Saturday, September 21, 2013

All aboard for a wild, scenic ride on the White Pass and Yukon Railway

Some of the world's most rugged terrain challenged engineers who built this trestle on the steep hillside.


White Pass and Yukon conductors bring the train home from the hills.

IT'S DIFFICULT to imagine our forefathers blasting a train track through the granite rock of Alaska's spectacular White Pass in the winter freeze of minus 60 degrees.
But they did!
We followed in their footsteps -- the easy way.  With binoculars and bottled water, not pick-axes, dynamite and hungry horses.
We recently answered the "all aboard" call to ride the spectacular iron trail outside Skagway.
DEPARTING Carnival's Miracle, we walked just steps to the convenient platform of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, a daring endeavor of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.
Travelers are all eyes as the train
offers stunning views on both sides.
Built through some of the world's most rugged and spectacular terrain, the narrow gauge railway is still in operation, using old-fashioned parlor cars much like the originals.
A narrated train journey takes travelers
deep  into Yukon territory.
As we left colorful Skagway behind, we climbed a steep grade past gorgeous falls, gulches, canyons and riverbeds, heading to White Pass Summit which is the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada.
We'd taken a self-guided walking tour of Skagway earlier, to enjoy the dog sled and whale whaling lore, and admire the Skagway Street Car and signature yellow buses.  We also visited the
Keller poses in downtown Skagway where historic rail cars
are on show and visitors can walk or shuttle to ships.

world famous Red Onion Saloon's Brothel Museum -- every gold rush needs ladies of the evening. Keller passed on a good time girl and instead took a look at the steam engine and a gold panning exhibit.  Teddy Roosevelt visited Skagway, named for the Tlingit word, "skagua" meaning "windy place." The pretty little town is famous for sled dogs, gardens, glassware and for being the childhood home of Sarah Palin! ("Can you see Russia?" our guide joked! "Sarah says it's right over there.")
Scenic rail trip aboard the historic White Pass and
Yukon Route Railway offers a chance to step
outside the car as did this passenger and Cookie, left.
AFTER OUR nifty morning Skagway grounding, we boarded our White Pass car, made ourselves comfy, gazed and listened. A lively commentary described the building of this legendary railroad and the brave men who cut grade on Tunnel Mountain and other foreboding hills to accommodate the frenzied gold miners.
THE HISTORY dates to 1896 when George Carmack and two Indian companions, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, found a few flakes in Bonanza Creek in the Klondike.  Although their discovery barely filled the spent cartridge of a Winchester rifle, it triggered a stampede for riches.  The Klondike gold Rush was on.
A detail of the massive snow plow
used by the train in winter.
Our knowledgeable guide didn't sugarcoat this colorful episode in history.  It had its tragic side. More than 30 men were killed during the building of 110 miles of track and many horses and pack animals plunged to their deaths or starved.
NOT ALL miners thought to bring proper horse feed or treat their faithful pack animals with care. Some of the work took place in dead of winter when heavy snows blocked the 16-degree turns and temperatures plunged to 60 degrees below zero.
Skagway disappears as the train heads up the mountain.
Amazingly, the rugged railway's construction was swift.  It began in May of 1898 and continued through a daunting winter. Workers reached the Summit of White Pass in February of 1899.

THE INTERNATIONAL effort cost $10 million, a collaborative effort combining British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting.  More than 10,000 men and 450 tons of explosives overcame climate and geography.
The miracle of steel, timber and ingenuity was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994, sharing the honor with the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Panama Canal.
Views from the train are dramatic -- here jagged mountain peaks afar.
CHIEF VISIONARY behind the project, many believe, was Skagway founder, Captain William Moore.  He predicted a gold rush and built a sawmill and wharf and helped blaze the trail to the Summit of White Pass, named for the Canadian minister of the interior, Sir Thomas White.
Today's visitors don't have to worry about tumbling off a rocky cliff, losing a horse to starvation or suffering hunger and thirst themselves.
Dense old growth pine forests flank Skagway River. 
THE GREEN and yellow White Pass rail fleet includes 20 diesel-electric locomotives, 82 restored replica passenger coaches and two steam locomotives.  An ongoing modernization program keeps the fleet in tip-top condition, for it is one of Skagway's favorite tourist pursuits.

We enjoyed the cars' names -- they're all christened after lakes and rivers in Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia.  Most are at least 40 years old.  Lake Tutshi, vintage 1893, which starred in the 1935 movie, "Diamond Jim Brady," or Lake Lebarge, which carried Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the same trek we took -- back in 1959. The oldest car is Lake Emerald, built in 1883 and still traveling the line.
Picturesque Skagway is home to sled dogs and mushers,
beer makers, glass blowers, fishermen and wood carvers.

We learned from our guide that there
are actual  foot trails, including Chilkoot, leading  to the interior lake country where stampeeders began their 550-mile journey to the Yukon River and gold fields.  Both the railroad's White Pass route, and the Chilkoot Trail are filled with hazards. Various enterprising people tried to cash in on the miners, including George Brackett, a one-time construction engineer who built a 12- mile toll road up White Pass canyon.

So long, Skagway, as the White Pass train returns,
 from its rugged and scenic ride.

ANGRY MINERS tossed the toll gates down a ravine and his road was a failure. Brackett made out well, eventually, when White Pass and Yukon Railroad Company organized and paid him $110,000 for the a right-of-way.
Along our return route, back towards Skagway with its quaint pastel buildings, we took a last look at the Sawtooth Mountains and admired the bright colored flora: golden arnica, pink fireweed, purple monkshood, scarlet columbine, lavender geranium, white yarrow and the deep red berries of the mountain ash.
Skagway is not to be missed.
History, spectacular scenery and a rail ride that some consider the world's most scenic.

Carnival Miracle awaits our travelers
as Cookie continues

her 100th cruise. More on that is coming....  

Coming Wednesday: Happy
birthday tribute to 'Papa'
Grady Martin, 90 soon, here
with Nick on the West Fork. 

COMING NEXT: A salute to "Papa," our Montana neighbor Grady Martin, who will be 90 next week! Then join Cookie and Keller on a landmark "100th cruise" celebration, with reflections on Cookie's global cruising -- from barging and wine
tasting in the French countryside, to canal tulip cruises in Holland, Atlantic crossings on  the venerable Queen Elizabeth II, lazing in the Mediterranean and Greek Isles and transiting the Panama Canal.
Remember to explore, learn and live, and check us out  weekly at:                                                

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