White Pass and Yukon Route

From Academic Kids

Template:Infobox Railroad The White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&Y, WP&YR) Template:Reporting mark is a narrow gauge railroad linking the port of Skagway, Alaska with Whitehorse, the capital of Canada's Yukon Territory. An isolated system, it has no connection to any other railroad. The railroad is operated by the Pacific and Arctic Railway and Navigation Company (in Alaska), the British Columbia Yukon Railway Company (in British Columbia) and the British Yukon Railway Company, originally known as the British Yukon Mining, Trading and Transportation Company (in Yukon Territory), which use the trade name White Pass and Yukon Route.

Missing image
"Drumhead" logos such as this often adorned the ends of observation cars on the WP&Y.



The line was born of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. The most popular route taken by prospectors to the gold fields in Dawson City was a treacherous route from the nearest port in Skagway or Dyea, Alaska across the mountains to the Canadian border at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass. There, the prospectors would not be allowed across by the Canadian authorities unless they had a full ton of supplies with them. There was a need for a better transportation scheme than the pack horses used over the White Pass or people's backs over the Chilkoot Pass. This need generated numerous railroad schemes. In 1897, the Canadian government received 32 proposals for Yukon railroads, most of which were never realized.

In 1897, three separate companies were organized to build a rail link from Skagway to Fort Selkirk, Yukon, 325 miles (525 km) away. Largely financed by British investors, a railroad was soon under construction. A 3 foot (914 mm) gauge was chosen; the narrower roadbed required by a narrow gauge railroad made for big cost savings when that roadbed had to be carved and blasted out of the mountain rock. Even so, 450 tons of explosives were used to reach White Pass summit. The narrow gauge also allowed for a tighter radius to be used on curves, making the task easier by allowing the railroad to follow the landscape more, rather than having to be blasted through it.

Construction started in May 1898. On July 21, 1898, an excursion train hauled passengers for four miles (six kilometres) out of Skagway, the first train to operate in Alaska. On July 30, 1898, the charter rights and concessions of the three companies were acquired by the White Pass & Yukon Railway Company Limited, a new company organized in London. Construction reached the 2,885-foot summit of White Pass, 20 miles (30 km) away from Skagway, by mid-February 1899. The railway reached Bennett, British Columbia on July 6, 1899. In the summer of 1899, construction started north from Carcross to Whitehorse, 110 miles (180 km) north of Skagway. The construction crews working from Bennett along a difficult lakeshore reached Carcross the next year, and the last spike was driven on July 29, 1900, with service starting on August 1. However, by then, much of the Gold Rush fever had died down.

Operations before World War II

However, serious professional mining was taking its place; not so much for gold as for other metals such as copper, silver and lead. The closest port was Skagway, the only route there was via the White Pass & Yukon Route's river boats and railroad.

While ores and concentrates formed the bulk of the traffic, the railroad also carried passenger traffic, and other freight. There was, for a long time, no easier way into the Yukon Territory, and no other way into or out of Skagway except by sea.

Financing and route was in place to extend the rails from Whitehorse to Carmacks, but there was chaos in the river transportation service, resulting in a bottleneck. The White Pass instead used the money to purchase most of the riverboats, providing a steady and reliable transportation system between Whitehorse and Dawson City.

While the WP&YR never built between Whitehorse and Fort Selkirk, some minor expansion of the railway occurred after 1900. In 1901, the Taku Tram, a 2½-mile (4 km) portage railroad was built at Taku City, British Columbia, which was operated until 1951. It carried passengers and freight between the S.S. Tutshi operating on Tagish Lake and the M.V. Tarahne operating across Atlin Lake to Atlin, British Columbia. (While the Tutshi was destroyed by a suspicious fire around 1990, the Tarahne was restored and hosts special dinners including murder mysteries. Lifeboats built for the Tutshi's restoration were donated to the Tarahne.) The Taku Tram could not even turn around, and simply backed up on its westbound run. The locomotive used, the Duchess, is now in Carcross.

In 1910, the WP&YR operated a branch line to Pueblo, a mining area near Whitehorse. This branch line was abandoned in 1918; a haul-road follows that course today but is mostly barricaded; a Whitehorse Star editorial in the 1980s noted that this route would be an ideal alignment if the Alaska Highway should ever require a bypass reroute around Whitehorse.

While all other railroads in the Yukon (such as the Klondike Mines Railroad at Dawson City) had been abandoned by 1914, the WP&YR continued to operate.

During the Great Depression, traffic was sparse on the WP&YR, and for a time trains operated as infrequently as once a week.

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, things took a distinct turn for the busier. Alaska became of strategic importance for the United States; there was much worry that the Japanese might invade it, as the nearest part of the United States to Japan. The US Army took control, bringing some newly built and many used steam locomotives from closed US narrow gauge lines to the railroad. A dozen locomotives destined for Iran were diverted to the WP&YR, and converted from metre-gauge (about 39.4 inches) to the WP&YR's gauge.

The White Pass saw record volumes of traffic as it served as a vital supply route for construction materials for the new Alaska Highway and other projects. As many as 17 trains were operated daily. In one record period of 24 hours, 37 trains rolled into Whitehorse.


Missing image
The White Pass steam locomotive is shown here between Bennett, British Columbia and Skagway

In 1951, the White Pass and Yukon Corporation Ltd., a new holding company, was incorporated to acquire the three railway companies comprising the WP&YR from the White Pass and Yukon Company, Ltd., which was in liquidation. The railway was financially restructured. While most other narrow gauge systems in North America were closing around this time, the WP&YR remained open.

The railroad dieselised in the mid to late 1950s, one of the few North American narrow gauge railroads to do so. The railroad bought shovelnose diesels from General Electric, and later road-switchers from Alco and Montreal Locomotive Works, as well as a few small switchers.

