The White Pass and Yukon Route (WP & YR) is billed as the Scenic Railway of the World. It’s a narrow gauge (3’) railroad that was built to carry gold stampeders from tidewater at Skagway to, first the White Pass Summit (Late 1898) then to Lake Bennet BC, the head of navigation for the Yukon River (1899) and finally, 110 miles to Whitehorse (1900), beyond Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids where paddle steamers carried people and freight up the Yukon to Dawson.
The railroad was essential to the construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War and carried Lead-Zinc ore from the Interior to Tidewater after the war. In 1978 the Klondike Highway was completed to Skagway from Dawson and Whitehorse and in 1982 with the collapse of world metal prices the railroad shut down.
The White Pass reopened in 1988 as a tourist route and what a route it is. The company runs excursion trains to the summit, to Lake Bennet with a lunch stop and to Carcross in the Yukon where it connects with buses to Whitehorse and the Klondike. But for me the special treat was riding the train pulled by steam, engine 73, from Skagway to Fraser Meadows in British Columbia where there is a loop and the train can turn around and head back down to Skagway. At Fraser the steam engine needs to take on more water. The water tower at Fraser is long since gone so the train pulls up to a little creek. The Conductor jumps down with a small pump, unreels a fire hose and, with the Fireman standing on top of the locomotive, he puts the pump in the stream, fires it up, and the fire hose goes from flat to round as the locomotive takes on the water it will need to build a head of steam for the trip down the mountain to Skagway. At Fraser the running gear is greased and oiled. According to the Brakeman every winter the engine is practically taken apart and reassembled as part of a safety check.
Engine 73 makes all the right satisfying sounds of a steam train. The whistle is haunting, the huffing, puffing and hissing play to the rhythm of the rails. Between 5 and 6 miles out of Skagway the engineer clears the stacks and there is a lot of black smoke from the stack. You can ride on the outside platforms between cars, and that is the best place to get the feel of the trip, but if you don’t move quickly enough you can be stuck outside when the train goes through a tunnel. That happened to me.
I asked the brakeman if there were environmental concerns about burning black coal. He said the railroad was converted to bunker fuel, the same used in older ships, when the US Army ran the road. Bunker fuel is still pretty dirty. I wonder how long it will be before the 73 has to be converted to run on diesel or propane to build up a head of steam, for environmental reasons.
The coaches are a variety. The earliest is from the 1880s and predates the railroad. The wooden coach we rode on was from the 1930s. There are newer steel coaches, built to match the older coaches in appearance. Those built in this century have lifts for handicapped travelers. Each coach is named after a lake or river in the Yukon or Alaska.
Suzi and I first rode the White Pass from Whitehorse to Skagway in the summer of 1973, 6 years before the highway opened. In 1981, the last winter the line ran, we took it from Skagway to Whitehorse and back for the Frostbite Folk Festival. It was an ore train (Empty up from Skagway, full going out of Whitehorse) with one combination passenger car, caboose at the end. The kids loved it, riding in the caboose cupola as the train ran through deep canyons of snow cut by the rotary snowplow. In those days the train was notorious for running late. The initials WP & YR were said to stand for “Wait Patiently and You’ll Ride.” We took the train in 1990 with my mother on the White Pass Summit excursion. This was the first time Suzi and I had ridden steam on the White Pass.