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Yukon River: Losing Track

The White Pass and Yukon Route

More on the Yukon River:
Yukon River:
Route of the Gold Rush

North to Alaska:
War brings a highway to the Yukon

Bonanza - The quest for Klondike gold

Staking a Claim:
A First Nation's right to the land

Cold Rush:
Stampede up the frozen Chilkoot Trail

Scaling Fish:
Salmon spawners get over a dam

Heal and Purify:
A First Nation recovers from cultural suppression

Spreading the Word:
Yukon storytelling tradition welcomes the world

Losing Track:
The White Pass and Yukon Route

Hissing and murmuring softly on the dock, steam locomotive Number 73 stands out elegantly in its black boiler and red trim against the white hulls of the cruise ships tied up alongside the dock at Skagway, Alaska.

Today, the historic White Pass and Yukon Route carries passengers from the cruise ships over the mountains to the Canadian border at Fraser, British Columbia. The train travels through dramatic terrain, clinging to canyon walls, diving through tunnels, and skipping over waterfalls on wooden trestles. The line earns its slogan, “Scenic Railway of the World.”

When the railway was built a century ago, travellers to Alaska and the Yukon wanted something other than scenery. They were after Yukon gold. It was the difficult and expensive trek of gold-seekers up the Chilkoot Trail that inspired entrepreneurs to dream of a fast, easy way over the mountains.

While the Stampeders were struggling up the Chilkoot Trail in 1897, a group of British investors backed the building of a railway from Skagway on the Alaska coast over the mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon River at Bennett Lake. From there, the Stampeders could travel by boat down the river to the Klondike goldfields.

Construction began in the spring of 1898. Most of the workers were Stampeders wanting to increase their "grubstake" of money and supplies so that they could continue on to the goldfields of the Klondike. In August, rumours of another gold strike, this time in northern British Columbia, ran through the construction camps. More than half of the railway workers quit and headed for the new gold strike, most of them carrying off the shovels and picks that belonged to the railway.

Soon after reaching its first objective of Lake Bennett, the railway was pushed through to Whitehorse. The last spike was driven at Carcross, Yukon, in July, 1900.

At Whitehorse, the railway connected with the company's fleet of sternwheeler steamboats that connected Whitehorse with the mouth of Yukon River on the Bering Sea.

Like many mountain railways, the White Pass and Yukon laid its rails three feet apart (91 centimetres), instead of the wider standard gauge. The narrower track meant smaller, less-expensive tunnels, bridges, and ledges to be cut into the mountainsides. The railway is one of very few narrow gauge railways left in North America, all of them now dependent on tourists.

The stampede of prospectors was almost over by the time the railway was finished. But to kill off all remaining competition, the railway purchased and smashed up the aerial tramways operating over the Chilkoot Pass.

As the Stampede ended, commercial gold production in the Klondike was just starting. The White Pass and Yukon Route prospered by carrying mining machinery, supplies, workers and their families as far as Whitehorse.

Relations with Yukon Natives along the route were good from the start. Part of the railway route crossed land owned by Keish (Skookum Jim Mason), a member of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and one of the original discoverers of gold in the Klondike. In return for the right to cross his land near Log Cabin, British Columbia, the railway promised jobs for the people of the community. Tagish elders recall that the railway kept its promise into the 1950s.

The White Pass and Yukon Route was a critical supply line for the United States Army during the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II. Whitehorse become the main construction camp for the highway builders.

After the war, the overworked railway was in poor condition with little prospect for prosperity. The railway and its declining fleet of steamboats was taken over by a new Canadian company.

The new owner made the White Pass and Yukon a pioneer in using large sealed containers to carry freight. The railway prospered until the 1970s when a decline in metal prices caused mines to close in the Yukon.

The railway's fortunes were made worse by the opening of a highway between Whitehorse and Skagway in 1978. Rail service to Whitehorse was abandoned in 1982. Trains continue to operate infrequently as far as Bennett Lake, the headwaters of the Yukon.

Fifteen years after the last train left Whitehorse, the narrow-gauge tracks are overgrown with weeds and slender trees. Many Yukoners hope railway operations will be restored all the way from Skagway to Whitehorse to increase tourism which has become the Yukon's most important industry.

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