be laid. But they severely underestimated how much blasting they would actually have to do, and sections of the route cost $250,000 per mile—or over $5.5 million in today’s dollars! One blast dislodged over 8,000 cubic yards of rock, and created a four-foot high tidal wave in the lake.
MP 45—Silver King Mine
The Montana Mountain area has an incredible wealth of minerals. Unlike Skagway’s Coastal Mountain range, Montana Mountain was an active volcano 135 million years ago, in fact it was active for 23 million years. A large fault running up through the mountains canyon contains many gold and silver veins, and mining was active here beginning during the Klondike Gold Rush. Coming up, on the mountain side, are the remains of a power plant of the Silver King Mine, about 4,000 feet above our tracks. The mine itself was closed during World War I.
MP 49.3—Heney/Graves Station
We will shortly pass a siding built in 1970 as part of track improvements needed when the railroad contracted to carry heavy lead/zinc ore from Utah station outside of Whitehorse to waiting ocean freighters in Skagway. The ore came from Faro mine, about 150 miles north of Whitehorse. When the mine closed in 1982, the railroad was unable to pay its bills and had to close in October. It remained closed until May 1988, when it reopened only to carry summer visitors. At this time, we still only operate from May through September.
Ever mindful of history, this siding was named after two men who built the railroad, Michael J. Heney and Samuel Graves. Since there is already a station twelve miles north of Skagway named after Heney, in 1989 this stop was renamed after White Pass’s first president, Samuel Graves.
MP 51.6—Pennington Station
We are approaching Pennington Station, named for Frederick Pennington, who joined his friend W. B. Close, and became one of the original investors in the White Pass Railroad. In the olden days, crew cut huge blocks of ice from the lake here, and put them on the train to Skagway where they were stored in sawdust-insulated icehouses. Only one of those old icehouses still remains, and it has been moved to property owned by the Park Service in Skagway, around 5th & Spring Streets. Pennington station has been closed for many years, and even before was more of a section house for railroad crew than a passenger transfer point. Today it is home to the occasional moose or caribou, and hundreds of ground squirrels and mice.
Past Pennington Station, you will see the remains of an old log cabin. Both fox and mink farming were popular in the Yukon before World War II, and there were many in the Carcross area.
MP 52.6—British Columbia/Yukon Border
We will be soon be at another landmark of your trip today, the border between British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. This marks the 60th parallel—or Latitude 60. The border was marked by a slash line through the trees that continued on both sides of the lake. During the gold rush, the Yukon was not yet a territory, it was merely a mining district that was part of the Northwest Territories of Canada. In 1898 it became an official territory of Canada, with Dawson City as its capital. In 1952, the capital was moved from Dawson to Whitehorse.
You may have noticed a large island coming into view on the left side. This was the site of a tragic accident in May 1898, when Luc Richard and Thomas Barnes were traveling on the frozen lake behind their teams of sled dogs. When they got near the island, they became alarmed about the poor condition of the ice, and began to head for shore. Before they could reach it, the ice gave way, and the men, their dogs, and their sleds vanished into the frigid water. Thomas Barnes managed to get back to the surface, and clung to the ice as people on shore attempted a rescue. After about ten minutes, just as the rescue party was about to reach him, he sank for the last time. Luc Richard’s body was found the next day, but it took another day to find the remains of Thomas Barnes. Both men are buried underneath the rocks and stony soil of that large island.
MP 55—Gravel Pit Spur
Much work has recently been completed on this section of rail. The open area to our right is the railroad’s gravel pit, where rail and ballast are stored. Until recently, the short bridges crossing the many creeks and streams that flow into the lake were just made of wood, but recent upgrades have made these steel-supported structures. During the summer, this open area is filled with fireweed, the official flower of the Yukon Territory. Fireweed is one of the first plants to appear in disturbed or burnt areas, and its magenta blooms lure both flies and bees. Many people harvest the flower petals, and cook them with sugar to make fireweed jelly, a very popular product of the north.
MP 56.6—Dundalk Station
We are approaching the Dundalk flagstop, named after one of the original British investors in the White Pass Railroad. During the days of active mining claims on Montana Mountain, miners would sometimes come down to the rail line to ride the train to Carcross, Whitehorse or Skagway. Today, White Pass Railroad is one of the few train lines to still make flagstops.
