Senior Voice -

By Dimitra Lavrakas
Senior Voice Travel Correspondent 

Foamers! Get on board

The other Alaska railroad offers thrills and gold rush history

 

Dimitra Lavrakas photo

The train route provides spectacular views of the river gorge and Sawtooth Mountains.

In railroad parlay, "foamers" are those who literally foam at the mouth at the sight of a steam engine. If you are one, take the 18-hour road trip to Skagway in Southeast and take a ride on one of White Pass & Yukon Route Railroads' steam engines.

The 3,000-foot climb over the historic White Pass and into a sliver of Canada's British Columbia is filled with great vistas from mountaintops to deep valleys with rushing rapids and places where a ledge for the narrow-gauge tracks has been blasted so deeply you can reach out and touch the rock walls, but it is not advised.

And blast away they did, prompting Michael James Heney, director of the project, to declare "Give me enough dynamite and snooze and I'll build a road to hell."

Built to accommodate gold seekers landing in Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the White Pass trail to Lake Bennett was considered another route to take other than the tortuous Chilkoot Trail with its Golden Stairs immortalized by photographs of miners hauling their ton of supplies in a solid line of hunched-over figures.

Construction on the 110-mile line ended in 1898, and was built in a mere 26 months, but by that time the rush was over. A harbinger of times to come, however, tourists came to Skagway to take the train to experience the thrill of the stampede, and they got there through WP&YR's visionary intermodal system of steam ships that came up the Inside Passage to Skagway, then onto the railroad and to the Lakes in British Columbia to other steamboats that would take them to Carcross or Lake Atlin, where another rush occurred.

The railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Panama Canal, Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty.

Climbing almost 3,000 feet in just 20 miles, the line has steep grades of up to 3.9 percent, 16-degree turns that make you feel like you're suspended in air, two tunnels and bridges and trestles floating over river gorges.

Post-gold rush, the railroad hauled freight from the mines in Canada's Yukon Territory, but stopped operations in 1982 when mines went out of business due to low prices for ore. Reopened six years later as a tourist attraction for the many cruise ships that arrive each summer, in 2015, over 400,000 visitors rode the rails.

For all the years I lived in Skagway, I never tired of the train ride, whether it was to Fraser at the Canadian border or all the way to Lake Bennett, where you can camp for a night and dine in the historic mess hall.

Lake Bennett is also the end of the Chilkoot Trail, which many hikers take in the summer and where they can catch a train back into Skagway and continue their journey from there.

The railroad has a great coffee bar at the depot and an interesting gift shop where souvenirs can be had with the White Pass &Yukon Route logo on them. These can also make your train fan friends foam with envy.

Dimitra Lavrakas photo

Baldwin Steam Engine No. 73 picks up Chilkoot hikers at Lake Bennett.

Skagway itself is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (oh those "Parkies" sure like their long titles) and there's lots to see when you return to town.

There are one-way train rides with a bus back to town or roundtrips.

The steam engines No. 73 or No. 69, go six miles beyond White Pass Summit to Fraser Meadows on a four-hour tour, crossing into Canada so don't forget your passports. The cost is $159 for adult and $79.50 for children. Go to http://wpyr.com/excursions.

Just to make all your steam fans totally jealous, I have ridden in No. 73's cab all the way to Lake Bennett and back. It was fabulous! And before the rotary plow was retired, one April it was pushed by No. 73 and a diesel engine to clear the tracks all the way to Fraser and we got to get out and snowshoe to the front to take pictures. Ha!

 
 

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