The railroad was an early pioneer of intermodal freight traffic, commonly called container; advertising of the time referred to it as the Container Route. With custom built container ships, railroad cars and truck trailers, the White Pass showed the benefits of intermodal transportation early - a single container, loaded in the Yukon territory, could be transported anywhere in the world without needing to be opened and reloaded, whether transported by road, rail, or sea. The WP&YR owned the world's first container ship (the Clifford J. Rogers, built in 1955), and in 1956 introduced containers.

The Faro lead-zinc mine opened in 1969. The railway was upgraded with seven new 1200-horsepower locomotives from the American Locomotive Company (Alco), new freight cars, ore buckets, a "straddle carrier" at Whitehorse to transfer from the railway's new fleet of trucks, a new ore dock at Skagway, and assorted work on the rail line to improve alignment. In the fall of 1969, a new tunnel and bridge that bypassed Dead Horse Gulch were built to replace the tall steel cantilever bridge that could not carry the heavier trains. This enormous investment made the company dependent on continued ore traffic to earn the revenue, and left the railway vulnerable to loss of that ore-carrying business.

As well, passenger traffic on the WP&YR was increasing as cruise ships started to visit Alaska's Inner Passage. There was no road from Skagway to Whitehorse until 1978. Even once the road was built, the White Pass still survived on the ore traffic from the mines.

During this time, the green-yellow engine colour scheme, with a thunderbird on the front, was replaced with blue, patterned with black and white. The green-yellow scheme was restored in the early 1990s, along with the thunderbird. As of 2005, however, one engine still has the blue colour scheme. The steam engines, however, remain basic black.

In 1982, however, metal prices plunged, and that had a devastating effect on the mines who were the White Pass & Yukon Route's main customers. Many, including the Faro lead-zinc mine, closed down, and with that traffic gone, the White Pass was doomed as a commercial railroad. Hopeful of a reopening, the railway ran at a significant loss for several months, carrying only passengers. However, the railway closed down on October 7, 1982.

Some of the road's Alco diesels were sold to a railroad in Colombia, and the newer Alco diesels on order with Alco's Canadian licensee MLW (Montreal Locomotive Works) were sold to US Gypsum in Plaster City, California. Only one of these modern narrow gauge diesels, the last narrow gauge diesel locomotives built for a North American customer, was delivered to the White Pass. The five diesels sold to Columbia were not used as they were too heavy, and were re-acquired in 1999.

Revival, 1988-present

Missing image
White Pass steam locomotive rounds a curve, with dramatic scenery reflected in the windows.

The shutdown, however, was not for long. Tourism to Alaska began to increase, with many cruise ships stopping at Skagway. The dramatic scenery of the White Pass' route sounded like a great tourist draw; and the rails of the White Pass & Yukon Route were laid right down to the docks, even along them, for the former freight and cruise ship traffic. Cruise operators, remembering the attraction of the little mountain climbing trains to their passengers, pushed for a re-opening of the line. The White Pass was and is perfectly positioned to sell a railroad ride through the mountains to cruise ship tourists; they don't even have to walk far.

The White Pass Route was reopened between Skagway and White Pass in 1988 purely for tourist passenger traffic. The White Pass Route also bid on the ore-haul from the newly reopened Faro mine, but its price was considerably higher than road haulage over the Klondike Highway.

The railway still uses vintage parlor cars, the oldest built in 1883 and predating WP&YR by 15 years, and eight new cars built in 2005 follow the same 19th century design. At least three cars have wheelchair lifts.

A work train actually reached Whitehorse in late August, 1988, its intent being to haul two locomotives, parked in Whitehorse for six years, to Skagway to be overhauled and used on the tourist trains. While in Whitehorse for approximately one week, it hauled the parked rolling stock - flatcars, tankers and a caboose - out of the downtown area's sidings, and the following year, they were hauled further south, many eventually sold. Most of the tracks in downtown Whitehorse have now been torn up, and the line's terminus is six city blocks south of the old train depot at First Avenue and Main Street. A single new track along the waterfront enables the operation, by a local historical society, of a tram for tourist purposes.

After customs issues were resolved, the WP&YR main line reopened to Fraser in 1989, and Bennett in 1992. A train reached Carcross in 1997 to participate in the Ton of Gold centennial celebration. A special run was made to Whitehorse on October 10, 1997, and there are plans to eventually re-open the entire line to Whitehorse. So far, the tracks are only certified to Bennett by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

WP&YR acquired some rolling stock from CN's Newfoundland operations, which shut down in November, 1988; the acquisition definitely included gravel cars, still painted in CN orange; it is uncertain if, as reported in 1989, some passenger cars such as dining cars were also acquired; since WP&YR does not use dining cars, they would have been converted to parlor cars in vintage design.

Most trains are hauled by the line's diesel locomotives, attractively painted in green (lower) and yellow (upper), but one of the line's original steam locomotives is still in operation too, #73, a 2-8-2 Mikado-type locomotive. Another steam locomotive was on loan, but has now been returned. Former WP&Y 69, a 2-8-0 has been acquired, is being rebuilt and is expected to be in use in 2005.

Also operational, a few times a year, is an original steam-powered rotary snowplow, an essential device in the line's commercial service days. While it is not needed as the tourist season is only in the summer months, it is a spectacle in operation, though, and the White Pass runs the steam plow for railfan groups once or twice a winter, pushed by two diesel locomotives (in 2000 only, it was pushed by two steam locomotives, #73 and the loan locomotive).

The centennial of the Golden Spike at Carcross was reenacted on July 29, 2000, complete with two steam engines meeting nose-to-nose, and a gold-coated steel spike being driven by a descendant of WP&YR contractor Michael Heney.


External links


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools