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The Railway Age - November 11, 1898

Railroad Building in Alaska, 1898

    Last year when the Klondike fever was at its height there were many schemes launched for building railroads in Alaska to make the gold fields in the region of Dawson City more accessible, but comparatively few people regarded them seriously, as the obstacles to railway building in that arctic region were so great and the chances of any return on the investment were considered so small that it was thought to be almost impossible to enlist capital for any important undertaking of this nature. Not only was a great mountain range to be crossed, but the difficulties of operating a road in such a climate, where snow and ice are encountered for the greater part of the year, were considered a barrier to any important railway building. Even when early during the present year the construction of a road from Skaguay north was begun, it was not generally understood that it was to be anything more than a crude, temporary road to lessen the hardships of getting through the dangerous and difficult mountain passes. Therefore it sounds a good deal like a fairy tale to read that $1,200,000 has already been expended in the construction and equipment of 20 miles of permanent and substantial railroad from Skaguay north through the hitherto almost impenetrable White Pass, which has always been far more difficult for travelers and packers than the now famous Chilkoot Pass.

    In the issue of The Railway Age of September 2 were presented a number of views along the route of this line, which is known as the White Pass & Yukon railroad and which, when completed, will be over 300 miles in length, extending from Skaguay to Ft. Selkirk on the Yukon river. In the present issue we give some additional views, showing some of the engineering difficulties encountered in building a railroad in that mountain country. The road is now in operation from Skaguay north to White Pass City, a distance of 10 miles, and it will soon be open for traffic to the summit of White Pass, which is 20 miles from Skaguay.

    During the past two months work has been somewhat retarded by the weather and the necessity of establishing and moving into winter camps and making trails and wagon roads connecting the new camps. Altogether about 10 miles of such roads were made during the month of October. The company had some 1,500 men employed most of the summer, but the recent discovery of gold at Lake Atlin caused a large portion of these men to abandon the work and go to the new gold fields. Many of them have, however, returned, and at the present time there are about 1,200 men employed. Notwithstanding these embarrassments, good progress has been made along the line, and all the heavy work, including the work most likely to be retarded by bad weather, has heen completed to the summit, leaving only about 2 miles of comparatively light work to finish the line to the international boundary, which it is hoped to reach by the middle of November. Work has already been commenced beyond the summit, and it is expected to have the road ready for operation to Log Cabin, 15 miles beyond the international boundary line, before Christmas, by which time it is anticipated the severe weather will cause a cessation of active operations, although it is the intention to keep somewhat of a force employed throughout the winter. In addition to the 1,200 men now employed, arrangements are being made to bring several hundred more from Dawson City to work on the grade. The survey has just been completed from Cariboo Crossing to Ft. Selkirk, which shows a much better line than it was thought possible to obtain. No engineering difficulties whatever have been encountered beyond Cariboo Crossing, and the principal items of expense will be a bridge about 350 feet long over the Tahkeena river and a span 150 feet over the crossing of the river at Five Fingers. The distance from Skaguay to Ft. Selkirk via the surveyed line is 312½ miles and the distances from Skaguay to intermediate points between that place and Ft. Selkirk are as follows: To summit of White Pass, 20 miles; to head Too-chi Lake, 40 miles; to head of Windy Arm, 56½ miles; to Cariboo Crossing by way of Windy Arm, 74½ miles; to crossing of the Tahkeena river, 144.6 miles; to the Hoochi river, on the Dalton trail, 186.9 miles; to point 5 miles west of Rink Rapids, 266.6 miles. A survey is being made for a branch from the main line at Log Cabin to the Lake Atlin gold fields and a preliminary reconnaissance shows that no engineering difficulties are presented. It is proposed to push the work on the branch line so as to accommodate the requirements of this new and extensive gold region.

