On July 17, 1897, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a banner headline proclaiming “Gold! Gold! Gold!” and reporting that 68 men fresh from Alaska had arrived in town loaded down with “stacks of yellow metal.” The rush was on!
They called themselves “stampeders” — those hearty men and women who found themselves in Skagway, Alaska, bound for the gold fields of the Klondike. But before they could reach the Yukon River that would take them to Dawson City and the gold fields, they faced the arduous challenge of climbing either the Chilkoot or White Pass trail. And to make the task even harder, the Canadian government required that every stampeder haul one ton of supplies with him to ensure that he at least had a shot at surviving.
Three years after the rush began, on July 29, 1900, a pair of railroad gangs, one working from the north, the other from the south, met in the Canadian village of Carcross. There, they drove the final spike of the 110-mile-long White Pass and Yukon Route railroad. It was a miraculous feat of railroad construction that had required climbing mountains thousands of feet high, blasting tunnels through solid rock and building sky-high trestles over cascading creeks at temperatures sometimes as low as 60 below zero. More than 35,000 men worked to complete the White Pass and Yukon Route, which in 1994 was designated an International Historic Engineering Landmark, taking its place alongside the Statue of Liberty, the Panama Canal and the Eiffel Tower.
Today the narrow-gauge railroad transports tourists instead of gold-seekers, as well as weary hikers off the Chilkoot Trail happy for a comfortable ride back to Skagway. Whether they choose to ride in one of the classic coach cars behind a gaily painted green and yellow diesel or be pulled by a historic steam locomotive, Engine No. 73, a trip on the White Pass and Yukon Route is unforgettable.
Located conveniently adjacent to Skagway’s bustling cruise ship wharf, the White Pass and Yukon Route is a popular day trip as well an ideal point of departure for visitors planning to continue by motor coach (from Carcross) into the heart of the Klondike. U.S. citizens who choose a trip that crosses the border into Canada will need a passport.
In the early days of the gold rush, new arrivals had two choices for getting over the mountains: the steeper but more direct Chilkoot Trail out of Dyea or the longer but somewhat more gradual White Pass Trail out of Skagway. Both trails were arduous, and both had drawbacks.
The Chilkoot and its infamous “golden stairs” could only be ascended by foot. The White Pass could be navigated with pack animals; however, an estimated 3,000 horses died trying to make the climb to the summit in the dead of winter. The Chilkoot was also deemed safer because bandits commonly set upon travelers on the White Pass Trail.
Today’s passengers can look down into Cutoff Canyon, where the remains of the original White Pass Trail are clearly visible, along with the bleached bones of the horses that died making the climb.
Why would the stampeders choose to make such a hazardous climb in winter? Greed. Their goal was to reach Lake Bennett at the top of the pass, where they could make camp and spend the winter building boats in anticipation of the spring thaw. At the peak of the gold rush Lake Bennett was home to 30,000 fortune hunters. When the ice broke on May 29, 1898, it was reported that more than 7,000 crafts set sail. Some would strike it rich, most would not — while others would drown in the rapids of the Yukon River before they ever saw Dawson City or panned a nugget of gold.
The trains of the White Pass and Yukon Route that go on to Carcross also stop at Lake Bennett. The lunch stop allows time for passengers to walk the rocky shoreline where the gold-seekers camped and built their boats. Surprisingly there are still remnants of their encampments: rotting pilings, long rusty nails and the beautiful log church where they prayed for success.
The railroad offers a variety of itineraries, beginning in May and running through mid-September. The shortest is the White Pass Summit Excursion ($112), a popular 3 1/2-hour round trip that takes visitors to the summit but does not cross into Canada. The Yukon Adventure can be made as a one-way or round trip from Skagway to Carcross with a return by motor coach. Another option for true rail buffs is the Fraser Meadows Steam trip ($155) that runs Mondays and Fridays only, pulled by Engine 73. Special fares for children 12 and under are also available.
WHEN YOU GO
White Pass and Yukon Route: 907- 983-2217 or www.wpyr.com
Skagway sights and accommodations: 888-762-1989 or www.skagway.com