Thursday, June 17, 2010

White Pass and Yukon Railway

Skagway, Alaska is a tiny town at the top of Lynn Canal, that basically lives on cruiseships. It's the familiar boom-n-bust story of frontier living. Imagine it in the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, where miners offloaded their gear from crowded steamers at low tide, and then desperately dragged it ashore before the sea took it. They then painfully climbed the narrow paths up the mountain over White Pass, to eventually float down the Yukon to the gold fields at Dawson City.

Entrepreneurial spirit led to the construction of an impressive narrow-gauge railway, the White Pass and Yukon, to carry people and products over the mountains into British Columbia. In fact for years after the Klondike, it was container and freight company. The railway fell onto hard times but was reborn for the tourist trade and now you can take a ride on the spectacular railway up several thousand feet to White Pass (or beyond, into British Columbia if you choose) on replica and original passenger cars. Most trains are pulled by sturdy diesel-electric locomotives, but there are a couple of beautiful old steam locomotives for special trips. The train we were on was at least 20 cars long with three locomotives.

Our train turned around at White Pass, although some go on to Fraser, BC. Apparently hikers can also flag down a train and selected points on the line.

The single track line hugs narrow canyons and switchbacks, with spectacular views. It crosses the White Pass and into Canada, marked by a couple of flags and a replica RCMP hut, but no one is there. "Turning around" means switching places with the people on the other side of the aisle and flipping the seatbacks while the train stops at a siding. The locomotives then uncouple and run down to the other end. But the best views are from the platforms outside the cars--really cool!

Although no longer used, the huge old cantilever bridge, the tallest in the world when it was built, is still an impressive piece of engineering.

The last picture is of a rotory snowplow--an impressive, impressive machine.

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