After two days of visiting glaciers, we arrived at our first port of call which was Skagway. We arrived around 7am and hopped off the ship around 7:30am. We had an excursion planned – a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. For those of you who may not know, Skagway was the jumping off point for gold miners heading to the Yukon for the Gold Rush in the 1890s. There were two ways north to the Yukon from Skagway – The Chilkoot Trail which was steep and rugged, but shorter, and the White Pass which was longer but less rugged.
Both of these trails led the miners to an interior lake and river system where they could begin the 550 mile journey on to the Yukon River and gold fields. Many miners trudged through the White Pass carrying their supplies on their backs and using pack animals to carry more. It was a long treacherous route and many did not make it.
In 1898, a couple of businessmen met up and decided to build a railroad through the White Pass, and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad Company was formed. 26 months later, the narrow gauge railroad was completed at a cost of 10 million dollars which was financed by the British, engineered by the Americans and contracted by the Canadians. Tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives overcame the harsh climate and challenging geography to create this wonder of steel and timber.
In addition to being used by gold miners for decades, the railroad was used during WWII to supply material for the Alaska Highway construction project. The engines were steam-powered up until 1954 when diesel-electric engines were introduced. In 1982, the railroad shut down as gold prices dropped significantly and the mines closed. In 1988 the railroad reinvented itself as a tourist attraction and it came to life again. Over the next few years, the line was extended to the town of Bennett and later to the town of Carcross.
We boarded the train in Skagway and made it about 5 miles up the line when one of the two engines pulling our train had some sort of a mechanical issue so we slowly backed down the track about 4 miles to the trainyard where they switched out one of the engines and we were on our way again.
Along our ride, we crossed over two bridges, went through two tunnels, passed several beautiful waterfalls and saw gorgeous canyons below. We clung to the side of the mountain and touched the clouds as we crossed tall trestles. We passed a huge granite boulder with a black cross which marked the final resting place of two men who were killed during the construction of the railroad when the boulder fell on them. Their bodies were never recovered and the cross marks the spot in remembrance of them and other workers who lost their lives during construction of the railroad.
At one point, the train stopped to allow a bunch of hikers to get off. The hikers would be picked up at a later date by another train. The railroad donated a caboose to the U. S. Forest Service who placed it in use as a cabin that can be rented by hikers. Pretty cool!
We also passed by a steel bridge at 2,613 ft – this is the tallest cantilever bridge in the world and was used until 1969. Very impressive!
During the ride, we cross over into Canada at the White Pass Summit which is at 2,885 feet. “Back in the day”, the Canadian mounted police verified that the miners had the required ton of supplies which was needed to allow them to survive one year in the Yukon. Many of the miners had to make multiple trips to get their ton of supplies to the summit before they were allowed to cross over. Canadian custom officials are currently actually located at the town of Fraser B.C. as it is a more accessible area.
We got off the train in Fraser and boarded a bus which then took us further north into the Yukon Territory, past Carcross and to the small town of Caribou Crossing. There, we had a nice lunch and toured the area. Back on the bus, we drove back to Skagway, stopping for photo ops along the way. This was a FANTASTIC tour and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.
Back at Skagway, Steve went back to the ship while I made a lap around the town of Skagway. The town is lined with wooden boardwalks and a large part of the downtown area is situated in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. There are museums and archives filled with information about the town’s illustrious past.
Along Main Street, many historic buildings have been preserved, such as the unique Artic Brotherhood Hall which is the only remaining example of turn-of-the-century Alaska driftwood architecture. The entire outside is covered in driftwood! The Red Onion Saloon was Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. Now the building houses a bar and restaurant and is a National Historic Building.
There are a number of statues in town dedicated to the Klondike gold miners of the late 1800s. I enjoyed walking through this historic town. I headed back to the ship after walking about 2 miles and we sailed away towards our next stop in Juneau.