Yukon Nuggets

  • Marvin Tayler accepting the plaque from Tom McMillan. Roy Minter, Mayor Branigan looking on, 1988.

1988 Historical Photos

Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

On behalf of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Honourable Tom McMillan, Minister of the Environment, invites you to attend a ceremony commemorating the national historic significance of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Friday, August 5, 1988. 2:00 pm. Railway Station, First Avenue, Whitehorse, Yukon. Reception following.

Early in 1898 two other men came north intent upon solving the transportation dilemma: Sir Thomas Tancrede, a representative of a group of British financiers, and Michael J. Heney, a Canadian railway contractor. After detailed surveys , Tancrede and his party concluded that it was impossible to build a railroad through the rugged St. Elias Mountains. But Heney was convinced that a line could be built. By chance, Heney and Tancrede met one night in a Skagway hotel bar. They talked through the night; and by morning the railroad project was no longer a dream, but an accepted challenge. On May 28, 1898, construction began on the White Pass and Yukon Route. Two months later the railroad's first engine pulled an excursion train over the first four miles of completed track, making the WP & YR the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere.

From there the going got tough. The railroad climbed from sea level in Skagway to 2865 feet at the summit, with grades as steep as 3.9%. Heney's workers hung suspended by ropes from vertical granite cliffs, chipping away with picks and planting black powder to blast through the mountains. Heavy snow and temperatures as low as 60 below hampered the work. And the mere whisper of a new gold strike sent workers scurrying off in droves. With all odds against it, the track reached the summit of White Pass on February 18, 1899; by July 6, construction reached the headwaters of the Yukon River at Lake Bennett. While southern gangs blasted their way through the Pass, a northern crew worked toward Whitehorse. On July 29, 1900, the rails met at Carcross, where a ceremonial spike was driven by Samuel H. Graves, the company's first president.

Through the years, the WP&YR enjoyed a rich and colourful history. It hauled passengers and freight to the Yukon; was a chief supplier for the Army's Alaska Highway construction project; and it gained international fame with its excursion trains. The company began modernizing to diesel locomotives, retiring all steam in 1964. It paid homage to its heritage by saving old No.73, the last White Pass steamer, and later restoring her for service. And it matured into a fully integrated transportation system, complete with modern containerships, pipelines, and highway tractor-trailer units.