Riding the Rails from Skagway to White Summit Pass

October 7, 2007

Day 5 of my Alaska trip found us in Skagway. We took a train trip on “The Railway Built of Gold.” Why is it called that? Well, a brief history lesson…

The discovery of gold in 1896 in the Klondike triggered a stampede of people hoping to get rich. Some thought the gold nuggets lay on the ground, ready to be picked up. An estimated 100,000 headed for the Klondike in such haste they earned the name, “The Stampeders.”

To reach the Klondike, Stampeders had two choices, the steeper Chilkoot Trail, or the longer, but less steep White Pass. (Trust me, the “less steep” part is relative!)

Many chose White Pass thinking pack animals could be used and make the trip easier. They were wrong. The trip was too arduous and the horses were generally in the hands of inexperienced owners. Before it was over 3,000 horses died. (Watch the slideshow for one of Dead Horse Gulch.)

In this era of railroading, it was natural to think of building a railroad over the pass, but it was a daunting task. Blasting through granite, plus dealing with the steep slopes and deep snow, made it almost impossible.

But they did it.

Because of the tight turns, a narrow gauge railway was built. The rails are just 3’ apart on a 10’ wide road bed, which also helped lower construction costs. Over 450 tons of explosives were used, mostly black powder.

The ten million dollar project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting. Tens of thousands of men worked, sometimes in shifts as short as an hour due to the extreme cold, to complete 110 miles of track with cliff hanging turns of 16 degrees, with two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles.

The railway climbs from sea level at Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the summit in just 20 miles and has grades of almost 3.9%. This is the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere.

The White Pass & Yukon Route was designated an international Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994. This honor is shared by only 36 civil engineering creations, such as the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.

That’s the highlights of this railway’s rich history. It’s interesting to read about, and thrilling to ride. You can’t really relate to just how steep the railway is until you’re riding along and looking waaaaayyyyyyy down. A 10’ roadbed doesn’t seem very wide when a fall would be so far!

The scenery is dazzling, with evergreens, mountains, snow and rivers. Bridal Veil Falls tumbles down a mountain far way, the bridges and trestles are awesome, and there’s even visible remnants of the trail used by the Stampeders.

At the top, a little building is still there that was used by the mounted police. They turned back any Stampeder that didn’t have a ton of supplies, the amount deemed necessary to keep a man going for a year.

There was just a lot to see and learn about. It was a thrilling ride!

Leave a Comment: