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Atlin Short Line Railway and Navigation Company

(Atlin Southern Railway, Taku Tram)

Rails to Riches: Historic Railways of Alaska & the Yukon Territory

    One of the railways that has largely faded into history even though much of it remains, is the one commonly called the Taku Tram. The line was only 2¼ miles long, making it one of the shortest, if not the shortest, railways in Canada.

    In February 1899, a group of men from Victoria obtained a charter from the British Columbia Legislature to build a tramway or railway, to be known as the Atlin Short Line Railway and Navigation Company, across the isthmus from Taku Arm, near the mouth of the Atlin River, to Scotia Bay, on the west shore of Atlin Lake (Chapter 79, British Columbia Statutes, 1899). The new company also acquired powers to construct telegraph lines, to utilize the Atlin River for electric power purposes, and to build wharves and other facilities for steamship services. On June 6, 1899, J. H. Brownlee, the company's president, officially opened a horse-powered tramway, with wharves at each end for unloading and loding steamboats.

    An interesting reflection on those times is the fact that the incorporation included a provision that nobody of Chinese or Japanese ancestry would be employed by the company.

    The John Irving Navigation Company temporarily acquired control of the Atlin Short Line Railway in the summer of 1899, but Brownlee resumed control of the line a few months later. In February 1900, Captain John Irving planned to construct a second tramway across the peninsula in competition with the Brownlee concern, and in March 1900, began construction of the John Irving Tramway. Protests from Brownlee's group, however, led to the temporary suspension of construction work on the Irving tramway, and in June 1900, the dispute between the two groups was settled by the intervention of a third company, the White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR), which bought the assets of the Irving Navigation Company, including steamers, wharves, tramway and a recently-purchased locomotive called "The Duchess". The WP&YR quickly completed the railway and shipped The Duchess from Nanaimo to Skagway on the steamer Danube, and on July 18, 1900, The Duchess crossed from Taku to Atlin Lake for the first time. The fare, one way, was $2, one of the highest rates per mile in the world, and passengers sat on their baggage during the journey.

    Below are photos, a map and more information.

The Duchess

    This saddle-tank steam locomotive was built in 1878 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works as a 30-inch gauge 0-6-0T for the Dunsmuir, Diggle & Company coal mines near Nanaimo, BC. They numbered it 2 and named it "Duchess" after Catherine S. D. Wellesley, wife of the 1st Duke of Wellington. In 1883, she was sold to the Wellington Colliery Railway, and about 6 years later she was widened to 36-inch gauge and converted to a 2-4-0T by disconnecting the front drivers. Albion Iron Works bought her in about 1899, and in April 1900 re-sold her to the John Irving Navigation Company for use on subsidiary Atlin Short Line Railway and Navigation Company's line. Less than 2 months later, before The Duchess had even started her new job, Irving Navigation was purchased by the White Pass & Yukon Route, who started steam service on the Taku Tram line on July 18, 1900.

    The Duchess was used on the Taku Tram line until 1920, then was shipped to Carcross where her boiler was used as a trash burner until 1931, when she was put on display in downtown Carcross. The photo below was shot in October 2008.

Steam locomotive Duchess at Carcross, Yukon

Engine 52

    This 2-6-0 steam locomotive was built by Brooks Locomotive Works in 1881 for the Utah & Northern Railroad. It was sold to the Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad (a re-organization of the the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad of Seattle) in 1890. In 1898 the White Pass & Yukon Route purchased it as one of their first locomotives, numbered 2. It was operated in the Skagway valley for about a year and then was moved to Bennett. In 1931 it was shipped to Taku to operate on the "Taku Tram" line.

    Retired from service in 1936, it sat on a spur at Taku until 1964 when it was shipped to Skagway for restoration and display. However, it was damaged in the huge roundhouse fire of October 1969. Minor repairs were made and it was put on display 2 years later, but not until 2014 did it finally get painted and moved to the main display area, seen below.

White Pass & Yukon Route steam locomotive #52 at Skagway, Alaska

This photo of the tramway facilities at the west (Taku) end as they look today was published in the "Atlin Area Recreation Sites" brochure by Recreation Sites and Trails BC, listed as the "Shortest Railway Trail".
Taku Tram station

The image below, created from a Google Earth image, shows the Taku Tram and the community of Atlin - the Taku Tram line is shown by a thin black line. Click on the image to open an interactive Google Map in a new window.
Taku Tram location map