Skagway, Alaska Railroad Keeps 100 Years of Yukon History Alive

by Sherry Laskin

Can you guess the most popular tourist attraction in Skagway, Alaska? Hint: It took 26 months to build, climbs to nearly 3,000 feet, and traverses breathtaking trestle bridges and rugged mountain terrain.

It's the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Completed in 1900, this narrow-gauge railroad begins at the cruise pier, where rail fans of all ages can board the vintage train for a breathtaking 90-minute ascent to White Pass Summit and beyond.

The Klondike Gold Rush

There's a lot of history surrounding Skagway, and it all revolves around the famed Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century. It all began in 1896, when Skookum Jim Mason, a member of the Tagish First Nation, discovered a few flakes of gold in the Yukon Territory with his brother-in-law George Washington Carmack. While they didn't find very much, it was enough to trigger a stampede of fortune seekers bent on finding gold.

But the area north of Skagway wasn't hilly — it was mountainous, snow-packed, and plunged into subzero temperatures for months at a time.

Thousands of treasure-seeking individuals headed northward on the Inside Passage aboard steamer boats from Washington State headed to the growing town of Skagway.

From there, they proceeded on horseback, with the required supplies carried on pack animals. It's said that 3,000 horses died along the route from the extreme conditions and from neglect by the gold-seekers who did not know how to care for horses.

Construction of the Railway

There were only two main passages to the Klondike, and the quickest way was through the rocky 2,865-foot White Pass Summit. Once the summit was reached, the stampeders still had to carefully ramble down the other side of the summit and travel deeper into the interior to reach the Klondike. It was a treacherous overland trek for many. But soon there would be a safer alternative to reach the gold country.

In 1898, two prominent businessmen met in Skagway. After an all-night conversation, they decided to collaborate and build a narrow-gauge railroad that would climb from the tidewater at Skagway up the steep mountainsides to White Pass Summit. From there, the train would continue into the Yukon Territory to Carcross, the end of the line.

Twenty-six months later, the final gold spike was hammered into the ground in Carcross, signaling the completion of one of the world's greatest engineering feats of its time.

Unfortunately, by the time the railroad was finished, the gold rush was winding down and the railroad needed to find another way to keep running. By diversifying into other modes of transport, like paddlewheelers, aircraft, buses, and trucks, the White Pass & Yukon Route found the revenue stream needed to sustain and become the success story it is today.

When researching cruises to Alaska, you can choose from several excursions out of Skagway, Alaska, including a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. These exciting tours — ranging from three-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half hours — transport passengers along the same route that the 100,000 brave and daring souls trekked more than 100 years ago. This is one train ride you don't want to miss!

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad departs from Skagway, Alaska, toward White Pass summit, as passengers view cascading waterfalls, rugged mountain peaks, and wildlife from their open-air windows.
Take a ride on one of the 69 fully restored or replica passenger coaches. Two of these gleaming vintage cars date back to the late 1800s.