By Carl H. Larsen
SKAGWAY, Alaska –“We landed in wind-swept Skagway. We joined the weltering mass, clamoring over their outfits, waiting to climb the Pass.”
Those are the memorable words of author and poet Robert W. Service in “The Trail of Ninety-Eight,” a poem describing the rush of humanity slogging up single-file over an arduous mountain path on the way to find their fortunes in the Klondike gold fields of the Yukon, nearly 600 miles away.
Today thousands of tourists aboard luxury cruise ships land each year in Skagway under crisp, blue skies if they’re lucky. They may not be seeking gold, but they carry the same spirit of adventure held by the earlier fortune seekers, and many are fulfilling long-held dreams “to climb the Pass.”
With only a day in port, it’s not possible for them to make the strenuous trek on foot up the “Trail of Ninety-Eight.” But an excursion to the White Pass summit aboard the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad offers a glimpse of the deprivation suffered and the determination possessed at the end of the 19th century by these gold “stampeders.” The train ride is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Alaska, serving not only cruise passengers but also individual travelers and hikers, with a host of daylong excursions from both Skagway and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
With military precision, the White Pass excursion trains line up in Skagway to meet ships at dockside from early May to late September. They take hundreds of cruise-ship passengers up the treacherous narrow-gauge line to the summit of White Pass, 20 miles distant, and then back to Skagway in time to explore the historic town, once the largest city in Alaska, and home to Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
Then, as the ships weigh anchor, the trains head back to the yards awaiting the next day’s influx. On some days, there may be as many as 6,000 passengers making the 3 1/2-hour run in a succession of trains climbing to the 2,888-foot-high summit at the border of Alaska and British Columbia.
It’s a bit overwhelming for a small town to have such a Grand Central feeling, but there’s no jostling or long lines in stores and restaurants. Most of the passengers have secured their train tickets before leaving on their cruises, although there is room most times for last-minute travelers. The cost of the trip is $110.
“Get the camera out,” advised Nancy Barnum of Spring Valley, Calif., a White Pass passenger with her husband, Ronald. “If you blink, you’re going to miss something interesting.”
Barnum said her combined train-bus excursion on the White Pass route was the highlight of her cruise.
Indeed, earlier this year, Parade magazine listed the White Pass excursion as one of the 10 best train rides in the United States. Others are even more boastful, and with good reason. The White Pass calls itself “The Scenic Railway of World.”
The explanation lies in awesome views from tracks that hug steep mountain ledges. Passengers look out over glaciers and the saw-tooth mountain peaks framing the coast of southeastern Alaska. If you missed something on the way up, don’t worry: The narrator on board asks everyone to switch sides in their cars for the ride back.
The names along the way borrow from the images: Rocky Point, Bridal Veil Falls, Pitchfork Falls, Glacier Station and Inspiration Point. At Inspiration Point, the best photo spot, we looked back down the line to see Skagway and our cruise ship, the Radiance of the Seas, as well as the Lynn Canal, the Chilkat mountains and 6,000-foot Mount Harding.
Beyond the natural beauty, there’s an unspoken human drama played out by each squeak of the wheels on sharp curves or the plaintive whistle cry heard from the diesel-electric locomotive. The railroad itself is an engineering feat, deemed an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It is carved out of solid rock in places and took the efforts of 35,000 men to build. Some were roustabouts who lasted a day on the job before heading to the gold fields while others were drawn by the security of a steady paycheck. Construction began May 28, 1898.
Originally the White Pass railway was 110 miles long, running all the way to Whitehorse in the Yukon to serve mining operations. Today, only about 68 miles of the line, from Skagway to Carcross, Yukon Territory, sees train service. A golden-spike ceremony marked completion of the railway on July 29,1900. By then the most frenzied years of the Klondike gold rush were over.
Stark evidence of the price paid to build this route lies 10.4 miles up the tracks at Black Cross Rock, where a blasting accident brought down a 100-ton block of granite on two construction workers. A cross marking the spot serves not only as a remembrance of them but also of the 33 others killed in building the railway.
At mile point 18.6, the trains skirt around the rusting Steel Bridge, built in 1901. At the time, it was highest cantilevered bridge in the world. In 1969, a new bridge was built nearby to support heavier loads on the railway.
Looking down 1,000 feet, I saw White Pass City, the last refuge before the would-be prospectors made it to the mountain pass. At one time 5,000 people lived here in a makeshift city that is today is overgrown with brush. Before the prospectors were allowed into Canada, they had to show authorities they had with them a year’s supply of goods, including food. This law resulted in many prospectors making multiple trips up the gold-rush trails toting their supplies.
Over the years the White Pass route has had to contend with the boom and busts of mineral prices. During World War II the railway was leased by the U.S. Army and used as the major supply line for construction of the Alaska Highway. In 1982, metal prices plummeted, and the railroad was shut down. By 1988, the growing Alaska cruise industry offered the White Pass a new lease on life. While most of the excursions are operated by diesel engines, there are two steam locomotives that run on Fridays and Mondays. The fare is $145.
Cruise-ship passenger Barnum says she and her disabled husband can’t wait to take the White Pass adventure again. Along the way she took more than 100 photos, hoping to win the ongoing photo competition on the railway’s website.
But I found there’s a happy medium between snapping camera shots of the terrific sights along the way, including bears and other wildlife, and sitting back and enjoying the ride. And somewhere along the route, the wind did raise a complaint, recalling the words of Robert Service for today’s fortune-seekers to contemplate:
“Never will I forget it, there on the mountain face,
Antlike, men with their burdens, clinging in icy space;
Dogged, determined and dauntless, cruel and callous and cold,
Cursing, blaspheming, reviling, and ever that battle cry –‘Gold!'”
IF YOU GO
Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park has a Visitors Center and Museum in Skagway and offers information on hiking trails used by Gold Rush prospectors: www.nps.gov/klgo/index.htm.
For information on getting to Skagway, upcoming events and places of interest, as well as a listing of cruise-ship arrivals: www.skagway.com.
White Pass and Yukon Route railway information on complete schedules and ticket prices: www.wpyr.com. The railroad also operates a large store of railroad-related items at its main depot in Skagway and at a satellite Train Shoppe at dockside, as well as an Internet souvenir store.
Carl H. Larsen is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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