VAlaska08: Gold Rush

Historic Train Ride, Skagway to White Pass

 

July 28- August 6, 2008

 

IAlaska08: Flight to Vancouver

VAlaska08: Skagway & Train Ride

IIAlaska08: Visit to Butchart Gardens

VIAlaska08: Glacier Bay

IIIAlaska08: Ship M/S Ryndam

VII: Shopping in Ketchikan

IVAlaska08: Juneau for Whale Watch

VIII: Flight Home to Memphis

 

By LEWIS NOLAN

 

Return To Nolan Travels Home Page (Page updated Aug. 30, 2008)

 

(To View Photo Album of 298 Pictures mainly taken by Betty Nolan, go to http://ritzpix.com, sign in and look for lewis_nolan/ photos. Or, email lewis_nolan@yahoo.com so he can send you a link with automatic admission to the website.)

 

Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008 – In Skagway, Alaska for Train Ride to White Pass

 

I was up just before 7 a.m. and found that the ship was already docked at the Port of Skagway in Alaska. It’s really wonderful that our cabin’s location in the ship seems to be far from the mighty engines and propellers at the stern. That, plus the expert seamanship by the crew,  makes it all but silent running. There is virtually no rocking and rolling of the ship in the protected waters of the Inland Passage.

 

Our sleep was interrupted about 2 a.m. by loud whistles and an announcement over the ship’s public address system. A calm voice said there was a fire drill underway following a report of a fire possibility in a cabin numbered 400-something. (We were in Number 336 so I suppose the suspected fire might have been on the deck above us.) We could hear that the ship’s company scrambled to their assigned emergency stations, an exercise they are trained for weekly.

 

Thankfully, it evidently proved to be a false alarm or just a minor nuisance as we didn’t have to evacuate our cabin or take any other actions. We got back to sleep in our oh-so-comfortable bed without too much delay.

 

Breakfast was delivered as ordered (by using with a doorknob hanger last night) about 7 a.m. I had the usual bacon with two scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, hash brown wedge, slice of fresh orange, Diet Coke, tomato juice and a glass of ice water. Betty relaxed while I ate. She later repaired upstairs to Deck 11 for a good buffet at the Lido Restaurant of a fruit plate and a serving of a chicken dish.

 

I spent most of the morning working on my travelogue then had a satisfying lunch at the poolside grill of a cheeseburger, French fries, slice of vegetarian pizza, Diet Coke and a few tortilla chips served with avocado dip.

 

At 12:30 p.m., we de-boarded the ship onto the dock at Skagway and walked a few steps to a waiting railroad train that had a dozen refurbished Parlor Cars from the early 20th Century and two diesel locomotives from the 1950s. The train was operated for tourists by the White Pass & Yukon Railway. The short line runs alongside the ship’s dock, making it easy for passengers to pay $79 each for the 40-mile, roundtrip excursion that takes three hours. The train runs on a narrow-gauge track that is only 3 feet wide, built that way so the historic train can tightly hug the steep mountains it rolls through on the climb from the dock to the White Pass.


About a quarter-of-a-mile from the dock is the main train depot for the town of Skagway, which has a present population of about 850. The population triples in the summer months when tourists visit, businesses serving them staff up and construction gets underway. I had somehow lost my copies of our tickets for the train ride, but since our names were on the reservation list there was no problem about boarding.

 

The reasonably comfortable, padded seats were – like those of trolley cars we’ve ridden on in New Orleans – hinged so they could be flipped back when the train reaches the end of the line and returns going in the opposite direction. Each parlor car has a restroom equipped with a hand-operated pump to flush the toilet.

 

Construction of the railroad followed the 1897 discovery of gold in the Canadian Klondike area to the north of Skagway. Tens of thousands of gold-crazed men at first walked to the gold fields in the Klondike after traveling by ship to the port. The trail is narrow, steep and hugs the side of steep mountains. The overland trek is mostly parallel to the train tracks and remnants of the trail are evident most of the way.

