The History Hounds, Sniffing Around the White Pass Railroad

It’s funny how sometimes a subject or a person that hasn’t been in your life for quite a while will all of a sudden appear over and over in a short period. This past week, that subject was the White Pass & Yukon Route railway.

It actually began with a discussion on the White Pass & Yukon Route Fan Mailing List about the location shown on this century-old playing card. Where is Ruth Lake?
Historic WP&YR railroad playing card showing Ruth Lake, Yukon
A few guesses were made, and finally one of the 457 members of the group found an old Fisheries document online – it had a map of Ruth Lake, and I immediately recognized it as what we now call Mary Lake, just over a kilometer from my house as the raven flies. Click on the image to see the location (and explore beyond) in Google Maps.

Mary Lake, Yukon - Google Earth image
I couldn’t, though, figure out exactly where the photograph was shot, so decided to make a hike to find it. Monty always enjoys a day that includes a ride in our old truck – we’ve had some awesome adventures on such days! 🙂 With a thick layer of ice on the ground on Tuesday morning, I parked and we started walking down the rough road along the northeast shore of the lake.
A rough road along Mary Lake near Whitehorse, Yukon
Beaver dams are raising the lake level year after year, and this section of the road is under water for much of the year now.
A rough road along Mary Lake near Whitehorse, Yukon
I had printed a couple of images from the discussion – this looked like the right area.
Mary Lake, near Whitehorse, Yukon
Once we got down to the rail line, following a trail through the forest, I wasn’t completely sure about the location. Although it had some strong similarities to the historic photo, I couldn’t get some of the details to fit, even allowing for a century of tree growth and increased water height. So I decided to walk south along the line to see if I could fit a location that fit better. That’s a small beaver dam to the right of the grade.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
I expect that one of the railfans will know what this interesting fixture is – my guess is that it’s from a steam locomotive. It’s about 12 inches in diameter.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
A mining claim post of fairly recent vintage can be seen to the right of the tracks. This is looking north from about Mile 98 (measured from Skagway).
Mining claim post along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
This is a 3-image stitched panorama, looking to the north, showing a railway spur line and gravel extraction site to the left. This is a really lovely little valley, but very difficult to build a railway through, as it’s marshy ground for miles and would have required an enormous amount of fill.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
The start of the spur shown in the panorama above, again looking north. On the way back, I planned to hike down it for a look – is it just a short spur for gravel extraction?
A spur along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
The telegraph/telephone lines along most of this section have been cut down. This was done perhaps 15 years ago, but the job never got completed. If I remember correctly, it was prompted by birds being killed running into the wires – owls in particular. Contracts were let, but it was soon discovered by the contractors that the wire is steel-core, not copper, and so almost worthless, and they abandoned the job.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
In the right foreground you can see a roll of wire. Having done it when I took down a long section of the line in front of my cabin at Carcross, it takes a lot of work to bundle that wire, but the rolls were never picked up.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
The rails along most if not all of this section were replaced during the 1970s lead-zinc ore hauls, when car weights increased dramatically over what they had been. The number “100” to the left means that this rail weighs 100 pounds per yard, a standard set by the American Railway Engineering Association (that’s the “RE”). The rail was made by NKK Corporation of Japan in 1978.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
This culvert was made from a very heavy piece of pipe from some machinery, perhaps a steam plant.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
Here’s an odd one – now cut off, three pilings were set in across the tracks, as if for a heavy barrier of some sort.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
Another mystery along Murray Lake, between the rail line and lake. This appears to have been a narrow wooden road – perhaps 6 feet wide, made of small-diameter logs running lengthwise, not at right angles to the path of travel as with normal soft-ground corrugation.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
Not many people will ever see Murray Lake – it takes a 4×4 and a sense of adventure to reach the west side of the lake, and miles of walking to reach this spot on the eastern shore. This is the view to the south.
Murray Lake, near Whitehorse, Yukon
I picked the Mile 97 marker as my turn-around spot, as I could see nothing of real interest ahead. This is the view to the north.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
A few days ago, another historian, Helene Dobrowolsky, and I were chatting on Facebook about names to be known by. Michael Gates has taken “History Hunter” by virtue of a newspaper series and book by that name, Helene thought that “History Gatherer” would work nicely for her, and with a Hunter and a Gatherer in place I just couldn’t come up with one I liked. As my fur-buddy and I walked back to truck, I thought of one I really like – the “History Hound”. Or “Hounds”, as you see here. I’m always sniffing around old stuff – artifacts, paper or just stories – so it works perfectly. 🙂
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
On my left arm in the photo above is Spot, hard at work keeping me safe. By the time I got home, this is the screen shot from the Web site of our route that Cathy (or anyone else) could have seen. It’s not always perfect, though – we were never at position #8, which I assume is an example of having poor satellite reception for a few minutes.
SPOT GPS Messenger tracking a hike near Whitehorse, Yukon
Back at the gravel spur, we took that detour. This is looking back to the south at a road-builder’s dream supply of post-glacial river gravel. The bank is perhaps 80 feet high.
Gravel extraction site along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
The grade runs for almost a kilometer in railroad fashion (level, with very gentle curves) before turning into a wood-cutter’s road. The length makes me think that it may have been the planned route of the railway originally – perhaps the virtually unlimited supply of gravel alongside encouraged the engineers to go down the marshy middle of the valley instead and this route was abandoned. The purpose of the recent flagging tapes shown here isn’t known.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
Almost back to Mary Lake. In the Yukon, south-facing slopes are the driest, and poplar trees and grasses are often the dominant vegetation instead of the spruce and pine which dominates otherwise.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
The rail crossing of what is now the Mary Lake narrows. Monty really didn’t want to go across that wooden plank, and although I would have liked to cross to look at the opposite slopes, I always let him make decisions like that.
The White Pass railroad line crosses Mary Lake near Whitehorse, Yukon
Having a closer look along what had been the railway spur that we reached the rail line on, I found these tin cans. The soldered bottoms confirm these as being from the construction period (sealing tin cans by soldering them ended in about 1905).
Very old tin cans along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
Climbing up onto a cache that had been built along the spur right-of-way gave me the closest approximation of the scene on the original playing card. It’s so close, but I was still not comfortable with calling it the right location.
Along the White Pass railroad line near Whitehorse, Yukon
It doesn’t show in the photo, but Monty is on the faint trail that we had followed 3 hours before to reach the rail line.
A trail along Mary Lake near Whitehorse, Yukon
At this point I had walked about 9 km (just over 5 miles) – Monty had probably doubled that with all his side-trips and was pooped. Only another half a k to go, buddy 🙂
A rough road along Mary Lake near Whitehorse, Yukon

