The $10 million White Pass Yukon Route (WPYR) project got underway in Skagway, Alaska in April 1898 and was led by experienced railroad contractor Michael Heney. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a railroad to Hell,” bragged Heney one night at the St. James hotel. Looking for his next challenge, he was determined to forge a route to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. When surveyors insisted that constructing a railroad through solid granite, up steep grades, around cliff hugging turns, and in unimaginable weather conditions couldn’t be done, he built it anyway.
Thanks to investors in London, a lot of human muscle power, 450 tons of blasting powder, and a pinch of snuff between his cheek and gum, the narrow gauge WPYR was completed in two years, two months, and two days. Unfortunately, it didn’t reach Lake Bennett (the beginning of the river and lakes route to Dawson City) until July 1899— too late to be of much use to the majority of the stampeders who had reached there on foot a year prior. Alaska cruise ships now bring far more tourist business to the historic railroad than the original gold rush ever did, but a narrated ride on The Scenic Railway of the World is unforgettable.
Before the railroad, an alternative to hiking the “Golden Staircase” was the White Pass Trail from Skagway. Although less steep than the Chilkoot, it still took miners about a month to lug all their gold mining equipment about 45 miles up to the White Pass Summit— elevation 2,865 feet. In some places, the path was only two feet wide and a 500-foot drop awaited any animal or miner who made a misstep. A particularly gruesome section of the route, Dead Horse Gulch, was aptly named because during the 1897-1898 winter, 3,000 pack animals died here. Some slipped and fell, but most were literally worked to death. As gold fever set in, hurried miners had no regard for the animals. When one died, they left it to rot, bought another and then another— all in their haste to get to the gold. Residents of Skagway complained about the smell wafting down into the city.
Whether gold seekers trudged the Chilkoot or the White Pass Trail, both converged at Lake Bennett on the border between British Columbia and Yukon, Canada. A large tent city sprang up on its shores, offering all the services of a major city to thousands of fervent adventurers. This is where miners built boats and waited for “break up.” Once the river ice melted, they still had to navigate 550 miles down the mighty Yukon River to the gold fields at Dawson City. In late May 1898, the North West Mounted Police counted over 7,000 boats, rafts, canoes, skiffs—anything that would float— ready to launch. Many men didn’t make it to Dawson, though, and drowned in the river rapids.
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