White Pass & Yukon Railway

White Pass & Yukon Railway

The fantastic White Pass & Yukon Railway – which passes through mountainous territory in both Alaska and Canada – is a stupendous line that was built to overcome the elements. The route was gruelling and many thought it would be impossible to build. But build it they did! The three foot gauge line actually runs through Canada for most of its distance but since it begins in Alaska where it has its HQ and depots, technically its a US Class III railroad.

The first part of the railway between Skagway and Carcross in Canada is open. The remainder of the line to the heart of the Yukon where the famous Klondike gold rushes took place (and the original reason for building the line) is currently not in use. The line was in use as an important freight route from the Yukon capital, Whitehorse, to the coast until 1982 when it closed shut. A few years later it was revived as a tourist route and it has prospered since.

As Wikipedia points out, in view of the line’s stupendous route ‘the railway was designated as an international historic civil engineering landmark by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1994.’

First ever train up the long incline to the summit. This is about two thirds of the way up the Glacier loop. 20th February 1899. Source: Washington State Historical Society

The railway was built for the gold rush which was short lived anyway so the new railway had to find a different means for its existence. Freight proved to be an essential lifeline for most of its life and for many years road trains were too a feature because the roads between Skagway and Whitehorse were previously dirt track and quite perilous. The re-building and upgrading of these roads saw the end of these road trains and then the closure of several zinc and lead mines in the Whitehorse area meant the line’s freight traffic dwindled and forced it to close down in 1982. With tourism on the rise however, good fortune saw the railway reopened in 1988 initially to White Pass summit. The service was later extended to Bennett and ultimately to Carcross by 2007.

Engine no.73 tackling the steep grade as it passes over the trestle leading to the first tunnel, sixteen miles from Skagway. Source: White Pass & Yukon

WP&YR no.73 climbing the steep grade to White Pass Summit near Inspiration Point. Source: White Pass & Yukon.

WP&YR no.73 crossing the East Fork Skagway River near Glacier. At this point the line has climbed over 1800 feet in just 14 miles from sea level at Skagway. The gradients get more severe from this point! Source: White Pass & Yukon.

The line climbs nearly three thousand feet in just twenty miles to the summit of the White Pass, which is where the US/Canada border is. After this point the elevations are rather more gentle for the remainder of the route to Carcross and Whitehorse, the line’s former northern terminus. The scenery is stupendous as far as Carcross and that alone guarantees patronage this far up the line – 67 miles in total. The section northward to Whitehorse isn’t as stupendous, though there are spectacular lengths too, which means there would have to be some outstanding economic case in order to reopen 43 miles of disused railway north of Carcross.

The White Pass summit in April 1899. The railway had been open just two months when this picture was taken. Source: White Pass & Yukon Photos

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Dedicating the US flag at the White Pass summit. Probably 1899/1900. Source: Washington State Historical Society

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The Queen and Prince Philip rode the White Pass & Yukon on an official visit to Canada in 1959. Source: Twitter

There’s a short clip of the Royals riding the Yukon train from Whitehorse station in this You Tube video.

The Queen and Prince Philip after their ride on the Yukon train. Source: Insider

Prince William and the Duchess also rode a White Pass steam train at Carcross in September 2016. Source: Daily Mail

The scenery along the route is absolutely fantastic – as can be seen on this You Tube video. There’s a number of other videos too (not driver’s eye though) however I recommend this other one showing one of the steam locomotives tacking the line’s stiff grades. The first part of the journey as far as Bennett is mostly along the wide turquoise coloured lake that is known as Lake Bennett and its great scenery all the way!

No shit! Google Streets actually captured the steam train making its way up the White Pass! Relax… its actually the smoke from the building’s chimney – but what a lovely thought!

Here’s a rarity for the White Pass & Yukon in terms of Google Streets. Its a train making its way though the mists just south of the White pass summit. Source: Google Streets

The route is almost what one could describe as quite considerably the North American version of the Nariz del Diablo. There isn’t a series of reversing inclines however but the scenery and the stupendous drops down towards the streams at the bottom of the steep sided gulches are amazing! The views from the upper sections of the line towards Skagway several thousand feet below in the valley are simply stupendous as the image below shows.

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The railway near Inspiration Point with its lower level and Skagway Fjord/the Lynn Canal in the distance. The line’s elevation at this point is over 2500 feet. Source: White Pass & Yukon.

