The White Pass Scenic Railway is Holland America’s most popular excursion in Alaska and it was the one I was most keen to take. It’s also one of the few excursions that costs essentially the same price whether you book through the cruise line or privately, so I booked through HAL. (Otherwise, I often book privately to save money.) Passengers board the train just steps from where the ships dock in Skagway in front of the graffiti wall where cruise ships have recorded their maiden voyage to this port since 1917. A three hour roundtrip ride to the summit of White Pass is fully narrated while you climb to 2865 feet of elevation in just 20 miles.
The railroad was a direct result of the Klondike gold rush. When gold was discovered in 1896 at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in northwestern Canada, stampeders flocked to Skagway and nearby Dyea by the boatload. But the trip from there to the gold fields was long and arduous. The route from Dyea, along the Chilkoot Trail, was shorter but the Golden Stairs, a 1,000 foot vertical climb in a quarter mile, was a definite drawback. The White Pass Trail starting at Skagway was 10 miles longer but less steep. When prospectors factored in the transport of a ton of supplies to last a year as required by the Canadian government, the White Pass Trail was the preferred route. Skagway became the Gateway to the Klondike.
Although the White Pass Trail was somewhat less treacherous, it was not without danger and hardship. The trail became a muddy quagmire resulting in the deaths of 3,000 horses and the nickname of Dead Horse Trail. The 21 year old then unknown writer, Jack London, who sailed to Skagway in 1897 penned, “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost, and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps.”
Building a railroad was the logical solution to move men and supplies to the gold fields and this capitalist venture commenced in 1898. The project was a remarkable engineering achievement. A narrow gauge track was employed due to the tight curves required by the terrain as well as plenty of steep grades, tunnels, and trestles. The project was completed in 1899 at a cost of $10 million with the construction efforts of 35,000 men.
In 1994, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad received the designation of International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, an honor shared by the Panama Canal and the Eiffel Tower.
After our train ride, we explored the restored gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska. By 1897, after gold was discovered in the Klondike, the population swelled to about 20,000 but today there are only around 850 year-round residents.
We especially enjoyed Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park which is integrated into the town with information and historical displays in several buildings. The photo above of the 1 ton of goods is one such display. There were also many photographs from the time period and lots of explanatory material. It was a history lover’s gold mine of information.
All that history can bring on a powerful thirst and a good place to quench it is the Red Onion Saloon. When it first opened in 1898, the Red Onion served alcohol on the main floor with a brothel above. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and a popular site in Skagway. We stuck to the main floor but for $10 a madam will talk dirty to you (in a guided tour of the brothel museum.)
After a fun-filled day on the train and exploring Skagway, it was back to the Oosterdam in time for our departure.
Based on events of June 2015.