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"Gateway to the Yukon"

This story was initially published in 2002

On February 20, 1899, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway reached the summit of the White Pass on the Alaska-British Columbia border. Although far from its destination of Whitehorse, Yukon, the railway soon became the "Gateway to the Yukon."

First passenger train en route to the summit of the White Pass, February 20, 1899

First passenger train en route to the summit
of the White Pass, February 20, 1899

© MSCUA / University of Washington Libraries / Hegg 661

Before 1896, building a railway from coastal Alaska to Yukon was not considered profitable, as the area was remote and sparsely populated. However, once Keish ("Skookum Jim") and his companions discovered gold on Bonanza Creek, the population of Yukon swelled. Prospectors from around the world soon learned that the overland routes to the Klondike gold fields, the Chilkoot and White passes, were long, steep and treacherous to travel.

Many were skeptical about building a railway through such terrain. Railway entrepreneur Michael Heney, however, was confident that a route from Skagway, Alaska, over the White Pass to Whitehorse, Yukon, was feasible. From Whitehorse, prospectors could travel down the Yukon River to the riches of the Klondike gold fields. Heney secured financial backing and found that many prospectors were eager to work on the railway in order to earn enough money to reach the Klondike.

Construction began in 1898. Initially, the line grew rapidly but soon problems arose. News of a gold strike in nearby Atlin, British Columbia, lured away more than half the railway's workforce. Winter months were so cold, that labourers could only work in one-hour shifts. The work was exhausting and dangerous: to reach the top of the 889-metres pass, crews had to pound holes by hand into steep cliff faces and pack the holes with explosives. Of the estimated 35 000 men who worked on the railway at one time or another, 35 died.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway Logo

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway Logo
© Courtesy of the Tri-White Corporation

Despite many obstacles, the railway was completed on July 29, 1900. By this time, the gold rush had slowed, but the 177-km railway line's presence led to a thriving mining industry for zinc, lead and copper. Whitehorse, the railway terminus, became the administrative and commercial centre of Yukon. The railway shut down in 1982, due to low world prices for base metals, but part of the line has since reopened as a tourist attraction.

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway is a National Historic Event. In 1994, it was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. James 'Skookum' Jim Mason (Kèsh), his Discovery Claim (Claim 37903), and the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site of Canada have also been commemorated.

For information on the photographers who captured the people and places of the Klondike gold rush, visit the Virtual Museum of Canada's exhibit, The Yukon Photographers: Gold Rush Era.

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