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Alaska’s White Pass Railway

By Diannek

There isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Alaska State Flag

I could make a long list of the things I loved about cruising to Alaska on the Dawn Princess. Number one on that list would be the revealed beauty of Alaska, both from the water of the Inland Passage and from the many shore excursions offered to the passengers along the way. But, for me, one of the most memorable excursions was the train trip on the White Pass Railway.

The train is conveniently located on the Skagway dock, where all the cruise ships line up, but don't worry. If you've got your reservation, there are plenty of seats for this three-hour trip. And it doesn't matter which side of the train you sit on because you'll see everything eventually.

The White Pass run is now just an excursion train, specifically for cruise ship passengers, but don't let that bother you. Tourism is big business in Alaska and what tour operators are selling is well worth the money, whether it's a walk in the woods, a plane ride over the glaciers, a whale-watching trip or a train ride.

From the Phantom's Postcard collection

Here's an old postcard of  "Packers Ascending Summit of Chilkoot Pass, 1898." 
This is the way the miners trekked to the Klondike gold fields 
before the White Pass Railway cam into existence.

A very professional running-commentary is provided during the trip. Knowledgeable guides tell the story of the railway's development, and like most train stories, the "man with the vision" and the laborers who implemented that vision had to overcome nearly the impossible to turn the dream into reality. The White Pass RR came about as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush which began in 1896, and according to the guidebook, that discovery became the largest gold rush the world has ever known.

Train trip begins here
As the train leaves Skagway, it begins its rapid ascent. 
Even on a warm summer August afternoon, 
clouds and fog fill the valleys and chasms along the way up White Pass.

Unfortunately for the wanna-be miners, the Klondike was located in an extremely inconvenient place. There are some nearly unbelievable stories connected with the trek undertaken by the men and women in search of the fabled riches pouring out of the Klondike at the turn of the century. The 500 mile journey was a torturous one for the miners laden with their required equipment. Thousands of people were literally dying along the way. At first a railway seemed out of the question, but as it turned out, nothing is impossible. Twenty-six months after construction began, the line was completed.

Neat old locomotive!
Diesel engines like this one pull long trains of passenger cars 
up the pass twice each day, as the tourists ohh and ahh at the beautiful scenery 
and steep gorges they encounter along the way.

According to the guidebook, the WP&YR is among only 20 engineering feats in the world to have been declared an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. (Others include the Panama Canal and the Eiffel Tower.) The guidebook again: "The White Pass Summit is one of the steepest railroad grades in North America. From tidewater at Skagway the line climbs 2,865 feet in just 20 miles…with grades up to 3.9%, and cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees."

The WP&YR was a working steam-train from 1900 to 1954. Then the railroad began modernizing and switched to diesel electric locomotives and continued to provide service between the Yukon and Skagway until 1982, when lack of business forced the railway to shut down. It reopened in 1988, as an excursion train, and according to the guidebook, is "proudly rolling on as one of the last remaining narrow gages in North America."

Steep gorges!  Gorgeous scenery!
The scenery was beautiful, even in the height of summer. 
I could only imagine what it must have been like in the dead of winter.

The Alaska cruise makes a very special vacation, and the WP&YR train trip is great fun.  Don't miss it.

Guidebook Reference: All Aboard! the complimentary magazine
of the White Pass & Yukon Route
For more information on the WP&YR Railroad, visit their website

Find it here!     

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