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White Pass & Yukon Route.

D iscovery of gold in 1896 at Rabbit Creek, near Dawson City in the Yukon triggered the Klondike Gold Rush. With tens of thousands of people flocking to the region, the need for reliable transportation through the mountain passes was vital to success of the mines. That need would prompt a group of British, Canadian, and American investors to build a railway from Skagway over the White Pass to Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territories, some 325mi (523 km) away.

Chartered in London England, the White Pass & Yukon Railway was a holding company comprising of three companies:

  • The Pacific & Arctic Railway & Navigation Company covered the 20.4 miles in Alaska

  • The British Columbia-Yukon Railway covering 42.2 miles in British Columbia

  • The British-Yukon Railway spanning 58.1 miles in the Yukon Territory

Construction began in Skagway on May 27th 1898, headed by Michael J. Heney (chief engineer) and his Pacific Contracting Company. Less than a year later, the line would be opened as far as Bennett, British Colombia. Simultaneously, crews worked south from Whitehorse, Yukon, reached Carcross, Yukon, by July 29th 1900. Service between Skagway and Whitehorse began on August 15, 1900.

In 1902, the WP&Y established the British Yukon Navigation Company; its riverboats allowed the railroad to expand its base by serving customers that were not on or near its 107 miles of mainline. In all the WP&Y would operate 96 riverboats on various routes throughout the 20th century. As gold mining began to decline, other minerals, such as copper, silver, and lead became commercially viable. These minerals were extracted, shipped by Riverboat to the WP&Y, and then to Skagway, AK.

On October 1st, 1942, the United States Army commandeered the line to assist in the construction of the ALCAN Highway and for shipment of military equipment. Wartime traffic greatly exceeded the line's capacity, requiring the Army bring in locomotives and rolling stock from other railroads such as the Denver & Rio Grande Western, Colorado & Southern, East Tennesse & Western North Carolina. On May 1st, 1946, the railroad returned to civilian control. With wartime operations having left the railroad severely deteriorated, the WP&Y management began a series of modernization programs.

  • In 1947, two brand new steam locomotives-#72 and #73, the last narrow gauge steam locomotives built for an American common carrier-were purchased.

  • During the 1950's, gravel roads, automobiles, and busses, replaced riverboats in Alaska and the Yukon.

  • In 1953, the line pioneered containerized traffic. Containers were moved from Vancouver, BC to Skagway using a specialized container ship, the "Clifford J. Rogers". Containers were then carried on modified flatcars to destinations on the WP&Y.

  • Unable to acquire new steam locomotives, the line purchased 2 diesel-electric locomotives from General Electric (GE) in 1954. The success of which lead to the road operating 11 diesel-electric locomotives by 1966. In 1969 further prosperity would see the railroad purchase an additional 7 locomotives from the Montreal Locomotive Works, by the close of the 20th century, the WP&Y had 20 diesel-electric locomotives on the roster.

  • By 1969, 90% of the traffic carried was shipped by container. This pioneering service brought narrow gauge into the modern age, and set the pace for containerization in the continental US.

  • In the 1970s, tourist traffic surged due to cruise lines stopping in Skagway, AK.

An example of the success of containerized traffic is the operations of the Cypruss Anvil Mining Co. Their Lead-Zinc mine in Faro, Yukon (open 1969), shipped ore concentrate loaded in containers from the mill to Whitehorse, by truck. Where the containers were transferred to cars of the WP&Y for delivery to Skagway, 106 miles away, where the ore was loaded into ships' holds.

This prosperity would continue until the 1980s, when the Klondike Highway opened. Running parallel to the line, it began to siphon traffic away to trucks. Additionally, metal prices dropped forcing many of the mines to close. Despite a steady stream of tourist traffic, the loss of freight revenue forced the line to shut down on Oct 8th, 1982. However, this was not the end for the road; tourism to Skagway began to increase during the 1980s. This would revitalize the railroad, not as a freight hauler but as a tourist destination. On May 12, 1988, the line reopened for business after extending their tracks to the Skagway pier, allowing them to meet cruise ships in the harbor. Today, the WP&Y continues to serve the cruise ship market and is among the most profitable tourist railroads in the country.


Revised: December 31, 2015
Bibliography
Hilton, George W. (1990). American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2369-9.
Martin, Cy (1974). Gold Rush Narrow Gauge. Corona del Mar, California: Trans-Anglo Books. ISBN 0-87046-026-9.

Reference Material Available Online:

Other Sites.

Here at PacificNG we like to do our best to avoid duplicating the work of others whenever possible. The White Pass and Yukon has several excellent resources available online:

Boerries Burkhardt's Excellent White Pass Fan Site.
http://www.whitepassfan.net

Bruce Pryor's White Pass Pages - Contains Many Historic Photos and Folio Drawings of WP&Y Equipment.
http://narrowmind.railfan.net

White Pass Yukon Route Homepage - Official Website of the White Pass & Yukon.
http://www.wpyr.com

Documents.

Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1901..
Outlines the status of the railroad at the turn of the Century. Includes: Time Table, Rates, Rules and a list of vessels operated by the British Yukon Navigation Company.
The First Railway in Alaska - Railway Magazine, May 1899.
Locomotive Firemen's Magazine Volume 26
Discusses the construction of the WP&Y, includes several reproduced photographs.
Direct Link To Photo Pages.
The Four Track News
Shareholders Meeting Railway News, 1899
America's Toughest Railroad Popular Science, May 1954. Courtesy
The Canadian Magazine - Gateway to the North 1907
Little Trains to Faraway Places -
Alaska Almanac - Freight Rates from Seattle.
The Building of Railroads in Alaska
Travelling in Alaska (Great photos)
Through the Yukon and Alaska
American Monthly Reviews - The Rail Route to the Klondike
Rand McNally railway guide
Power Wagon - Motors of the far North
Introduction of domestic reindeer into Alaska (mentions WP&Y operations)
A Railway to the KlondikeCosmopolitan Magazine-
The Railroad Trainman, November 1899. Courtesy Google Books.
Photographs of the driving of the Golden Spike on the WP&Y.
Steam Shovel and Dredge - History of Railroad building in Alaska
The First Railway to the Alaska Gold Fields Railway Age 1898. Courtesy Google Books.
From: The Land of Tomorrow by William B. Stephenson Jr., former U.S. Commissioner in Alaska. 1919.
Touches briefly upon a handful of WP&Y topics including the effects of the White Pass & Yukon purchase of the Northern Navigation Company on St. Michael Alaska.

Photographs

Collected White Pass & Yukon Route Photos.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.

Rosters:

List of White Pass and Yukon Route locomotives and cars on Wikipedia.
[Editors Note: This is a well maintained resource.]

Steamboats of the Yukon River from Wikipedia

Maps:

Map of Alaska, Yukon Territory and British Columbia showing connections of the White Pass and Yukon route. from Library of Congress.

The Route of the White Pass & Yukon Route for Google Earth by Andrew Brandon.

Alaska \ White Pass and Yukon Route
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