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Pacific Coast Railway Club; Official Proceedings, Vol. 4 #8 (December 20, 1902)

    The above is probably as appropriate a title as can be had for a paper the subject of which is a railroad that is cut into two equal parts by the sixtieth parallel of north latitude, the parallel which touches the southern tip of Greenland, the fame of whose "icy mountains" has long since passed into song. But, no matter where, no matter what the conditions, climatic, topographical, or otherwise, confronting any railroad project, the question is no longer asked, "Can it be done?" Its need once established, the rest becomes a mere matter of detail. It is not my purpose to dwell upon the need of this railroad. Suffice it to say the discovery of the wonderful gold deposits along the Klondike and its tributaries was enough in itself to create a demand for some substantial transportation facilities between the outside world and the interior of this great northland for years to come. The long, roundabout, all-water route, by way of St. Michaels, was unsatisfactory in many ways. Its season is short and uncertain, its start being governed not, as a rule, by the opening of the Yukon, but by the date the Bering Sea ice-packs vacate Norton Sound and make St. Michaels accessible from the sea. It soon became apparent that, if the comparatively short gap between tide water and the head of unobstructed navigable waters of the Yukon above Dawson were connected by rail, the much-to-be-desired short, direct route would be had, with the current of the river and the trend of traffic arm in arm. The need of a railroad was established.

    It is the purpose of this paper to give some idea of how this need was and is being met. The head of Lynn Canal, the extreme northern liniit of what is known as "The Inland Passage," is the logical starting-point for this rail connection. It is as near the head of navigation of the Upper Yukon as salt water can take one. All that could be desired in the way of a deep and sheltered harbor marks the entrance to the Skagway Valley, the key to the best route through the mountain range which separates the head waters of the Yukon from tide-water, known as the White Pass. Several surveys were made before sufficient distance was found for a feasible grade; but when a survey was finally made which demonstrated that 20 miles could be had to make this climb of 2,940 feet, on a maximum grade of 3.9 per cent, little time was lost in financing the undertaking and getting to work.

    The grading outfit reached Skagway May 27, 1898, and, as sort of initiation fee, paid $500 for the privilege of pitching camp on the only spot suitable for such a purpose, title to the ground not entering into this transaction. Skagway has so far found room for itself in an acute-angled triangle, whose base, some 3,000 feet in length, is the water-front at the foot of this valley; one side, the east wall of the valley; the remaining side, the Skagway River, which, as a last act, cuts this much-chopped-up little valley in two on the bias. The altitude of this triangle is a mile and a half, and this first camp was pitched at its apex. Our present shops are located on the site of this first camp.

WP&YR - Skagway, 1902
The view which I have marked No. I probably gives as good an idea of the town as could be had from one view-point. It shows but a corner of the wharf over which virtually all business is now done, and back of which the railroad has freight tracks. No. 2 shows about half of this wharf, and gives a very good idea of its appearance during the season of river navigation. The natural route from "Camp 1" is along the east side of the river, which for some little distance has hugged the east wall of the valley; but a wagon road, operated as a toll road, occupied the only available ground for such a purpose for a distance of about 3 miles, with a price set upon its right of possession which forced the railroad to cross the river at this point, recrossinq again as soon as it could be done without interfering with the toll road. Our railroad, now some 5 miles from tide-water, with no opportunity thus far to make any material progress skyward, lost no further time in that direction, but soon got above and beyond any further danger of conflict with the toll road. Good progress was now being made, with every indication that the summit would he reached before winter set in, when a stampede to the Atlin gold fields set in, which in three days carried with it more than a thousand men off the grade, and virtually put a stop to everything. WP&YR, 1902 It was well into the winter before men could be had and active work resumed. Notwithstanding this exasperating delay, the track reached the summit of the well-named White Pass on Feb. 18, 1899. Having pushed its way through the ruggedest kind of mountain work in our heaviest snow district, this task including the building of 37 bridges, the material for which was in most cases snaked up the mountainside by man-power. The fight for a railroad over this pass being thrown into the winter months, furnished a continuous performance for an army of snow shovelers. View No. 3 will give some idea of the magnitude of this undertaking. The lone figure in this picture is standing at one of the storm-swept points in the path made by our rotary plow, which last winter accomplished the task of keeping this mountain open to daily traffic, without a skip, in spite of the fact that, every winter since this road has been in operation, the outside papers have brought us word that the "White Pass and Yukon Route"is hopelessly buried in snow and abandoned for the winter, the depths under which reports have us buried ranging from 50 to 200 feet.

