Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 52 – Whitehorse to Skagway, AK

We passed through three time zones today, Yukon, British Columbia and Alaska on our journey from Whitehorse to Skagway, AK via bus and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.

The rush for riches was actually predicted by Skagway founder, Captain William Moore. He was hired by a Canadian survey party to map the boundary between the United States and Canada. Because the known route, Chilkoot Pass, was so rugged, Moore decided to head north over uncharted ground. The survey party reached Lake Bennett, near the headwaters of the Yukon, and named the new potential route, White Pass, for Canadian Minister of the Interior, Sir Thomas White.

The search for gold in the northwest Canada and Alaska had been underway for the past two decades and Moore believed that it was only a matter of time before gold would be discovered. Moore even suggested to his son that eventually there would be a railroad through to the lakes, and to prepare for the coming gold rush.

On July 17, 1897 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer broadcast the news of the discovery of gold in the Canadian Klondike. The newspaper reported that 68 men rich men arrived on the steamer Portland in Seattle with “Stacks of Yellow Medal”.

The news spread like wildfire and soon tens of thousands of gold crazed men and women steamed up the inside passage to Dyea and Skagway to begin the overland trek to the Klondike.

Some prospectors chose the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail which began in Dyea. Others chose the longer, less steep White Pass trail. Each person was required to carry a ton of supplies so as to have enough to last one year. Three thousand horses died on the White Pass trail because of the tortures of the trail and the inexperience of the stampeders.

Men immediately began to think of easier ways to travel to the Klondike.

Two men Thomas Tancrede and J. Heney, appeared on the scene with essentially the same idea: build a railroad through the White Pass. Tancrede had doubts about building the railroad through the pass while Heney though otherwise. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a railroad to Hell”. On May 28, 1898, construction began on the narrow gauge railroad.

IMG_0365 The tracks climb from sea level in Skagway to almost 3,000 feet at the Summit in just 20 miles. The workers reached the Summit of White Pass on February 20, 1899 and by July 6, 1899, construction reached Lake Bennett and the beginning of the river and lake route to Whitehorse and Dawson City.


While construction crews battled their way north laying rail, another crew came from theIMG_0367 north heading south and they met on July 29, 1900 in Carcross where a ceremonial golden spike was driven by Samuel H. Graves.

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 the harsh and challenging climate and geography to create the “Railway Built of Gold”.


For decades, the WP&YR carried significant amounts of ore and concentrates to Skagway to be loaded on ships. During WWII, the railroad was the chief supplier for the US Army’s Alaska Highway construction project. The US Army took control of the railroad during WWII.

The railroad was operated by steam until 1954 then the transition to diesel electric. After the War WP&YR gained international fame as an excursion railroad.

White Pass matured into a fully-integrated transportation company operating docks, trains, stage coaches, sleighs, buses, paddle wheelers, trucks, ships, airplanes, hotels and pipelines.

World metal prices plummeted in 1982, mines closed and the WP&YR suspended operations. It reopened in 1988 to operate as a narrow gauge excursion railroad.


The area around present-day Skagway was inhabited by Tlingit people from prehistoric times. They fished and hunted in the waters and forests of the area and had become prosperous by trading with other groups of people on the coast and in the interior.

Skagway was first incorporated in 1900 that was re-incorporated as a borough on June 25, 2007. As of the 2000 census, the population of the city was 862.

The population of the general area increased enormously and reached 30,000, composed largely of American prospectors. Some realized how difficult the trek ahead would be on route to the gold fields, and chose to stay behind to supply goods and services to miners. Within weeks, stores, saloons, and offices lined the muddy streets of Skagway. The population was estimated at 8,000 residents during the spring of 1898 with approximately 1,000 prospective miners passing through town each week. By June 1898, with a population between 8,000 and 10,000, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska.

One of the effects of the sudden rush of people was that some of the more experienced offered miners transportation services, often at highly inflated rates. A group of miners, upset with the treatment, organized a town council to help protect their interests. It can be surmised that the most influential members of the group were named Keiser, David McKinney and Marshall Bond. The town council included their names in the naming of the streets. The outcome was that as the miners in the council moved north one by one the control of the town reverted to the more unscrupulous among the newcomers and locals organized by Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith. Between 1897-1898, Skagway was a lawless town, described by one member of the Northwest Mounted Police as "little better than a hell on earth." Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on Skagway’s streets. The most colorful resident of this period was bad man Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith. He was a sophisticated swindler who liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy. He had gracious manners and he gave money to widows and stopped lynchings, while at the same time operating a ring of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and the shell game. His telegraph office charged five dollars to send a message anywhere in the world. Prospectors sent news to their folks back home without realizing there was no telegraph service to or from Skagway until 1901. Smith also controlled a comprehensive spy network, a private militia called the Skaguay Military Company, the newspaper, the Deputy U.S. Marshall and an array of thieves and con-men who roamed about the town. Smith was shot and killed by Frank Reid and Jesse Murphy on July 8, 1898 in the famed Shootout on Juneau Wharf. Smith managed to return fire—some accounts claim the two men fired their weapons simultaneously—and Frank Reid died from his wounds twelve days later. Jesse Murphy was actually the one who killed Smith.

By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway's economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over. In 1900, Skagway was incorporated as the first city in the Alaska Territory. Much of the history of Skagway was saved by early residents, such as Martin Itjen, who ran a tour bus around the historical town. He was responsible for saving and maintaining the gold rush cemetery from complete loss. He purchased Soapy Smith's saloon (Jeff Smith's Parlor), from going the way of the wrecking ball, and placed many early artifacts of the cities early history inside and opened Skagway's first museum.

The Skagway area today is home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and White Pass and Chilkoot Trails. Skagway has a historical district of about 100 buildings from the gold rush era. It receives about a million tourists annually, most of whom (about three quarters) come on cruise ships. The White Pass and Yukon Route still operates its narrow-gauge train around Skagway during the summer months, primarily for tourists. The WPYR also ships copper ore from the interior.

We had lunch at the IMG_0390Skagway Fish Company. Both of us had fish & chips and one beer each, total was $41.40. They also had Alaskan King Crab, one pound for $33.00. I mentioned that in Arizona King Crab was less than $10 a pound. The reply was that the lower Forty-eight get poorer quality crab and that theirs was top of the line from the Bering Sea. A man along side of us was eating King Crab, it looked the same as what I get from Frys in Tucson. 




IMG_0391Skagway Harbor

Whitehorse to Skagway Videos


Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Skagway to Whitehorse – Bear Crossing in front of bus.

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