White Pass Yukon Railroad nearing the summit
Photo: White Pass Yukon Railroad.

What climbs nearly 3,000 feet, took 26 months to build and is the most popular tourist attraction in Skagway, Alaska?

It’s the White Pass Yukon Railroad. Completed in 1900, this narrow-gauge railroad begins at the cruise pier where rail fans of all ages can board the vintage train for a breathtaking one and one-half hour ascent to White Pass Summit and beyond.

There’s a lot of history surrounding Skagway and it all revolves around the famed Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century.   It began in 1896, when explorer George Carmack, and his two Indian companions discovered a few flakes of gold in Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory. While they didn’t find very much, it was enough to trigger a stampede of fortune seekers bent on finding gold in them thar’ hills.

The steam train crossing the trestle bridge.
Photographers get their best shot. Photo: White Pass Yukon Railroad

But the area north of Skagway wasn’t hilly.  It was mountainous, snow-packed and fraught with sub-zero temperatures for months on end. Thousands of treasure-seeking men and women traveled aboard Inside Passage steamer boats from Washington State into the growing town of Skagway.

From there they proceeded on horseback, with the necessary ton of supplies carried on pack animals. It’s said that 3,000 horses died along the route from the extreme conditions and from neglect by the gold-seekers who did not know how to care for horses.

White Pass Yukon Railroad
One of several trestle bridges on the route to the summit. Photo: White Pass Yukon Railroad.

Reaching the Klondike

There were only two passages to the infamous Klondike. The quickest way to get there traversed the rugged and rocky 2,865’ White Pass Summit. Once the summit was reached, the stampeders rambled down the other side of the mountain pass.  They traveled deeper into the interior to reach the Klondike in the Yukon Territory. It was a treacherous and deadly overland trek. Soon there would be a safer alternative to reach the gold country.

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In April of 1898, two prominent businessmen, an Englishman and a Canadian, met in Skagway. After an all-night conversation, the White Pass Yukon Railroad was born.  They would build a narrow-gauge railroad to climb from the tidewater at Skagway up the steep mountain to White Pass Summit. From there, the train would continue into the Yukon Territory to Carcross, the end of the line.

White Pass Yukon Railroad
Between Fraser and Bennett

A final gold spike was hammered into the ground in Carcross nearly 26 years later.  This milestone event signaled the completion of one of the world’s greatest engineering feats of its time.

The gold rush of 1898-99 was nearly over by the time the railroad was finished.  With fewer passengers, the railroad needed to find another way to keep running. By diversifying into other modes of transport like paddle wheelers, aircraft, buses and trucks, the White Pass Yukon Route Railroad found the revenue stream needed to sustain and maintain the success story it is today.

Ready to go? Here’s my complete guide to packing for an Alaska cruise

All cruises that visit Skagway, Alaska offer shore excursions for a ride on the White Pass Yukon Route Railroad. These historic and exciting tours range from 3 ½ to 7 ½ hours.  Passengers travel along the same route that the 100,000 brave and daring souls trekked over 100 years ago. This is one train ride you don’t want to miss!

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