 

There is a marker at the bottom of a gorge that signals the death of 3,000 pack animals – mainly horses – that died in 1898 alone. The steep and rocky trail was so narrow that animals could not pass one another. So unless one prospector could be persuaded to make his horse walk backwards the way it had come from – which is nearly impossible – one animal would be shot and shoved over the gorge. The horses could carry up to 500 pounds in supplies, but it wasn’t long after too many trips that they died of exhaustion.

 

Skagway – a name that derives from the Tlingit Indian word “Skaqua” for “home of the north wind” – is even today known as the “Gateway to the Klondike.” It owes its existence to the tremendous Gold Rush of 1897-98, when 35,000 or more prospectors disembarked from ships and began their long trudges up the steep slopes of the mountains to the gold fields.

 

It was a wild, frontier town gripped by gambling, criminals and more than 70 saloons. By 1900, the town settled down once the White Pass & Yukon Railway neared completion and townspeople rallied against unsavory elements. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Klondike Highway reached Skagway.

 

The town’s population is only 850, but it is Alaska’s best preserved Gold Rush town. It has preserved buildings, boardwalks and museums filled with artifacts of its heyday period. The National Park Service operates a Visitor Center. The Red Onion Saloon – with a closed bordello upstairs – dates to 1898 and has a mahogany bar.

 

From the big windows on the train, we saw a stone marker that calls attention to the days when a prospector was required to have one ton of supplies in order to enter the Klondike Gold Fields and survive the bitter winter. Most “staged” that quantity by hiking back 20 or so miles back and forth from Skagway to the summit of White Pass. The trail was rocky, steep and treacherous. Canadian Mounties at the Canadian Border examined and weighed the prospectors’ supplies before allowing them entrance into the Klondike.

 

Seeing the steepness of the trail and the demands of the steep ascent up the mountains with no safety rails to guard against miss-steps, I marveled at what must have been near-superhuman toughness of the prospectors who survived the climb. The railroad that was built later has grades of 3.99 percent and a roadbed only 10 feet wide because of the tight curves around the mountains.

 

Building the 110 miles of track up the mountains was a major engineering feat that has been enshrined and honored by professionals that also have codified praise for the comparable feats of building the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the Statue of Liberty of New York Harbor and other major world engineering and construction projects.

 

The White Pass and Yukon Railway is the northern-most railroad in the Western Hemisphere. Tens of thousands of men (35,000 by one count) and 450 tons of explosives of the day built the railroad. Work on one of its two tunnels was done as heavy snow coated the mountains and the temperatures dropped to 60 degrees below zero.

 

Remarkably, only 35 men died during construction, and most of those deaths were due to sickness not falls.

 

The railroad was operated by steam engines until 1954, when it switched over to diesel locomotives. It suspended operations in 1982 after the gold mines were closed due to slumping prices. It reopened as an excursion train to haul cruise boats tourists in 1988.

 

A tour brochure says that 100,000 men sought their fortunes in mining and panning for gold at the turn of the Century. But only 30,000-to-40,000 actually reached the gold fields of the Klondike. An estimated 4,000 or so actually found gold, but only a few of those found enough gold to get rich. And only a few of them accumulated enough gold and became so legendary that the tales of their exploits survive today.

 

Our 20-mile excursion up to the White Pass summit – where the engines used a sidetrack to reverse ends of the train they pulled – took a little over 3 hours. The old train was jerky and noisy in spots, but the magnificent views of the steep mountains, thick forests of pines, hemlock and other plants made it so spectacular that the sights bordered on being religious. I thought only the hand of our loving Creator could have shaped this awesome beauty.

 

The only stop of the train was at the summit so the engineers could switch from one end of the cars to the other and the Parlor Car seats could be flipped to reverse settings. We were just barely inside the Canadian Border and were sternly warned of heavy penalties if we so much as stepped out of the cars even momentarily. But it was OK to stand on the observation platforms at the end of the cars to take photos and breathe the chilled air.

