Inger and Jeff Latreille
All Aboard the Yukon
~Monday, September 12, 2022~
Day 84 of Alaska Trip
All aboard! Today’s our trip on the “Scenic Railway of the World” , the White Pass & Yukon Railroad to the White Pass summit.
Our noon departure seemed to be a popular one as most of the cars were full, even this late in the season. Unfortunately, there were no open cars that would allow us better views and better photos 😉📸. But the good thing was wherever you were seated, you were sure to see on the way back what you missed on the way up.
To help me in getting decent video/photos, there was a small platform between the cars one could stand on, that is when someone else wasn’t calling it THEIRS the duration of the trip!!! What is it with people,
that they think the world only revolves around them? It’s not a “seat” dude! He wasn’t even taking photos. So whenever the narrator prompted us for an upcoming feature, I made sure to wiggle my way in front of this guy to get my footage! And even then, he didn’t get the hint.
Starting at sea level, much of the train followed the Skagway River, passing the Gold Rush Cemetery early into our journey. This is a resting place for early Skagway residents and gold seekers, one of whom is their most famous…..gangster Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and Skagway’s hero Frank Reid who both died in a final shootout. Climbing higher, we saw views of Harding Glacier, Bridal Veil Falls which cascades on a journey of 6,000 feet (there are a lot of waterfalls named Bridal Veil Falls throughout the U.S.). At times, the route went more east in a switchback fashion to avoid such steep grades. Dead Horse Gulch was probably the most disturbing place we passed where over 3,000 pack animals fell victim to neglect or their complete demise during the stampede of 1898. None of the horses that were brought along the White Mountain Trail survived 😢.
One of the most astounding builds along the railroad was the 675-foot tunnel we passed through, driven right through the mountain. We crossed several trestle bridges, passing one that had partially collapsed in 2021.
She assured us that THAT bridge was not part of our tour. It was quite strange to be riding a train with ease and leisure, knowing the struggles that thousands of men took over the same terrain over a hundred years ago. Some of the White Pass Trail is still visible from our vantage point, now mostly consumed by vegetation or grass, no longer maintained, no longer traversed. Eventually, we made it to the summit at 2,888 feet where just beyond that, we crossed the U.S./Canadian border with the 3 flags…..Alaska state flag, the Yukon Flag, and the British Columbia flag. Behind the flags was the building for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stationed here during the Gold Rush. This was to ensure every man, woman and child had a year’s worth of supplies before they continued their difficult journey. This would be the turn-around point for us, but a continuation for others all the way to Whitehorse which we considered and thought a 3-hour train ride was plenty.
Thanks to 2 individuals joining forces, Michael J. Heney (the guy with railroad building experience) and Sir Thomas Tancrede (the finance guy from London), the White Pass and Yukon Railroad became a reality mainly to assist in the Gold Rush efforts, including carrying supplies. A narrow gauge railroad ensured that the train could make the 16-degree turns that were sometimes necessary. The 110 miles of track would also incorporate trestle bridges and tunnels (the tunnel was done in the dead of winter with temps as low as -60 below 0). To expedite the process, as in most railroad constructions, they began the railroad at opposite ends, meeting in the middle at Carcross in 1900. It took 35,000 men on the payroll, 450 tons of explosives, and a huge amount of grit and determination to overcome the harsh and challenging climate. The railroad would be completed in 2 years time. Unfortunately, its completion was a bit too late as most of the frenzy to the gold fields was nearing its end. But it was put to good use during WWII as the chief supplier for the U.S. Army’s Alaska Highway construction project. Its purpose as a tourist attraction has been around since 1988.
After seeing the Gold Rush Cemetery from the train, we decided to pay a visit in person. It is the oldest cemetery in Skagway and the most accessible for tourists. Many of the famous Gold Rush characters are buried here including notorious Skagway scoundrel and con artist, Jefferson “Soapy” Smith. After losing a gunfight to Frank Reid who also was injured and died 12 days later, it's not surprising they ended up in the same cemetery. Sadly, quite a few gravesites were children, including 4-year-old Hazel who was the first of many who died during a major epidemic of cerebro-spinal meningitis in 1898. Whether in town or on the Gold Rush trail due to unsanitary reasons or the harsh climate, many succumbed to this painful affliction. Inside the dreary cemetery is a short trail that leads to a beautiful surprise…….a 300-foot cascading waterfall called Lower Reid Falls (named after Skagway’s hero, Frank Reid).
Hungry from our morning excursion, we returned to the trailer for a light lunch and tidied up a bit before heading back out. Sadie knew what she was in for as we took her for a run on the huge green field that’s in close proximity to our campground. It’s the perfect place for her to get her exercise in since our Skagway visit doesn’t really allow her to join us on most of our outings. Around the corner, we paid another visit to the boat docks where, as expected, a new cruise ship sits.
This one is the Celebrity Millenium and it is HUGE!! It’s been really fun seeing the various cruise ships come in and out of this terminus on a daily basis. We ran into a few ladies heading back to their ship and said
it was one of the best cruise ships they’d ever been on. Noted. It would be fun to take a peek, but with all the security, this is as far as we go. Another cruise ship was parallel to the Millenium ship, but was too far in the distance to tell which cruise line it was. Just below the dock, the tide was high which presented a curious seal peeking up at us, also in search for his next meal.
We dropped our Sadie girl back off at the trailer before walking into town, enjoying a new brewery…Klondike Brewing. The beer was an excellent match to the great vibe this place had. Apparently, the owner, from South Africa, is one multi-talented guy who not only is great at the craft of making beer, but in the woodworking department as well……floor to ceiling bookcases displaying their brewery apparel, the bar, the barstools, the wall art. Not sure how he has the time to manage it all.
After checking out a few more shops downtown, we headed over to Skagway Brewery for an earlyish dinner. It was $14 burger night, which included their homemade version of a veggie burger. It was one of the best I’ve ever had and the onion rings…..to die for. Jeff had a regular hamburger and fries which were equally delicious and we split a tiramisu. Also fantastic. Our waitress was awesome, originally from New Jersey…going home for a bit after they shut down Skagway, then she’s off to Mexico to work on her studies toward a Master’s Degree in economics. Most of the people that work in Skagway are seasonal, young people who live a more carefree lifestyle. As she put it, “Most of us can’t afford kids, so we have dogs!” The hostess however, is married and has 4 kids. Her husband works for Homeland Security (likely at the border patrol), and they live full time in Skagway. Hard to imagine living in a place where only 3 things are open, the grocery store, the gas station and the post office. And with it being so cold and windy with only 3 hours of daylight in a day and snow up to 6”, I just don’t think I could take it. She said the wind can be so bad, that car doors have been known to fling off the car if you’re not careful in opening it. But I guess it’s all what you’re used to. You can tell that the summer season is winding down for the town, as most merchants are ready for the tourists to go home. When you get over 1 million tourists in a summer, I can see why.