Riding an Alaskan Railroad!

Photos and Story by Richard Ferrin

Recently, I was able to go on a Family Cruise to Alaska, and one of the exciting points of interest to me (being a train enthusiast) was the chance to ride the WP&YR railroad in Skagway, Alaska.

Knowing there are many railroad lovers in our group, I bring you some of the sights I experienced on this incredible scenic train trip. I highly recommend this excursion to anyone taking an Alaska Cruise that makes port in Skagway.

The White Pass & Yukon Route is the railroad route that connects Skagway, Alaska (sea level). to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (2,078 foot elevation). But why was it built?  First, we must go back to 1896.

Every railroad has its own colorful beginnings. For the White Pass & Yukon Route, it was gold, discovered in 1896 by George Carmack and two First Nations companions, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie.

The few flakes they found in Bonanza Creek in the Klondike barely filled the spent cartridge of a Winchester rifle. However, it was enough to trigger an incredible stampede for riches: the Klondike Gold Rush.

Tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives overcame harsh climate and challenging geography to create the “railway built of gold.”

The WP&YR railway was considered an impossible task, but it was literally blasted through coastal mountains in only 26 months.

The $10 million project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting. Tens of thousands of men and 450 tons of explosives overcame harsh and challenging climate and geography to create “the railway built of gold.”

The WP&YR climbs to nearly 3,000 feet in just 20 miles and features steep grades of up to 3.9%, cliffhanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. The steel cantilever bridge was the tallest of its kind in the world when it was constructed in 1901.

The 110-mile WP&YR Railroad was completed with the driving of a golden spike on July 29, 1900, in Carcross, Yukon, connecting the deep-water port of Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon, and beyond to northwest Canada and interior Alaska.

The White Pass & Yukon Route became a fully integrated transportation company, operating docks, trains, stagecoaches, sleighs, buses, paddle wheelers, trucks, ships, airplanes, hotels and pipelines. It provided the essential infrastructure servicing the freight and passenger requirements of Yukon’s population and mining industry. WP&YR proved to be a successful transportation innovator and pioneered the inter-modal (ship-train-truck) movement of containers.

The WP&YR suspended operations in 1982 when Yukon’s mining industry collapsed due to low mineral prices. The railway reopened in 1988 as a seasonal tourism operation and served 37,000 passengers.

Today, the WP&YR is Alaska’s most popular shore excursion carrying approximately 400,000 passengers in 2014 during the May to September tourism season operating on the first 67.5 miles (Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Y.T.) of the original 110-mile line.

The WP&YR railway is a unique and genuine, scenic and historic experience. During the train ride, the conductor shares epic stories of the Klondike Gold Rush and the construction of this narrow-gauge railroad with you while you enjoy the scenery.

Passengers are domestic and international visitors and/or rail fans who want to experience the breathtaking panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels, trestles and historic sites from the comfort of vintage parlor cars.

The WP&YR rail fleet consists of 20 diesel-electric locomotives, 70 restored and replica parlor cars and two steam locomotives. The diesel-electric locomotives are General Electric units dating back to the 1950s and ALCO units from the 1960s.

Photo Courtesy: WP&YR

The pride of the fleet is Engine #73, a fully restored 1947 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado class steam locomotive and was joined in 2005 by No.69, a Baldwin 2-8-0 built for WP&YR in 1907.

The WP&YR parlor cars are named after lakes and rivers in Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia and are on average 49 years old. The oldest car, Lake Emerald, was built in 1883.

Photo Courtesy: WP&YR

In May 2001, WP&YR was showcased by Canada Post on a 60-cent stamp in its Canada Attractions set made for the international Canada to USA rate.

Photo Courtesy: Canada Post

The WP&YR is also featured on PBS’s “Great Scenic Rail Journeys” and in a nationwide one-hour special “Alaska’s Gold Rush Train.”

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway is “The Scenic Railway of the World.” This narrow-gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.

One last thing I would like to share…

At the Train Shoppe (the main gift, souvenir, and railroad memorabilia souvenir shop) I saw the usual trinkets, souvenirs and collectables. While there, I noticed a bucket behind the main counter filed with “parts” of some kind. I inquired about it and the manager told me they were some of the original rail spikes that had been pulled up during rail maintenance during the Covid-19 forced closure (the city and railroad were shut down from April 2020 thru Aug. 7, 2021, four weeks before my cruise). The spikes were mostly damaged and bent, but he said I could look through them and if I wanted any he would sell me one for $3.00.  So, I looked…. And look what I found!

A real piece of history!

You can learn more about the railroad at its website at this link.

November 9th, 2021