Friday, January 31st, dawned clear.
There was a sharp breeze blowing from the north but that's normal in the Skagway Valley.
By noon the wind had veered to the south and was developing an Arctic "bite." By late afternoon it was howling up Dead Horse Gulch swirling the loose powdered snow and piling it into hard packed drifts across the railroad right-of-way.
Below, A White Pass Locomotive Engineer's View of the Storm
Veteran railroad men squinted at the sky and then at each other. They smelled trouble and they began to talk about the weather.
By midnight, January 31st, a screaming storm was closing in on the railway's operations, and for the next twenty-eight days a see-saw battle was fought between the
raging Arctic elements and the weather-wise railway men of the White Pass and Yukon Route.
The White Passers won, although there were moments when the storm was in full control of the railroad track. But the railroaders fought back and kept the trains
rolling with only two "non-operating" days chalked up against them throughout the entire twenty-eight day battle.
"We had some very weary railroaders by the time the wind quit blowing and the sun broke through on February 28th" said Marvin Taylor, Railway Superintendent.
Besides being a test for human endurance, the storm also served to test the railroad's newly developed technique for fighting snow with bulldozers rather than with
rotary snow plows.
Many an old railroader with a touch of nostalgia will regret the gradual disappearance of the whirling, smoke belching rotaries. But yeserday's methods must give way
to today's; thus, efficiency becomes the nemesis of romance.
Major snow battles were fought from Saturday, February 1, to Saturday, February 8. Furious winds with gusts touching fifty miles per hour drove six feet of freshly fallen snow into solid drifts that would almost support the weight of a bulldozer. The crews fought drifts ranging from six to twelve feet high and up to 240 feet in length. One mammoth drift near the McKenzie Cut covered the railway tracks with a cement-like slab of solid snow twelve feet thick and seven hundred feet long.
Bulldozer Starts Cut Through Drift
There's a Railroad Somewhere under that Drift
Temperatures plunged but despite the worst the storm had to offer the snow crews kept the track open and the trains running throughout the first week of the storm.
On Monday, February 10, the second week was ushered in by a howling storm that dumped another twelve inches of snow on the track. The strain of battle was being to
tell on the crews.
Another eighteen inches of snow fell Tuesday through Thursday and the driving winter gale increased in force. Between Thursday, February 13, and Saturday, February
15, twenty-six inches of new snow fell, creating mountainous drifts, which tested both men and machines to the limit.
Then, without warning, the railway's communications system developed "bugs." A lineman set out on foot to find the trouble. After five days of climbing telephone poles
and fighting the deep drifts to reach them the trouble was located and the "birds" and "bees" noises were removed from the line and normal service restored.
Diesel Locomotive After Battling a Drift
Despite Storm Trains Stay on the Job...
On Sunday, February 16, the storm broke out again with renewed fury. Temperatures dropped to below zero and by Monday, February 17, a raging blizzard dropped another
twelve inches of snow, bringing winter's total snow fall in the White Pass to two hundred and eighty-four inches.
Despite the increasing force of the gales and continuing snow falls, the crews succeeded in plowing their way through the granite-like drifts, enabling the train crews
to keep the trains running almost on schedule during the second week of the storm.
While the snow removal crews fought the snows and the wind, the train crews were fighting a battle of their own. Moving a freight train through the White Pass,
bucking snow drifts, peering through ice encrusted windshields, with visibility almost zero is a challenging job. To bring the trains in under such conditions attests to the great skill and determination
of the crews that man them.
Third Week of Storm
The third week of the storm began with twelve inches of snow falling on Monday, February 17. The growing weight of snow hanging on the hills above the track started "sluffing"
down the slopes and spreading out over the tracks. This gave the dog tired crews a new condition to tackle. But despite the continuing snow falls and high winds, they were able to control the "sluffing"
condition and keep the track clear.
...and haul goods in and out of Yukon
At this point the storm uncorked its meanest trick of all. It raised the temperature and turned the drifts into giant sponge-like mounds of water soaked snow. With the
rise in temperature came an increase in wind intensity which blew up tweve foot thick drifts of heavy wet snow hundreds of feet long.
The bulldozers attacked the water-logged drifts, but train operations were forced to cease during Thursday and Friday, February 20 and 21.
But the railroaders didn't quit without doing everything humanly possible to keep the trains moving. On Friday they sent the northbound freight train into the Pass powered
with four deisel locomotives, but even this massive combination of power became stuck in a drift that was as hard as concrete.
By Saturday, February 22, the winds were howling wih renewed fury in excess of fifty miles per hour, swirling snow through the Pass and keeping the snow removal crews working around the clock.
But - the trains got through.
White Passers Win
The fourth week of the storm continued with unabated fury. At times visibility was almost zero. Swirling snow, far below zero temperatures, white-outs and continual gale-like
winds wore the crews to a frazzle.
Snowdrift puts telephoning "Cat" Operator up among the cross arms.
Finally, on February 28, twenty-nine days after the storm started, the sun broke through the overhanging clouds. The wind dropped and a calm descended over the entire length
of the railroad.
The weary snow crews started the massive clean-up and gradually normal routines were re-established.
The job was done. Service was maintained without a single accident, and only minor delays!
Now, all that remained was a sharp breeze from the north - but as we said at the start - that's normal in the Skagway Valley.