 

Notable spots we saw included:

 

  • At mile 2.5 – Gold Rush cemetery where locally famous gangster “Sleepy Smith” is buried.
  • At Rocky Point – Great photo backdrop of the junction of mountains, deep valley and glacier.
  • At Buchanan Rock – Site of modern Customs Building near Canadian Border that is used by cars and trucks driving on a narrow, twisting road to Skagway.
  • Bridal Veil Falls – Beautiful waterfall that cascades down 6,000 feet from glaciers on Mt. Cleveland and Mt. Clifford.
  • Tunnel Mountain – Yawning chasm of Glacier Gorge where the railroad tunnel is 1,000 feet above the floor of the gorge where white water in the stream far beneath runs.
  • Dead Horse Gulch – Where 3,000 pack animals died or were killed to clear the harsh trail.
  • Steel Bridge – Built in 1901, high bridge was used until 1969 by the train but now rusts away as a replacement bridge nearby carries train traffic.
  • Trail of ’98 – Narrow part of torturous Chilkey Trail still survives.
  • White Pass Summit, Mile 20.4 – Nearby is an antique caboose the railroad rents out to hikers.
  • White Horse, Yukon Territory, Mile 110.4 – Far past the summit and past the towns of Fraser and Bennet in the Yukon Territory, this was the transfer point for passengers from steamboats to the railroad. Today, it is the hub of the Yukon and is a major  transportation, trading and government hub of the region.

 

After the train returned to the depot at Skagway, Betty and I poked around the town. It is 90 miles north of Juneau and 110 miles south of White Horse in the Yukon. Skagway takes pride in its being known as the “Garden City of Alaska” because of its maritime climate, cool summers and relatively mild winters. Temperatures range from a high of 18 degrees to a low of 37 degrees below zero in winter.

 

In comparison, the predicted high temperature for the day of our visit was 61 degrees, warm enough to bring out the Bermuda shorts for some townspeople. I wore a light sweater, wool cap and medium weight coat and was comfortable.

 

Skagway has docking space for up to three cruise ships. It has 850 year-round residents, encompasses 455 square miles of land and 11 square miles of waterfront. It also has two sizeable marinas for fishing and pleasure boats.

 

A fast-running stream on the day of our visit was partially lined by vacationers and townspeople fishing for salmon which were on their way upstream to lay eggs then die after 4-or-5 years of life in the ocean. We saw dozens and dozens of fish 2-to-3 feet long swimming up the rapids of the shallow stream.

 

Signage tells that during the peak of the Gold Rush, Skagway had a population of 20,000 and numerous frame stores, saloons, gambling houses and the like. The Red Onion Saloon still stands and the one-time brothel is open to tour.

 

Today, Skagway has a remarkable number of jewelry stores because of all the stopping cruise ships with people put in the mood for gold.

 

At the headquarters of the National Park Service there is a monument marking the Klondike Gold Rush. It is a metal statue of two back-packing prospectors. Nearby is a historic steam locomotive that cleared the tracks of winter snow.

 

A Captain William Moore is credited with discovering gold in the Klondike Aug. 16, 1896. By 1897, boatloads of prospectors started arriving. Skagway grew from a tent city to become the first incorporated city of Alaska and the second largest in the area.

 

Back on the boat that evening, Betty and I enjoyed a very good dinner in the Rotterdam Restaurant. I had venison with a sweet figs sauce plus a seafood ceviche and a Caesar Salad. Betty had chicken roulade for an appetizer, Indian wedding soup (hearty vegetable) and pork tenderloin. We both went for fresh strawberry cheesecake slices for dessert, served with

a chocolate teardrop slice of cake.

 

Just as we were finishing, Dr. Ulrich Bauer and his wife, Susie Brown Bauer, arrived at our table. They were just back from an all-day excursion tour of wildlife that evidently didn’t yield many good sightings. It was a delight sharing our experiences of the day.

 

I went to bed about 10 p.m., with tired legs from walking around the town of Skagway and back to the ship.

 

Continue With Part VI, Glacier Bay  /  Return To Nolan Travels