    While the item of snow is before us, it might be well to state that our snow-bucking outfit consists of a standard-gauge rotary, with its trucks closed in to our three-foot gauge and two of our heaviest engines to keep it up to its work. This outfit makes daily trips over our mountain district through the winter months. and a duplicate outfit is held here in reserve. Aside from an occasional trip by the rotary to the foot of Lake Bennett, flangers and pilot plows on our road engines take care of the snow north of Bennett, as the station at the head of the lake is called, for, strange as it may seem, the farther north we go, the less snow we encounter. On account of the great amount of water used by the rotary in heavy snow, as compared with that used by its pushers, the injector piping on the engines assigned to rotary service has been so arranged that their injectors can put water either into their own boilers or into the tender ahead. WP&YR, 1902 This arrangement permits the rotary to work as long as there is water in the outfit, which arrangement has in many cases cut out a stop for water by the snow-melting process; which in some of our storms might easily mean a tie up. No. 4 gives a very fair idea of the appearance of this outfit after a tussle with a heavy storm. But, to get back to construction work: The completion of the track to Lake Bennett marked the end of another chapter of trying delays, including a laborers' strike. In spite of these delays, no opportunity to push the work at every point was overlooked, a large portion of the work on the Canadian side also being done in the winter. Although track laying north of White Pass Summit was not begun until June 21, Lake Bennett was reached July 6, these twenty-one miles off track being laid in sixteen days, in addition to three miles of grading, part of which was rock work. It is hardly necessary to add that every minute of those sixteen nightless days was improved. The train which put the track into Bennett returned to Skagway on the same day, with over a ton_and a half of gold dust and. 200 passengers glad of a chance to ride on flat cars over the pass, which recalled to the minds of many of them hardships and tests of endurance they had no desire to experience again.

    It being apparent that the heavy rockwork along Lake Bennett would be the last piece of grade ready for the track, an engine, together with a few flats and enough material for a start at track laying, was put over the lake before the freeze up. Work on the grade north of Caribou Crossing, at the foot of the lake, was begun the latter part of August, and, together with the work along the lake shore, was pushed with vigor all winter. The balance of the material for the track north of Caribou, together with another engine and flats, was taken over the lake the following spring, and on July 8 these forty-two miles were open for traffic. During the seven weeks' wait for the track along the lake shore, the lake was used as a connecting link, and freight began moving into White Horse, the name given to the town created by this new condition of things, and situated at the foot of the rapids from which it takes its name, the rapids which mark the first break in the navigable waters of the Yukon above Dawson. On July 29, 1900, the final connection was made at Caribou Crossing, with ceremonies befitting the driving of the last spike, and through rail service between tide-water and the head of unbroken navigation of the Upper Yukon was at last a fact.

    The work north of Caribou was comparatively light. What might be called the spectacular feature of this part of the work was the draining of Lewis Lake. The locating engineer conceived the idea of lowering the level of the lake about five feet, to give a better line and to make the work lighter along its shore. It was found that a ditch connecting Lewis with a couple of small lakes about a quarter of a mile away would accomplish this, these small lakes in turn havinq the Watson River to take care of their surplus. A ditch ten feet wide was decided upon, and, while this was being dug, the question was raised as to the length of time it would take the lake to find its new level. One engineer set the time at three months, and pronounced the ditch too small. The engineer in charge, however, thought it safe to leave something to the action of the water, and decided that a larger ditch would be a needless expense. Subsequent events more than bore him out in this view of the matter, for the nature of the material through which the ditch was dug proved so yielding that this little stream soon became a raging torrent, and the bottom proceeded to drop out of that lake with a celerity fairly dazzling. When the rush was over, such a change was found to have been wrought in the topography of the neighborhood that a revision of the map, as well as of the plans of the locating engineer, became the next logical order of business. The new level of the water impounded in the pockets of the lake's former bottom was found to be eighty-one feet below the old level of the lake.

WP&YR - Lewis Lake, 1902
No. 5 is a corner of the lake's old bed crossed by the road, and gives a fair idea of the work accomplished by the digging' of that little ditch. If a train were to be caught on the bridge to be seen in this picture by the sudden restoration of the water of the lake, it would be entirely submerged. The awe which this act of the "Boston man" inspired in the Indians would have been nomore profound had he reversed the current of the Yukon, and turned its waters into Lynn Canal.

