Here’s some of what the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad website has to say about its history. It’s a fascinating story, and if you want to read more about it, here is a link: Visit WP&YR
“The White Pass & Yukon Route climbs from sea level in Skagway to more that 3,000 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.
Building the 110 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 Whitehorse heading south and together they met in Carcross on July 29, 1900, 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 this wonder of steel and timber.
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.
The railroad was operated by steam until 1954, when the transition came to diesel-electric motor power. The White Pass & Yukon Route matured into a fully-integrated transportation company. World metal prices plummeted in 1982, mines closed and the company suspended operations.
In 1988, White Pass & Yukon Route reinvented itself as a tourist attraction. The line reopened in 1988 to operate as a narrow gauge excursion railroad between Skagway and White Pass Summit. The active line was later extended to Bennett in the 1990s and to Carcross in 2007.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Within 15 minutes of our departure from Bennett we began to see snow on either side of the tracks, snow that hadn’t yet melted from the previous winter. Despite the fact that the skies were overcast, it wasn’t cold and I spent the majority of the next three hours standing on the platform at the back of the train enjoying the scenery and the fresh air.
I was in my element – three of my favourite things had all come together on this journey – my love of trains, my love of rocky landscapes and fresh air – all while moving at a relatively slow pace so that I could take it all in without being distracted by having to drive a car.
Anil was happy riding the rails inside the carriage, keeping warm by the pot-bellied stove and chatting with some of our fellow passengers. I was not alone outside, a young couple from the interior of BC spent the whole trip outside with me, and at one point I offered to take some photos of them when the battery died on their mobile phone.
For most of the journey the narrow-gauge track was a single line, but at important points along the route, we saw sidings where trains coming in opposite directions could pass each other. I noted that one of these places was at the simple little US/Canada border crossing. Our train did not stop but quietly slipped on by at the same speed we had been travelling for much of the way. The railway staff had made doubly sure that all passengers had proper passports or other documentation, there were no border guards in such a remote location and longer.
Shortly after crossing into Alaska our attention was drawn to the clear signs of the trail used by the thousands of prospectors who trudged the trail during the Gold Rush era. The footing looked treacherous with most of the snow melted; I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the depths of winter.
The scenery was stunning, so much rock, and lakes that were so calm they reflected the trees and mountains to perfection. We even got a glimpse of some wildlife. The conductor made an announcement that the engineer spotted a cow moose and her calf just to the right of the tracks as the train was approaching.
Everyone became quite excited to see them, but by the time our carriage, which was at the back of the train, passed, they were gone. Anil was the one who spotted them just entering the lake down a slope below the tracks. I just managed to snap a photo of them as they swam out into the lake. Thrilling!
After almost four delightful hours on the train, we began to see signs that we were nearing the end of our journey. Evidence of work being done on the maintenance of the track, accommodation for the workers, fuel barrels and eventually, a lonely-looking graveyard on the outskirts of Skagway were tell-tale signs.
I came back inside the carriage for the last part of the ride, to sit with Anil and watch as the buildings of the town came into view. Skagway is built on a rectangular piece of land, with one of the narrow sides abutting the water. The train tracks once ran down the centre of Broadway Street, but they were moved to the side of the town during WWII.
For this reason, when we disembarked, we were at the edge of the main downtown district of Skagway, and just a short walk from the port where the cruise ships dock. We arrived to find the town relatively quiet, as most of the ship’s passengers had returned to have their dinner on board. It was almost like having the place to ourselves.
Our plan was to stay the night in Skagway and return to Whitehorse by bus the following day. Had we wished to, we could have departed at 8:00am, but we chose the option of taking a bus at 2:00pm so that we would have the chance to explore the town at our leisure. It seemed we wouldn’t need a lot of time if we just wanted to meander down the few streets of Skagway, but I’d read that there were some interesting museums in town and we wanted to see them.
Much of the evening food options on the main street of Skagway revolved around loads of meat washed down by quantities of beer. That didn’t really interest us, so after checking our guidebook, we headed over to a restaurant said to be a favourite of the locals.
We had a fantastic Thai meal at the Starfire restaurant and it was clear to us that none of our fellow diners were cruise ship passengers. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of the Chilkoot Trail hikers who had boarded the train at Bennett were there as well, but we wouldn’t have recognized any them after they had washed off all the ‘grime of the climb’!