It’s July 17, 1897, and the headline of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer reads “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!” 68 rich men arrive in Seattle on the Portland with “stacks of yellow metal”. In no time, 10s of thousands of men and women are escaping the depression, buying tickets on steamers to take them up the inside passage to Skagway and the overland trek to the Klondike Gold Fields.
Would they have joined the stampede had they known just how treacherous the 600 miles of trails and waterways would be?
The White Pass trail connected Skagway to Bennett, B.C. over the mountains. By Canadian law, each stampeder required a “grubstake”, one ton of provisions and equipment to last a year costing $500. This was to be hauled the 40.6 miles (65 km) to Bennett on their backs or by pack animals. 3000 horses ready for the glue factory died on the White Pass trail through the inexperienced stampeders’ neglect and the trail’s hazardous and torturous terrain. A further 550 miles by boat through lakes to the Yukon River had people thinking of easier ways to reach the Klondike gold fields.
Enter Thomas Tancrede, representing London Investors, and Michael Heney, an experienced railroad contractor. Meeting by chance at the St James Hotel in Skagway, the 2 men talked through the night and by dawn had reached an agreement. The White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company was born and on May 28, 1898, construction of the railroad commenced.
For 30 cents an hour, stampeders worked on the railroad with one thing in mind, putting together the $500 required for their “grubstake”. This was a problem for Heney. He needed 2,500 men to complete the track by the deadline and was constantly replacing his crew. A total of 35,000 men had worked on the White Pass & Yukon Route by completion and ironically, as the last spike was hammered into the ground the Klondike Gold Rush was over.
These days you can follow the tracks laid over a century ago on the White Pass Scenic Railway. The gold rush may be over but the scenery, rugged terrain, and elevation haven’t changed since then.
The rail line is punctuated by historical landmarks. At milepost 2.5 the Gold Rush Cemetery is the resting place of outlaw Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Proclaiming himself the “uncrowned King of Skagway”, he scammed all and sundry with his telegraph office charging fees for messages never sent.
Frank Reid, remembered as “the man who gave his life for the honour of Skagway” killed Soapy in a late night shootout with a clean shot through the heart. Frank suffered for 12 days before Soapy’s less than perfect shot sent him to his grave.
At milepost 10.4, Black Cross Rock is another resting place, this one for Alex Juneaux and Maurice Dunn. Crushed by an unmovable 500-ton piece of granite dislodged from blasting, there the two men and their pack horses remained. A simple black cross marks their tomb.
The tallest cantilever bridge in the world was part of the track until it was retired in 1969. A little too much movement for comfort encouraged a new bridge to be built across the gorge and a 675-foot tunnel to be blasted through the mountain. The old bridge contributes to the White Pass & Yukon Route sharing an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark title with the likes of the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.
At milepost 20.4 White Pass Summit and the U.S./ Canadian Border are reached. Marked by the two nation’s and their states/ provinces’ flags, mounted police checked stampeders for “grubstakes” here and waved them through. What originally took a month or more to reach the, almost 3000 ft (914 m) summit, the White Pass & Yukon Railway reduced to 2 hours!
One train travels a further 7 miles to turn around allowing passengers on the right of the carriage the views passengers on the left enjoyed on the ascent. The other trains swap engines so to be safe, try to find a seat on the left of your carriage when you board. The downhill journey is much faster at just one hour, but the conductor slows at photo worthy mileposts.
Back in Skagway, continue the excitement of the gold rush with a tour of the Klondike Gold Museum or simply stroll Broadway Street to get a feel for what the town might have been like back in the day. The people of Skagway have maintained the saloons, shops and buildings in the street in the period. You’ll see ladies and gentlemen in period dress and “scarlet ladies” wandering the saloons.
Near the corner of Broadway and 7th, you’ll find Skagway Brewing Company. This stop is medicinal. In the 19th century, spruce was considered a source of vitamin C preventing scurvy. Ask anyone at Skagway Brewing Co and, with tongue in cheek, they’ll tell you it’s the reason they brew Spruce Tip Blonde, their signature brew. Don’t stop there, the Prospector Pale is worth a nudge and you need to leave some room for the Blue Top Porter, almost black in appearance, it has the rich flavour of dark chocolate. Skagway Brews are not bottled so you’ll only find them on the premises but they do fill “growlers” (1.8L refillable bottles) so you could take some home.
It goes without saying you’ll enjoy the brews but other tipples worth trying are their house-made infusions. Spice up your bloody mary with the habeñero chilli infused vodka or tequila. This works well in a margarita too. Organic lavender infused vodka calms the soul and for something on the sweeter side, enjoy a shot of pineapple & vanilla bean vodka.
In the kitchen, “Doc” Nelson and his crew prepare fresh from scratch real food from as much local produce as they can. Sockeye salmon salad or the warm salmon plate are recommended as is the local halibut fish and chips. The burgers look great served with hand cut fries. Pasta, more salad options and a crab, artichoke and spinach ramekin baked with cheese and jalopeños turns heads as the aroma wafts by. The menu is gluten free conscious, caters to vegetarians and the kids have a section too. The only drawback is, it’s so popular. A spot at the bar is the way to go. Eli and Christian will entertain you with their banter, you’ll learn a lot about living in this remote town out of tourist season and the bonus, you won’t need to wait for a table!
Boarding time for the Norwegian Jewel is approaching. The next port of call is Victoria, British Columbia, a fair distance but you know what to do on your @ sea day. Skagway, the last of the Alaskan ports on our 7 Day Cruise and right up there as a place we love….