In terms of engineering marvel, the White Pass and Yukon Route is up there with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
In terms of engineering marvel, the White Pass and Yukon Route is up there with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Royce Bair

Alaska by train: An historic journey

When a George Carmack lifted his face to the sky and shouted 'gold' in Alaska 1896, the stampede might possibly have been heard from outer space.

They came in the tens of thousands looking for gold. A few got rich, most suffered hardship and misery.

But we found gold, metaphorically speaking, when we boarded a charming restored train at Skagway for the historic White Pass Railroad trip.

We suffered no hardship on this shore excursion from our ship Nieuw Amsterdam docked in Skagway, one of the port stops on our cruise through Alaska's Inside Passage.

This excursion was going to give us insight into the minds of men with vision to build a railroad under hazardous conditions and dangerous geography, all to get hopefuls to the goldfields by train rather than journey on horse and foot over 900 kilometres of treacherous land and waterways.

The astounding engineering feat of the railroad was apparent from the moment the historic train rattled out of Skagway to journey us through granite mountains, up steep grades and around cliff-hanging turns. How did the 35,000 men who worked on the railroad during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 cope, let alone survive?

The railroad climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 1000 metres in just 32 kilometres.

The tight curves of the terrain called for a narrow gauge railroad, rails just a metre apart on a three metre wide road bed.

Tunnelling through mountains, building bridges and sky-high trestles on turns of 16 degrees would have been difficult enough, but then there was the heavy snow and freezing winter temperatures to contend with.

But for us on this thrilling shore excursion, it was all about gasps of awe as the train rattled along its narrow tracks and every kilometre brought discovery as we looked down to misty valleys, across mountain lakes, to waterfall cascades, yawning chasms and lush forests. Someone spotted a moose and there was a yelp of excitement as we crowded windows for a brief glimpse of this rare sighting.

 

A bull moose (Alces alces) grazes on Autumn foliage in Denali National Park, Alaska.
A bull moose (Alces alces) grazes on Autumn foliage in Denali National Park, Alaska. KeenaiPhotography

 

One sadness that affected everyone, was the section we passed through called Dead Horse Gulch where 3,000 pack animals - even pigs and dogs were used - met a miserable end, victims of neglect by the stampeders who overloaded them and worked them to death.

At remote Bennett Lake we disembarked and stood where 30,000 stampeders had spent the winter of 1898-1899 building makeshift rafts and boats to take them across Lake Bennett and down the Yukon River to the goldfields.

In the chill of the sub-alpine air in this now silent and far-flung place it was difficult to imagine it packed with tents and the sound of thousands of voices.

In terms of engineering marvel, the White Pass & Yukon Route is up there with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.

Now, the rail fleet consists of 20 diesel-electric locomotives, 83 restored and replica passenger coaches and two steam locomotives.

After 108 kilometres of wild and natural environment, we reached the native village of Carcross where a motorcoach waited to take us back to our ship along the scenic Klondike Highway. Way too much of nature's beauty for one day.

Back on board Nieuw Amsterdam, the passengers were revelling in the luxury of the ship, exchanging gossip about their own shore excursions, (there were 36 to choose from that day) and contemplating dinner.

There needs to be an encore cruise to Alaska for this writer who, now that she has had a small taste for this scenic wonderland, wants more...and more.

Ann Rickard finishes her Alaskan series next week.


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