by Joe Thompson
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In July, 2008 we took a cruise from San Francisco to Alaska and back
(Thank Heaven). We visited the White Pass and Yukon Route
Railroad), a famous narrow gauge (three foot) line in Skagway. Read more about the cruise in my blog:
On Friday morning we awoke and looked out of our stateroom window and saw Skagway's famous Ore Dock and Ore House (!). When we were up and dressed I looked out to starboard and saw a string of White Pass and Yukon passenger cars, spotted below a cliff covered with graffiti left by the crews of many ships that had called at Skagway.
We were on the second section of the three-section morning train. It was pulled by a pair of shovel-nosed GE locomotives, flanking an ALCO. The first section was for people from the Coral Princess, which was docked behind us.
Our companions on the train had mobility issues, so we were in a handicapped-accessible car. I didn't write down the number. The wheelchair lift worked smoothly and lifted them right in. My daughter and I climbed up onto the rear platform of the next car and crossed back. There were three wheelchairs and a mobility scooter aboard. There were rails in the floor so that seats could be added or removed.
We enjoyed looking at Skagway as the train rolled out of town. My wife said it looked like a place where people really live.
Once we passed the town limits, they announced that we could stand on the platforms as much as we wanted, as long as we did not cross between cars. I spent most of the trip on the platform, watching the waterfalls and catching glimpses of the other two sections. I missed the bear.
We passed the summit and pulled to a stop just over the line into Canada. No one was allowed to leave the train. After the locomotives ran past the train, we waited until the third section of the train pulled into the siding. Then we headed back down to Skagway.
The Yukon Gold Rush began with the discovery of gold near Dawson, Yukon Territory in 1896. People headed there from all over the world, but especially from the United States. The most popular routes to the north were through the port of Dyea and the Chilkoot Pass or through Skagway and the White Pass. Canadian authorities required gold seekers to carry one year's worth of supplies, to avert famine. When the rushers reached Lake Bennett, they still had to build rafts and travel 500 miles to Dawson, near the gold fields.
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad was built in 1898 to ease the passage to the gold country. The difficult line was built using hand tools and explosives. It was built in record time, reaching the summit in February, 1899.
The line suffered through boom and bust periods typical of any road associated with extractive industries. The remaining mining industries collapsed in 1982 and the line closed. It reopened in 1987 as a pure tourist operation, running only during the cruise ship season.
When we got back to Skagway, we pulled off the main line and into the station. Our companions insisted that we get off while they rode back to the ship. We later learned that because of the area's severe tides, it took a lot of assistance to get them aboard.
On display behind the depot is steam-powered rotary snowplow 1, with its tender and caboose, which form its support train. The set has to be pushed by locomotives. The snowplow was built in 1898 by Cooke. It was used until 1968, then restored in 1996. The line is shut down in winter, but it can be fired up to open the line at the beginning of the season.
The snowplow ran again on 03-May-2009, pushed by steam locomotives 73 and 69.
We walked around Skagway, visiting various businesses along Broadway, including the Sweet Tooth Cafe. We picked it because it reminded us of Bill's Place in San Francisco. We wanted simple food after all the fancy stuff on the ship. My wife had fish and chips and my daughter and I had grilled cheese sandwiches.
We had a nice walk back to the ship, but I learned why the Tlingit name means "place of the winds". It got to be very windy and cold.
Skagway was our favorite port in Alaska.
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Copyright 2008 by Joe Thompson. All rights reserved.
Last updated 31-Aug-2008