Chugging into the past
Built for gold prospectors, a narrow-gauge railroad is now a landmark
SKAGWAY, ALASKA — The railroad car I'm riding in is pulled by steam engine No. 73, described by the engineer as "a cross between a sewing machine and a fire-breathing dragon." The narrow-gauge railroad climbs White Pass, following the trail once taken by thousands of prospectors headed for the Klondike gold fields.
Every summer this groaning, creaking, steam- puffing train transports passengers from the tiny town of Skagway almost straight up to White Pass Summit on the United States-Canada border.
Most visitors to Alaska come to Skagway via cruise ship. From a ship, the town resembles a Hollywood Wild West movie set. I expected John Wayne to come around the corner, six-shooters blazing. This is the place that Robert Service, the Canadian poet, described in his immortal ballads - the hurly-burly atmosphere, the tumult, and uproar of the Yukon during the gold rush of the late 1890s.
"The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" tell of rough, desperate characters who came looking for gold.
In today's Skagway, the White Pass & Yukon Route railway begins at the Skagway wharf, so it's easy for passengers to leave their ships and board the train. The red and black locomotive chugs past false-front buildings overlooking Skagway's wooden sidewalks.
In 1898, at the height of the gold rush, 80 bars lined the main street, and the town had 10,000 inhabitants. Today, the population dwindles from 1,500 permanent residents in the summer to 800 in the winter. Yellow nuggets are a thing of the past. For survival the town relies on the 600,000 tourists who arrive annually to retrace the Klondike trail and relive the gold-rush history.
Many of them take a 40-mile ride up part of the trail on the White Pass & Yukon. It took tens of thousands of workers and 450 tons of dynamite to build the 110-mile route. Not only did the builders have to contend with the harsh climate, but the geography presented challenges as well. In the first 20 miles, the railway climbs 3,000 feet, with grades of 3.9 percent and turns of 16 degrees.
In 1994 - not quite 100 years after its debut- the railroad was declared an International Civil Engineering Landmark, putting it in the same category with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
Early in its journey, the train passes Gold Rush Cemetery, where Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith is buried. The resting place of the most notorious man in Alaska's past - a con artist, gang leader, gambler, and expert at separating prospectors from their gold - is nestled in the mountains between spruce trees.
On the other side of the cemetery the train begins its steep, winding climb. The cars squeak and jerk, metal grinding against metal.
"I hope this doesn't turn out to be a roller-coaster ride," the passenger across the aisle says.
"Should we offer the conductor WD-40?" asks a man in a red parka.
It's June and the spring snow is starting to melt. The panorama includes rocks as big as a cruise ship, tall trees reaching for sunlight, canyons, gorges, and waterfalls - breathtaking, spectacular - too much for one set of eyes to take in.
I leave the warmth of the railroad car and stand on the train's outside platform to take a few pictures. A professional photographer has her camera, tripod, and long zoom lens set up out there. We can see the curl of smoke from the engine, the reflections of the mountains on lakes, the bright eyes of a fox peeking through the underbrush, a lumbering bear making its way through the woods.
The cold, biting wind hits my face. Seventeen miles up the mountain we reach Inspiration Point, which has an unparalleled view of Lynn Canal, Mount Harding, and Chilkat Range.
"Can you believe this? Can you believe this?" my new photographer friends asks over and over.
Around the next hairpin curve, Bridal Veil Falls - fed by glaciers on Mount Cleveland and Mount Clifford - cascade 6,000 feet.
We gawk at the deep gorge named Dead Horse Gulch. In the mad 1898 stampede for gold, about 3,000 pack animals died from neglect, overloading, starvation, and exposure to the elements.Some horses slipped on the steep, narrow trail and fell into the gorge. Others collapsed and had to be pushed out of the way into the gully.
It's hard to imagine more than 100 years later, but the four-foot-wide ice-and-rock Klondike Trail was so crowded in those days that a gold seeker who stepped out of line sometimes had to wait three days before he could wedge back into the rank and file.
Most would-be millionaires couldn't afford horses or pack animals and carried their provisions themselves, load by backbreaking load. They'd store their things at the top and hope no one would steal the cache while they went back down and got the rest of their supplies.
The Canadian government would issue a permit to cross to the gold fields only if the prospector had a year's worth of supplies.
At White Pass Summit, the end of the line, the train creaks to a stop at the Canadian border. Unbelievably, prospectors who got this far had 500 more miles of treacherous rivers, lakes, and snow fields to traverse before getting to what they hope to find - gold.
"How would you like to live up here?" I ask the photographer sharing the outside platform with me.
She surprises me with a totally unexpected answer: "I'm thinking about it. I lived in Circle City once. My husband worked on the Alaska pipeline. Later, we moved to Dawson."
"My first recollection of Dawson comes from way back," I say. "From Jack London's 'The Call of the Wild.' It was at Dawson's Eldorado Saloon where Matthewson egged John Thornton into betting that his legendary dog, Buck, could pull a sled loaded with 1,000 pounds of gear."
"And Buck did it, too," the photographer replies, and to my amazement she recites from memory: "That winter, at Dawson, Buck performed another exploit, one that put his name many notches higher on the totem pole of Alaskan fame."
Returning to her earlier statement about moving to the area, she muses: "We returned to Minneapolis, but Alaska is calling me back. It's like an invisible draw. You look at all this undisturbed nature, this majesty ... and there's no way to get a swelled head here. You're daily reduced to size.
"I got to know the trails," she continues. "You sense the wildlife, and it senses you. You make a wide circle around them. You live and let live. The people who stay adapt to one another, to all the differences. Nobody is from here, but after a while everyone becomes family."
On the way back down to Skagway, much to the passengers' delight, the train comes to a complete halt while a two-ton moose ambles across the tracks. As the photographer said, this is a land where people and animals share space and coexist peacefully. Visitors who discover this compatibility return home with a feeling that every minute spent in Alaska is a treasure as valuable as a nugget of Klondike gold.