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ENGINEERING NEWS: Vol. XLII No. 14 (October 1899)


Map of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, 1899     When the great rush to the Klondike region in Alaska began, in 1897, the means of transportation from the coast to the gold fields were slow, of limited capacity, and dangerous. Various projects were put forward for railways into this new and almost unknown region, but the only ones which were actually carried into effect were the White Pass & Yukon Ry. and the Chilkoot Pass cableway. These were rival schemes, but the railway company has acquired control of the cableway, which is now being dismantled.

    The line of the White Pass & Yukon Ry., as shown by the map, Fig. 1, is to extend from Skagway (Alaska) on the coast, to Fort Selkirk (Canada), on the Yukon River, a distance of about 380 miles. Beyond Fort Selkirk there is open navigation to Dawson, which is the center of the Klondike region. The road is now completed from Skagway across the summit of the Coast Range at White Pass (which is on the international boundary) and thence down to Lake Bennett, a total distance of 41 miles.

    The plan and profile of this first portion of the road are given in Fig. 2. The road commences at a wharf in 30 ft. of water, and runs through the principal street of the town. It reaches Boulder, 5 miles, by a grade of about 1%, but beyond this there is an almost continuous grade of 3.7 to 3.9% to the summit, at White Pass, 20 miles from Skagway, the summit elevation being 2,885 feet. A level stretch and some grades of 1% and 2% bring the line to Log Cabin, 32 miles, beyond which the line descends by long 3% grades to Bennett. The water surface of Lake Bennett is 2,165½ ft. above sea level.

    From Boulder to White Pass very heavy work was encountered, involving a large amount of rock excavation. Figs, 3, 4 and 5 are reproduced from photographs taken on this part of the line. Fig. 3 shows the commencement of work at Fisk's cut, on Tunnel Mountain, the elevation of sub-grade being over 1,000 feet from the bottom of the canyon. In many places the slope was so steep and unbroken that the men had to be secured by ropes, to keep them from slipping down or being blown off by the furious winds, while drilling the holes for blasting. In Fig. 4, the white cross shows the location of a tunnel, the heading for which was started by men let down by ropes from the top of the cliff, the face of the precipice affording no footing. The tunnel is 500 ft. long, and is approached by a trestle.

    Fig. 5 shows the completed road at Rocky Point. Here the side of a mountain rose so straight and unbroken, that in order to form a bench for the roadbed it was necessary to blast away the entire face of the spur. The mass of rock dislodged was about 120 ft. high, 50 to 70 ft. long, and 15 to 20 ft. wide. This was hurled by one blast to the bottom of the canyon, 700 feet below. It may easily be imagined that there was little difficulty in disposing of the debris, but in one case the rock blast blocked the wagon road below, and the cost of clearing the road was almost as great as that of preparing the grade for the railway. These views give some idea of the character of the work, and behind the train, in Fig. 5, may be seen one of the trestles required to carry the line in front of the smooth and almost vertical face of the rock. Beyond the pass, the work is much less severe, the excavation being largely in earth and gravel, with only light rock cuts. The maximum grade is 3.9%, and the minimum curves are of 16°. There is one switchback (Fig. 2) which will ultimately be replaced by a curve.

White Pass & Yukon Route railway, 1899

White Pass & Yukon Route railway, 1899

White Pass & Yukon Route railway, 1899

    The final surveys and construction were commenced at Skagway in April, 1898, and tracklaying was commenced at the same point in June. In August, 1898, 12 miles were open for operation. The construction train was put into service on July 21, while the first passenger train to the summit of White Pass was run on Feb. 20, 1899. The line was completed to Lake Bennett on July 6, 1899. From 1,200 to 1,500 men were employed in construction, and the first 20 miles cost $1,200,000, or $60,000 per mile.

    The railway has a track of 3-ft. gage, laid with 50-lb. rails, and is ballasted with gravel. For that part of the line from Skagway to the pass, the gravel was mainly obtained from the Skagway river. Beyond the pass, however, the country affords an abundant supply of gravel.

    The equipment includes about ten locomotives, mostly of the mogul and consolidation types: 7 passengers cars, 100 freight cars, and a number of flat cars. Additional equipment has recently been ordered, including a Leslie rotary snow plow, built by the Cooke Locomotive Works, Paterson, N.J. The four-cylinder, Vauclain compound consolidation engines have their frames outside the driving wheels, necessitating the use of overhung crank arms on the axles. They were built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, of Philadelphia, Pa., and their leading dimensions are as follows:

White Pass & Yukon Route railway rotary snow plow specs, 1899

    Construction has been commenced for the division extending from the foot of Lake Bennett to a point on Fifty-Mile River, below the dangerous White Horse Rapids. This distance is 41 miles, and these two divisions, with the navigation on Lake Bennett, will give a safe and practicable route into the interior. Eventually the two divisions will be connected by a third, following the banks of the lake. This will be 26 miles long and will involve some heavy rock work.

    The entire road is known as the White Pass & Yukon Ry., but will be built under three separate charters, all held by the same parties. The United States charter for the division from Skagway to White Pass (in Alaska), 19.6 miles, is held by the Pacific & Arctic Railway & Navigation Co. The British Columbia charter, for the division from White Pass to the 60th parallel, 21.4 miles, is held by the British Columbia Yukon Ry. Co. The Canadian government charter, for the division from this boundary to Fort Selkirk, 340 miles, is held by the Yukon Mining, Trading & Transportation Co. Mr. S. H. Graves, of Chicago, is President of all these companies. Mr. E. C. Hawkins is Chief Engineer and General Manager. Mr. John Hislop is Assistant Chief Engineer, and Mr. F. H. Whiting is Division Superintendent. The construction work is in the hands of the Pacific Contract Co., of Seattle, Wash., of which Mr. Graves is also President.

Profile of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, 1899


This article has been reproduced in its entirety. The map and profile can be seen in greater detail by clicking on the image - a greatly-enlarged version opens in a new window.

The wagon road that was noted as being blocked by one of the rock blasts was the Brackett Wagon Road. The disputes between the White Pass and Brackett companies during the railway construction were ongoing due to many such blockages due to blasting, and often acrimonious.

The Fifty-Mile River, also known as the Lewes River, is now the Yukon River, and the point that the railway was next being built to is now the city of Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. The railway never was extended to Fort Selkirk.

A colourful article from June 1900 describes perhaps the largest blast ever during the railway's construction, along Lake Bennett.