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Alaska's White Pass & Yukon Railroad: A Civil Engineering Wonder - 2002-04-27

It will be two months or more before the last of the snow disappears from the peaks rising up behind the small town of Skagway in southeast Alaska. But Skagway's famed White Pass & Yukon Railroad will begin summer operations May 1 anyway. After all, if eight or nine meters of snow could have stopped this gold rush era rail line, it would never have been constructed in the first place.

In 1994 the White Pass & Yukon line was named one of the world's Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks. It may not sound like an especially prestigious award, but it put this tiny railroad in some pretty illustrious company. The Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty are all to be found among the award's 29 recipients.

On this morning, the Skagway docks are full. Four large and two small cruise ships tied up overnight. As the 15,000 tourists onboard awaken and venture down the gangway they find the rail cars of the White Pass & Yukon waiting for them right out on the dock. This historic line has been greeting seagoing vessels and passengers at the waterfront for just over one hundred years, beginning with the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s.

Leaving the waterfront and inching through town, a running commentary introduces train passengers to Skagway's beginnings as a gold rush boomtown. Steam ships out of San Francisco and Seattle began depositing wild-eyed prospectors by the thousands on the beach at Skagway in 1897. Gold had been discovered in the Canadian Yukon the year before and coastal mountain passes just north of Skagway offered the quickest route into the richest claims. However, many were so intimidated by Alaska's untamed wilderness, they returned home on the very same ship that brought them here.

Those who remained had to run Skagway's gauntlet of scam artists and thieves before they could challenge the wilderness. A play chronicling the short life of the town's best-known outlaw, a man with the unlikely name of Soapy Smith, has entertained summer visitors every year since the 1930s.

Ranger Carl Gurke with the Klondike Gold Rush National Park says Smith learned his trade during the Colorado gold strike then moved north. "So he came up here and he wanted to make himself the king of Skagway and he did that. He consolidated all of the criminal elements in town," he said. "He had his hands in gambling and prostitution. He also had a telegraph office that you could go in and send telegraphs to your loved ones back home. Unfortunately, the line didn't go anywhere, so your messages didn't go anywhere. But messages always came back saying, 'We love you, please send money.' And of course the messages themselves required some cash as well."

As the train picks up speed for the long climb into White Pass, passengers can peer out their windows and clearly discern the narrow trail used by the prospectors prior to the railroad's completion. Ranger Gurke describes the trail as the world's longest museum, noting that it's littered with millions of artifacts."There are hundreds of thousands of tin cans because that's where they got most of their food," he said. "Lots of fragments of shoes, because they probably wore out a lot of shoes going back and forth. Newspaper fragments from February 1898, still in good shape at the top of the pass."

The National Park Service is working hard to collect and preserve these artifacts before the wilderness reclaims the land. But what looks like trash along the trail doesn't keep passengers from enjoying Alaska's raw beauty. Thirty year veteran White Pass & Yukon Train Conductor Dan Law says passengers are often overwhelmed by the spectacular scenery and especially enjoy the wildlife glimpsed during the trip.

"Moose, bear, goats, porcupines, wolverines. We chased a moose up the tracks once," he said. "He turned around and wanted to charge us. He got to a bridge and realized he couldn't cross the bridge and he turned around and he was really scared. We crept up closer and closer to him and got about ten feet from him. His eyes were the size of saucers and I really felt bad for the guy. He finally turned around and jumped down underneath the bridge and went down about thirty feet and ran off into the woods."

Construction of the White Pass & Yukon line began just two years after the discovery of gold and was completed in an amazing 27 months. Remarkably, miners cleared most of the rail bed using only hand tools and explosive black powder. The climb to the White Pass rises 900 meters in just 32 kilometers, making it one of the steepest rail inclines in the world.

Although more than 100,000 prospectors converged on the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush, only about a half dozen actually walked away with any significant wealth. The gold claims were quickly consolidated into a few large companies and commercial mining replaced prospecting. In the years that followed, millions of tons of gold, as well as copper, silver and lead ore left the Klondike by rail and were loaded aboard southbound ships at Skagway.

Today, the railroad is operated exclusively for tourists and carries more than 300,000 passengers between the first of May and the end of September.

As the train pulls back into Skagway, passenger Prabu Valen reflects on what he's learned about Alaska gold rush history, The White Pass & Yukon line, and what it must have been like for prospectors hiking along the trail he's enjoyed from the comfort of his rail car.

Valen: "It's nice to get a feel for the kind of experience people had and kind of the troubles and tribulations people had to build this railroad and everything else."
Osborne: "Kind of hard to imagine walking up that with all that weight on your back."
Valen: "That's insane! I'm like, 'I'm staying - gold's not that important I'm saying home!' I would have been one of those guys that turned around and got back on the boat and went back home."