Gosh! The mountain on the left’s similar in shape to the Nariz del Diablo one! Source: You Tube. (Nariz del Diablo is the incredible mountain switchback railway on the famous Guayaquil to Quito line of the Ferrocarriles del Ecuador.)

At one location – Inspiration Point – the railway can be seen a long way down on the other side of the valley – it forms a very long loop – necessary to gain the height difference required to climb up to the White Pass itself. Its an impressive climb and I have tried to show how it looks via Google Streets – but its not quite as impressive as actually viewing the route from the train itself – and that is probably because this is the nearest point one can get to the White Pass route. The route of the line continues to unveil itself in dramatic form as the train descends towards Skagway.

View of the Yukon line as seen from Alaska Route 98. This is where it ascends the White Pass. I marked the route in blue as didn’t want to spoil the scenery too much! Source: Google Streets.

The railway’s website has some impressive images of the line and I make no excuse for having included their main image on this page as the feature image to this page too! Its a fantastic view and shows the line on its upper levels with the lower section clearly seen further down.

As the White Pass website says, the guy whose company built the railway in the late 19th Century said ‘Give me enough dynamite and snoose, and I’ll build you a railroad to hell.’ That is what is most admirable about railways. Despite their obvious limitations they can – with sufficient vision and determination – be built through some of the world’s most difficult and inhospitable terrain!

The closed station at Pennington on the shores of Lake Bennett en route to Carcross. Source: Twitter

The railway currently does not go beyond Carcross. Its not quite so scenically spectacular but still exists in a derelict state for the remainder of the route to Whitehorse, the city of the Yukon. Ironically the railway through Whitehorse itself was restored and used for a number of years as a tourist tram route. There were also plans to extend the route southwards from the city and have it as a heritage railway. In 2018 the Yukon Government ceased financial support for this and the tourist tramway closed. Since then parts of the railway’s route through Whitehorse have been lifted and filled in because the tracks were deemed too dangerous to leave in an unmaintained condition.

Alco diesel heading out of Fraser with a train for Bennett and Carcross. Source: Skagway.

As as been mentioned, the White Pass & Yukon still has aspirations of extending its line back to Whitehorse. Its just a question of time and money and whether the custom would be sufficient to support this reopened section. The 43 miles of railway between Carcross and Whitehorse is largely in situ. However its not just a case of it waiting to be cleared of undergrowth, re-levelled, fresh ballast laid where necessary, and then be ready to use again. The railway company says a good bit of the track would need to be replaced and the trestles en route would need total rebuilding as no maintenance work has been done since 1982. Not only that there are at least five locations where the formation has been completely washed away. Its a big job if any restoration to Whitehorse does become desired.

During the first half of 2020 there’s been the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns the world over – and this has affected the railway’s fortunes. The numerous cruise ships that normally visit Skagway were fully laid up and the town’s hotels and businesses were having a difficult time. The White Pass & Yukon had to scale back most of its operations – it was almost fully suspended from mid 2020 to 2021 apart from a very limited number of excursions from Skagway to the White Pass summit which were operated until October 2021. For 2022 again it was a reduced service as far as the summit of the White Pass with further trips to Fraser, Bennett and a few to Carcross.

The full service including local trips between Fraser, Bennett and Carcross will not recommence until the 2023 season. The past couple of years has been a difficult time for the White Pass and Yukon because of its almost total dependency on tourism and thus the many tourist ships that visit Skagway. An enormous amount of money has been expedited in buying a fleet of four new high powered locomotives to supplement the route’s ageing diesel locomotives.

One of the new locomotives at Skagway in June 2020. Source: Twitter.

The first two of the new locomotives are in traditional White Pass colours, however the third and fourth locomotives feature a new look black livery with a thick red/white band along their sides. They were largely kept in storage during the COVID crisis and were not fully utilised until 2021. The new locomotives are generally employed on White Pass Summit services (which make use of a new turn back loop just past the international border) although these new locomotives have reached Carcross on trial runs.

3004 at the Glacier trestle during a trial run in the summer of 2020. Source: Facebook.

White Pass & Yukon website.

Note: Many sources describe the line as a railroad however the company calls itself the White Pass & Yukon Railway – which is why I have largely followed suit.