    From Log Cabin to Cariboo Crossing two routes are under consideration, one of which runs along the shore of Lake Bennett. If the latter line is decided upon, some heavy work will be necessary to cross the mountains, which cannot be undertaken until next summer. If the route to the east of Lake Bennett by way of Windy Arm is selected, the work will be comparatively easy. From Cariboo Crossing to Ft. Selkirk there is nothing but plow and scraper work, and the grade can be completed with great rapidity with favorable weather. The line passes through grass lands and small timber, and there is no work of a difficult nature. The company has not only been granted right of way and has its track laid on the main street of the city of Skaguay, but it is also building a line to encircle the entire city, giving it control of the principal part of the water front. The new passenger depot in that city at the foot of Broadway is about completed, and work is in progress on the freight depot. The machine shop and blacksmith shop are completed and in operation, and material for 50 cars is on the ground ready to be put together. It should be explained that the principal part of the work on these cars is done at Seattle, and the various portions are shipped to Skaguay ready to be put together with little work.

Building the White Pass & Yukon Railway, 1898     The road from Skaguay to the summit of White Pass is a veritable shelf in the mountains, and in order to secure a line, the maximum curvature of which is but 16 degrees, and which has a maximum grade of only 3.9 per cent, some very heavy work has been necessary to reach the summit, which is 2,850 feet above sea level, with so light a grade. Another item of heavy expense on the first 20 miles has been the construction of three long, level sidings, where trains can pass - these in addition to a number of short sidings and switches. At the summit there is a mammoth granite cliff, which will have to he shot off into the canyon below to make way for the roadbed.

    Figure 1 shows a view of the workmen cutting the grade on Tunnel mountain, near White Pass City. In order to get around this obstacle the construction of three tunnels, one of which is 500 feet in length, is required. It is necessary for the men to hold on to ropes in order to avoid sliding off into the canyon 1,500 feet below. The wind comes through the pass at such a velocity that it was found impossible to work on this mountain except on very calm days.

Building the White Pass & Yukon Railway, 1898

    Figure 2 is reproduced from our issue of September 2, and shows a rocky cliff on Porcupine Point, now known as Rocky Point, ready to be shot off with a battery blast into the canyon several hundred feet below. This cliff was 120 feet high, from 50 to 70 feet long, and from 15 to 20 feet wide.

    Figure 3 is from the same point of view after the blast, with the roadway prepared for laying the ties and rails.

Building the White Pass & Yukon Railway, 1898

    Figure 4 presents a view on the grade to White Pass City. Most of the cliff shown in the illustration had to be blasted off in order to make way for the roadbed.

    Figure 5 shows a view of the rock crib work on Porcupine Point or Rocky Point. On the curve shown the roadbed is 300 feet above the river. The rock blasted off fell upon the wagon road below and the expense of clearing the latter of the debris was nearly as great as that of preparing the roadway above. This rock crib work is built to take the place of trestles, because it is difficult to find a firm foundation for the latter, owing to the loosening of the rock by the heavy blasting necessary to clear the roadway.

Building the White Pass & Yukon Railway, 1898

    Figure 6 shows a Klondike excursion train on the road 4 miles north of Skaguay, taken July 24 of the present year.

    Figure 7 shows a view of the trestle at Porcupine cliff from the wagon road below.

    During the summer months the company was able to keep two shifts at work 11 hours per day each, without the use of artificial light. The workmen received 30 cents per hour and board, and the company has its own tents, hospitals and physicians. Although the present year will close with not over 35 miles of road constructed, it is the hope of president Graves to build the line through to Ft. Selkirk next year, as all of the heavy work is practically out of the way.

    The company is now operating its own pack train from White Pass to Bennett, having a train of 64 mules, and more mules are being purchased for this service. There is a large, warm warehouse at log Cabin, and another at Bennett, with agents stationed at each. Every shipper sending freight over the line will have his goods cared for in these warehouses, storage free for any reasonable length of time.


This article has been reproduced as originally published. Photo quality is poor, however, as they are scans of photocopies of photocopies. In some cases, good copies of the original photos have been located and laid over the scans.