terça-feira, 29 de abril de 2008

Skagway, Alaska / EUA - The White Pass (Yukon Railway)

If you have never seen this railway before, it runs from Whitehorse, Yukon to Skagway, Alaska. It is a fantastic sight in real life. For those of you who have been there you will know what I am talking about.

The White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&Y, WP&YR) (AAR reporting marks WPY) is a narrow gauge railroad linking the port of Skagway, Alaska with Whitehorse, the capital of Canada's Yukon Territory. An isolated system, it has no connection to any other railroad. The railroad is operated by the Pacific and Arctic Railway and Navigation Company (in Alaska), the British Columbia Yukon Railway Company (in British Columbia) and the British Yukon Railway Company, originally known as the British Yukon Mining, Trading and Transportation Company (in Yukon Territory), which use the trade name White Pass and Yukon Route.

The line was born of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. The most popular route taken by prospectors to the gold fields in Dawson City was a treacherous route from the nearest port in Skagway or Dyea, Alaska across the mountains to the Canadian border at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass.

There, the prospectors would not be allowed across by the Canadian authorities unless they had a full ton of supplies with them. There was a need for a better transportation scheme than the pack horses used over the White Pass or people's backs over the Chilkoot Pass. This need generated numerous railroad schemes. In 1897, the Canadian government received 32 proposals for Yukon railroads, most of which were never realized.

In 1897, three separate companies were organized to build a rail link from Skagway to Fort Selkirk, Yukon, 325 miles (523 km) away. Largely financed by British investors, a railroad was soon under construction. A 3-foot (914 mm) gauge was chosen; the narrower roadbed required by a narrow gauge railroad made for big cost savings when that roadbed had to be carved and blasted out of the mountain rock.

Even so, 450 tons of explosives were used to reach White Pass summit. The narrow gauge also allowed for a tighter radius to be used on curves, making the task easier by allowing the railroad to follow the landscape more, rather than having to be blasted through it.

Construction started in May 1898, but they ran into some roadblocks in dealing with the local city government and the town's crime boss, Soapy Smith.

The President, Samuel Graves (d. November 13, 1911), was elected as chairman of the vigilante organization that was trying to expel Soapy and his gang of confidence men and rogues. On the evening of July 8, 1898, Soapy Smith was killed in a gunfight with the guards at one of the vigilante's meetings. Samuel Graves witnessed the shooting.

The railroad helped block off the escape routes of the gang, aiding in their capture, and the remaining roadblocks in Skagway subsided.

On July 21, 1898, an excursion train hauled passengers for four miles (6.4 km) out of Skagway, the first train to operate in Alaska. On July 30, 1898, the charter rights and concessions of the three companies were acquired by the White Pass & Yukon Railway Company Limited, a new company organized in London.

Construction reached the 2,885-foot (879 m) summit of White Pass, 20 miles (32 km) away from Skagway, by mid-February 1899.

The railway reached Bennett, British Columbia on July 6, 1899. In the summer of 1899, construction started north from Carcross to Whitehorse, 110 miles (177 km) north of Skagway.

The construction crews working from Bennett along a difficult lakeshore reached Carcross the next year, and the last spike was driven on July 29, 1900, with service starting on August 1, 1900. However, by then, much of the Gold Rush fever had died down.

At the time, the gold spike was actually a regular iron spike.

A gold spike was on hand, but the gold was too soft and instead of being driven, was just hammered out of shape.

As the gold rush wound down, serious professional mining was taking its place; not so much for gold as for other metals such as copper, silver and lead. The closest port was Skagway, and the only route there was via the White Pass & Yukon Route's river boats and railroad.

While ores and concentrates formed the bulk of the traffic, the railroad also carried passenger traffic, and other freight. There was, for a long time, no easier way into the Yukon Territory, and no other way into or out of Skagway except by sea.

Financing and route was in place to extend the rails from Whitehorse to Carmacks, but there was chaos in the river transportation service, resulting in a bottleneck.

The White Pass instead used the money to purchase most of the riverboats, providing a steady and reliable transportation system between Whitehorse and Dawson City.

While the WP&YR never built between Whitehorse and Fort Selkirk, some minor expansion of the railway occurred after 1900. In 1901, the Taku Tram, a 2½-mile (4 km) portage railroad was built at Taku City, British Columbia, which was operated until 1951.

It carried passengers and freight between the S.S. Tutshi operating on Tagish Lake and the M.V. Tarahne operating across Atlin Lake to Atlin, British Columbia. (While the Tutshi was destroyed by a suspicious fire around 1990, the Tarahne was restored and hosts special dinners including murder mysteries.

Lifeboats built for the Tutshi’s restoration were donated to the Tarahne.) The Taku Tram could not even turn around, and simply backed up on its westbound run. The locomotive used, the Duchess, is now in Carcross.

In 1910, the WP&YR operated a branch line to Pueblo, a mining area near Whitehorse. This branch line was abandoned in 1918; a haul-road follows that course today but is mostly barricaded; a Whitehorse Star editorial in the 1980s noted that this route would be an ideal alignment if the Alaska Highway should ever require a bypass reroute around Whitehorse.

While all other railroads in the Yukon (such as the Klondike Mines Railroad at Dawson City) had been abandoned by 1914, the WP&YR continued to operate.

During the Great Depression, traffic was sparse on the WP&YR, and for a time trains operated as infrequently as once a week.

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