Exploring WP&YR Railway History in Skagway

We continue to have a wonderful Fall (or Early Winter), and on Monday, with a fairly good weather forecast for both Whitehorse and Skagway, I decided to take a drive to Skagway. I was away from the house just before the 09:15 sunrise, expecting some good light on the mountains, but the light turned out to be flat and uninspiring photographically. My wanders once I got to Skagway did, however, turn up some interesting subjects that require some research.

I enjoy going down the Railroad Dock, which is such a quiet place once the cruise ships are gone. I’d never been down the trail at the end of it, nor even heard anyone mention it, so we went for a look.
Trail at Skagway, Alaska
There’s a new dock off the end of the Railroad Dock, and sitting at it was a fuel barge that I didn’t know existed, the “White Pass I”. I had to pull up Google Earth to make sure that the dock actually is new and that I hadn’t just not noticed it 🙂
White Pass fuel barge at Skagway, Alaska
Another surprise buried in the forest deeply enough that it would be hard to spot when the trees are in leaf. A massive winch system – my thought was that it must have been used for coal unloading.
Very old dock winch system at Skagway, Alaska
The winch drum is about 5 feet in diameter. When I got home I queried the railway about it on their Facebook page. Railway historian Carl Mulvihill was in their office the next day, and they asked him about it. He said the winch was used to haul railway cars loaded with copper from the Whitehorse Copper Belt to a large building called the Ore Bunker, where the ore was stored in large bins before being shipped via freighter to Tacoma, Washington. I was hoping to see the winch in a photo of the Ore Bunker – no luck there, but the 1909 Journal of the Canadian Mining Institute gives a good description of the entire ore-loading operation.
Very old dock winch system at Skagway, Alaska
The trail didn’t go much further, ending at a large rock slide. On the way back to the dock, I spotted some pipe and wooden beams about 50 feet up the bank and climbed up for a closer look.
Ruins of historic ore loading facilities at Skagway, Alaska
Looking across the ruins of what I now know were the ore loading facilities, with one pair of rail lines to the right. Over a century of forest growth and perhaps landslides have changed the slope’s look dramatically, but armed with a copy of the Journal, I’ll be going back down, to climb higher up the slope.
Ruins of historic ore loading facilities at Skagway, Alaska
A found a couple of National Park Service survey markers, so the site has been mapped, and their office will probably be my next stop.
Ruins of historic ore loading facilities at Skagway, Alaska
Following another long-abandoned line that’s well hidden by vegetation in the summer.
Long-abandoned rail line at Skagway, Alaska
That line led us to the start of the main part of the “ship signature” wall. A close reading of the signatures that go back about 85 years brings up a few interesting stories. Here’s a good example – when Holland America’s 4-year-old cruise ship Prinsendam visited Skagway in 1977, Captain Cornelius Wabeke was in command. He was also in command when the Prinsendam caught fire and sunk in the Gulf of Alaska on October 11, 1980 – see the story of that incredible rescue mission (all 520 passengers and crew members were saved) here.
Prinsendam signature on the rock wall at Skagway, Alaska
When the lovely Canadian Pacific Railway cruise ship Princess Kathleen visited Skagway in 1949, Captain Graham 0. Hughes was in command. Although not on the bridge, he was still in command on September 7, 1952, when the Princess Kathleen struck a reef between Skagway and Juneau and sunk.
Princess Kathleen signature on the rock wall at Skagway, Alaska
My planned photography hadn’t come to pass in the way I’d expected, but Monty was getting lots of walking, and my head was thoroughly in the past, so our next stop was at the yard where the railway’s 79 passenger cars are stored.
WP&YR railway passenger cars at Skagway, Alaska
These cars have been built over a 129-year span. Car 244, the Lake Emerald, is the oldest, having been built in 1883. It’s 44 feet long and can seat up to 38 people.
Historic WP&YR railway passenger car 'Lake Emerald' at Skagway, Alaska
Car 214, the Lake Spirit, was built in 1899 but looks like a brand-new coach. Before becoming a tourist railway 30-odd years ago, the White Pass & Yukon Route was a part of so many major events in Yukon history, and I enjoy thinking about what part a specific car may have played. The Lake Spirit may have taken Yukoners off to fight in the Boer War, or the First or Second World Wars. It may have carried some of the 343 people who died when the steamship Princess Sophia hit a reef and sank on October 25, 1918. And it certainly would have been part of countless happier occasions, carrying people from around the world to a new life in the Yukon.
WP&YR railway passenger car 'Lake Spirit' at Skagway, Alaska
Car 380, the Aishihik River, is one of the 3 newest passenger cars, having been delivered in April 2012. It’s also one of the largest, at 53 feet long and with seating for up to 52 people. It’s a beautiful copy of the original cars, isn’t it?
New WP&YR railway passenger car 'Aishihik River' at Skagway, Alaska
By noon (1:00 pm Yukon time), I had absorbed about all I could process, and headed home. Just north of the White Pass summit, though, I caught a glimpse of some odd ice patterns on a large pond, and just couldn’t resist doing a U-turn and going back for a closer look. My first thought was that somebody had thrown a big rock in at just the right time as the ice was forming.
Ice patterns in the White Pass, BC
Monty is always game for another walk, and once we got down to the pond, there were some wonderful patterns to be found.
Ice patterns in the White Pass, BC
Ice patterns in the White Pass, BC
Ice patterns in the White Pass, BC
Another little mystery – I’ll just have to content myself with enjoying the patterns, without successfully analyzing why they formed.
Ice patterns in the White Pass, BC
A few kilometers further along, another U-turn to see this pond. Maybe a couple of ducks landed as the ice was forming… 🙂
Ice patterns in the White Pass, BC

I got home in time to get back to work on my current house renovation project, completely rebuilding 2 bathrooms. With so many stories from the day bouncing around in my head, though, I wasn’t as focused as I should be. That may be the case today, too, as I got out of bed and started writing this post at 02:00!


Exploring WP&YR Railway History in Skagway — 3 Comments

  1. I always enjoy history lessons about the area you give. We were up there in 2009 on the Island Princess. We rented a car and used your guide and had a great time. Since then I have been obsessed with Alaska and the Yukon. We have had a sick puppy, or we would have been back already. Hopefully either 2014 or 15 will be the year. I will be planning to visit more of the places you have pointed out on your site. Until then, I will continue visiting your site and dreaming about returning. If we were 20 years younger we would be living up there instead of New Hampshire! Thanks for all the history lessons!

  2. Hi Murray, that first picture of yours caught me by surprise as I was sure that Monty was really a white tailed dear…..

  3. We road that train on one of our cruises. While it was interesting to ride I much prefer renting a car and driving on the opposite side of the canyon. 🙂 It was hard to get good photos on the train. I was surprised how rough the train ride was so several of my pictures came out blurry from movement.
    Those ice patterns really are a mystery. I’ve never seen anything like that.