MP 57—Wheaton Valley and Mt. Gray
Straight ahead of us is our first good view of Mt. Gray, over 6,000 feet high. On the left-hand side, across the lake, is Wheaton Valley. If you were to go over there today, and follow up the Wheaton River, you would find the area dotted with remnants of many pre-World War I silver mines. The light-colored areas next to the lake are sand dunes, part of a unique landscape from the end of the last ice age, thousands of years ago. During the Pleistocene, gigantic lakes filled the river valleys of the southern Yukon. As the water level gradually dropped, strong south winds picked up the lake sands from Bennett, blowing them as far as Carcross. Although there is a small “desert” just north of Carcross, the sand dunes across the lake from us in the Wheaton Valley have received far fewer impacts from humans over the years. These sand dunes usually shelter plant species that appear in few other places, such as the Baikal sedge, an Asian species found in only four other sites in North America.
MP 58.2—Little Cabin
We don’t know who lived in the little, derelict cabin we will see on the left-hand side of the tracks, or why they chose to live here. Railroad workers remember seeing a bed and stove still there many years ago, and it may have simply been used as a warm-up shack.
MP 59.6—Watson Siding
The siding along the right-hand side of the train is over 1,600 feet long, and is the longest on the Bennett to Carcross rail line. You can also see that most of the telephone lines in this area are still standing. They were installed by the U.S. Army in World War II. Before the days of microwave towers, repeaters, and hand-held radios, White Pass train crews had to periodically stop the train, and hook up a line to one of those poles to communicate with the dispatch office.
Just north of here, across the lake, is the entrance to the West Arm of Lake Bennett, flanked by Finger Mountain. This is an isolated area, accessible only by water and largely unvisited by humans. On a clear day, you can see the entrance guarded by beautiful, glacier-studded peaks.
MP 62.8—McDonald Creek
The Big Thing Mine was first claimed by prospector James Murray, but quickly optioned by Colonel Conrad. Eventually, fourteen claims comprised the Big Thing. Hundreds of feet below the mine, the waters of McDonald Creek have been used to generate electricity. A steam and hydraulic power plant were built in 1911 to provide electricity for the mine and its tramway on Montana Mountain. In the summer it was powered by a water wheel (170 hp), but in the winter it had to be powered by a wood-fired boiler. The remains of the plant are visible in the grove of trees that will be coming up on the lake side. Along the track is old boxcar #734.
MP 65—Caribou Mountain
Coming up, there will be a view of Caribou Mountain, on the left-hand side. This mountain, which lies just east of Carcross, is a prominent feature of the area. During the gold rush, Carcross was known as Caribou Crossing because of the yearly migration of a herd of woodland caribou, but because there was already a settlement in British Columbia named Caribou, it was changed to Carcross in 1906.
MP 67—View of Carcross
Coming up will be our first good view of the community of Carcross, visible on the left-hand side. We are traveling on the same section of rail that Michael Heney’s construction crew was laboring to complete in July 1900. The ante was upped when “Stikine” Bill Robinson bet “Snow King” Moriarity that Moriatrity’s track layers would never catch up to Robinson’s graders. The men began working harder than even their bosses demanded, and at the same time began feverishly increasing their side bets. The excitement grew as the tracks neared Carcross. Heney had promised that the last section of rail would be down on July 29. Dignitaries were invited, and a ceremony was planned. On the morning of July 29, the track was two miles south of Carcross. By half past four, the track was still a half mile south of Carcross. Samuel Graves, president of the railroad, compared the speed of the men’s spiking mauls to “a cyclone.” Soon, the waiting crowd in Carcross could see steam from the work train, and then they heard its whistle. Suddenly, the workers laid the last rail, the train rounded the corner, crossed onto the bridge, and stopped. As dignitaries approached the specially marked last tie, they took turns pounding the last spike into place. At last, the railroad was finished! Cheers went up, cameras clicked, and the partying began, lasting well into the night.
We will shortly arrive at the historic spot where the golden spike was driven. On July 29, 2000, a huge celebration and re-enactment of the driving of that last spike was held in Carcross, with people showing up from all over the world. The bridge that we will cross was originally a “swing bridge”—a special bridge built to let riverboat and lake sternwheel steamships cross through this narrow section between Lake Bennett and Lake Nares. The first complete trip on the White Pass railroad took place on July 31, 1900—a passenger train from Whitehorse to Skagway. The fierce White Pass was now conquered, and the monumental task, once thought impossible, was now complete.
Welcome to historic Carcross! Much of the town was incinerated by a fire in 1909, and our railroad depot dates back to 1910. Inside the depot are restrooms, exhibits, and an information booth. Behind the depot are railroad and First Nation exhibit areas, while across the street is the historic Caribou Hotel and Matthew Watson’s store. Many of the buildings in Carcross are over a hundred years old, and a walking map is available at the information desk.
Thank you for sharing part of your Alaska-Yukon adventure with us. We are happy we could introduce you to our amazing history and some of our spectacular scenery. We look forward to seeing you again!