    While construction work was being carried on, the question of equipment was, of course, being given attention. The engines for this work were picked up where they could be had the quickest, for there was no dallying between the decision to build and getting to work, and waiting for engines to be built was out of the question. A score of flats were also picked up at second hand, and, while a start was being made toward a shop, a few of the first freight cars were framed in Seattle and sent up here for erection. But little time was lost, however, in getting together the necessary tools and organizing a force sufficient to take care of our running work and to keep up with the demand for freight equipment, which included flat, box, stock, and refrigerator cars and coal dumps. With the exception of our baggage cars and an official car, we have so far looked to the outside for our passenger equipment. But our aim has been to make ourselves as independent of the outside world as we consistently could, the wisdom, not to say necessity, of which can readily be seen when it is borne in mind that a thousand miles of water separate us from any possible market. To this end we have included in our modest plant a brass and iron foundry, which provides us with everything in that line entering into the construction freight cars and into car and locomotive repairs, as well as into the repairs of the fleet of lake and river boats which constitute a part of this route to Dawson and to the Atlin district. With high mountains close at hand on every side to further shorten our all too short winter days, the question of light became an important one. Electricity was decided upon as the best and most reliable substitute for daylight, and, our buildings being strung out over more than a mile of territory, including, as they do, the shop and store buildings, hospital, employees' club, general offices, and freight and passenger depots, alternating current was of course decided upon, and a 650-light, 1,050-volt alternator was accordingly installed in our engine room. Through our winter months this is easily our busiest tool, having scarcely an hours rest in the 24 when clouds overcast our shortest days. Although the mercury along this section of the Alaskan coast is not often to be found below zero, it puts in so much of the winter below the freezing point that ample use is found for all of our exhaust steam in heating our shop buildings. This is very satisfactorily done by the direct system; so, should you make us a call this winter, you will find us comfortably ensconced in warm and light quarters.

WP&YR, 1902     Early steps were taken to provide suitable power. The first instalment of new engines consisted of two 95,000-pound, consolidation, Vauclain compounds. These were followed by one 95,000-pound and four 90,000-pound 10-wheelers and another consolidation weighing 100,000 pounds, the latter six simple. These constitute what we call our heavy power, and for narrow gauge engines they are heavy. View No. 6 gives a very good idea of the general appearance of some of our home-made equipment, both cars being native Alaskans. The artist rightly calls No. 7 a through freight. If he had located himself a few car lengths further up the hill, and had waited few moments longer, he would have been able to cover the entire train with his camera, including the rear helper, whose smoke can be seen over the rock-cut out of which this train is coming. The train is made up of 17 cars of 40,000 pounds' capacity (our standard), and is a load for three of our heaviest engines. This picture gives some idea of the general appearance of our freight equipment, as well as a glimpse of the rugged mountains over which this train is climbing.

WP&YR, 1902
The passenger train just showing up in No. 8 is about 5 miles from the summit, and about 800 feet above the track where it is to be seen along the foot of the mountain which forms the background of this picture. The men in No. 9 have just started the attack upon the granite mountain-side, which resulted in the shelf on which the train in No. 8 is to be seen. Like the "Shriner," nothing would induce these men to let go of the rope.
WP&YR, 1902
The swallow's nest, out of which the Vauclain compound in No. 10 has emerged just in time to have her picture taken, is the only tunnel we have, and is but 250 feet long. Before the completion of the steel cantilever shown in No. 11, a switchback was resorted to as a means of getting around this canyon. A sharp turn toward the head of the canyon was made at the extreme right of the picture. The grade line of the north leg of the switchback can be seen through the bridge. The round, tent-like building to be seen at the north approach keeps the snow off the turn-table, on which through engines took out the turn put in them by the switchback. The foundations supporting this bridge are of concrete set upon the solid granite. This is our highest bridge, being 215 feet above the little stream which it spans.
WP&YR, 1902
No. 12 is a good picture of White Horse as it appeared a year ago. A year, however, has wrought quite a change for the better in its appearance, substantial buildings having taken the place of many of the tents. The boats tied up to the wharf with their noses upstream are loading and waiting their turn to load for Dawson. This picture was taken from across the river opposite the ways where the boats wintering at White Horse are pulled out of the river. No. 13 shows these boats just after going into winter quarters.
WP&YR, 1902
No. 14 is a winter "passenger and mail train" on the River Division. Without this stage service Dawson would be completely isolated between the closing and opening of river navigation. A 450-mile stage ride in this latitude may not seem very inviting, especially when it is borne in mind that 50° and even 60° below zero are by no means unheard-of temperatures north of White Horse; yet even women and children make this trip with comfort in the dead of winter. While freight trains on the river are not so thick as to be in each other's way, the photographer found no special difficulty in securing No. 15. To counteract anything in the foregoing which may have tended toward a strengthening of the impressions usually suggested by the mere mention of Alaska, a land, in the minds of the man, enveloped in perennial snows, I add No. 16 to this list.
Skagway, 1902

    I trust I have succeeded, with the help of the photographer, in giving you a glimpse of this railroad and the part it plays in the transportation game as carried on in this far northland. What the future has in store for this vast treasure-house, being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I shall not venture a prediction; that but a start has been made at its exploitation is beyond question; that the white man will not rest until he has gone in and possessed it to the utmost goes without saying; that the railroad will be there, prepared to do its part, who can doubt? In the meantime, the time which concerns us, this hardy pioneer is doing business at the old stand, taking care of the needs of the hour.


Written by Mr. J. R. Van Cleve


This article has been reproduced as originally published. Photo quality is very poor, however, as they are scans of photocopies of photocopies. Several images have been replaced by good copies of the photos, well-known images by Case & Draper (Fig.s 1, 2 and 5) and Doody.