Yukon River: 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
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
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