It had been an excellent day, but I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t confirm the location. Discussions that evening, though, did confirm that Mary Lake used to be called Ruth Lake, before there were homes out here (the acreage-subdivision we live in was developed in 1992). There was a summer bible camp then, and they somehow got the name changed, as Ruth in the Bible wasn’t a connection they were happy with.

Not really content with the day’s result, Monty and I went down to the railway again on Thursday. That conclusion to the story has now been posted here. 🙂


The History Hounds, Sniffing Around the White Pass Railroad — 18 Comments

  1. Murray, hello. Fantastic! We have had the pleasure of riding the WP&Y twice, once each way and find the article just brilliant. Many thanks, regards John (Neal)

  2. Thanks 🙂 Beyond the scenic, I hope that people will find it interesting to see the amount of work that some people will put in to answer what appears to be a very simple and/or trivial question.

  3. Pingback: Finding Ruth Lake - the Conclusion

  4. Hi Murray,

    Well, as usual, you have treated us to a wonderful narrative about a 100 year old picture. Thank you very much, my friend !

    Dave Leland

  5. As usual, love to read about your travels Murray. Also love the photos. I have a question: On some photos you say Murray Lake and some you say Mary Lake. Is this the same lake? Also, I’m still not sure where Mary Lake is. Is it close to the subdivision? Wish my name was Monty, I’d love to follow you on your expeditions.

    • Thanks, Donna. Murray Lake is a couple of km south of Mary Lake (a.k.a. Ruth Lake), which is right at the south-west edge of the Mary Lake subdivision (see the map image at the top for Mary Lake, and both of them show in the Spot GPS map image).

  6. As far as almost always hiking alone except for my fur-buddy, I’m actually not anti-social, it’s just that I get stressed out trying to take other people’s abilities and interests into account when I’m hiking.

  7. Great work! Vic Istchenko is a pal of mine and he posted the link on FB. I used to live in the Yukon many moons ago and adventures like the one you’ve posted here make my heart ache!

    Lovely stuff,


  8. DaveL – thanks very much. It’s always a pleasure to share my passions with others.

    Andrew – thanks to you, too. I remember your name from a few years ago, and looking at your Web site, life is treating you well now – great to see 🙂

  9. Murray, I reread the info on your trek and realize there are two lakes you refer to. Please disregard my earlier question.

  10. To me, this is real ‘outback’/’backblocks’ trekking you are doing. I am very pleased you have Monty with you, and your SPOT and whatever other safety aids you take. Perhaps Monty sensed something and wasn’t just being a scaredy-dog when he refused to cross the wash-out! On your own, you may have been tempted, and discretion may have turned out to be the better part of valour! Your Yukon cataloguing and updating is invaluable to history buffs and so many others, even to those of us who will never get to those far-out places.
    Smooth sailing with the bathrooms!
    Best Regards, Marie Garvey

  11. As always, your journeys take us where we’ve never been before, thank you!

    Wondering why the rails were left in place, and if anyone ever boated on the lake. Fishing? Of course, I realize cost as the first reason the rails were left, but normally rails are pulled when lines are abandoned, unless there was consideration on using them again.

    You are keeping Monty happy with all the hiking.

  12. Thanks, Marie – I usually trust that Monty knows stuff that I don’t, but when it comes to bridges, he’s simply afraid of them 🙂

    Yes, Bruce, Monty is a very happy guy when there’s lots of hiking being done. The railway isn’t ready to abandon the line between Carcross and Whitehorse yet. It’s only a few months ago that they asked for massive government funding to re-open it as an ore haul line (they got rejected). There may be land-grant issues as well – along those sections, they may lose any undeveloped land they got as grants to build the railway (that’s a story I heard many years ago, but I don’t know whether or not its true).

  13. I appreciate you answering my question, one of the things that always stands out in your pictorials of the Northwest is the amount of abandoned structures and earthworks. At least it’s something I notice, but I am always seeing old buildings , homes and quarries where I live too.

    Having 8 Siberians, I know they like to walk..and walk…And run away if they get a chance! You are lucky Monty will stick with you.

    My Shiba Inu’s , Sebastian and Copper like to walk also, and pout more than my Huskies when they don’t get to walk, however Shibas do not have the long range endurance in walking/hiking a Siberian/Husky breed does. I think some of your walks would wear out the average Shiba. Regardless, they are great hiking companions, if you let them rest.

    Best to you.

  14. This is the perfect wild. I want to go to an unknown wilderness where I can have some time for myself and I can be away from everything.

  15. Thank you so much for the effort you put into your blog. Absolutely love it. I am a Yukoner, but am overseas for a year, but cannot wait to return back home. Reading your blog makes me pine for my return!! A sincere thanks.