1900 Yukon Nuggets
It had all the makings of a slapstick movie comedy. Had there been video cameras back in the summer of 1900, the last-spike ceremony for the White Pass railway would be a YouTube winner. The railway between Skagway and Whitehorse was completed on July 29, 1900, and the company was staging a golden-spike celebration at Carcross. The amazing construction job was finished in record time and anyone who was anyone wanted to be present at the final-spike-driving ceremony.
A real golden spike was placed on a wooden rail tie and many attempts were made to drive it in. The hilarious story was told by Samuel Graves, president of the White Pass company, who travelled from Skagway by train to Bennett and then sailed down Lake Bennett to Carcross on board the paddlewheeler the Australian. In his diary, Graves said that there was a huge crowd at Caribou Crossing, as Carcross was then known, including the White Horse people who had come up on the special train for the spike driving.
They had been waiting for some time and were in a jovial mood. The Yukoners welcomed the Skagway delegation with fraternal and other spirits. The other spirits were of the alcoholic variety, which soon insured that the spike ceremony was a confused affair.
As the huge crowd milled about outside the train station, lead contractor Michael Heney was called to make a speech, but dodged since no one wanted to hear speeches. Samuel Graves then asked the American Colonel to give the last spike the first blow. The gallant Colonel swung the long-handled sledge and brought it down, with a dull thud, inches wide of the spike. The populace howled their glee as the Colonel handed over the hammer to the next man. Warned by the Colonel’s fate, he only raised the hammer a couple of feet and gave the spike a lady-like tap on the head and looked like he was laying carpets. This produced an ironic cheer. The next man had partaken of much refreshment until he had overdone the process and could see two spikes. Greatly to his credit, wrote Graves, he hit one of them a good wallop on the side, but he knocked it flat. After that the spike wouldn’t stand straight and “It was a pretty tired spike when it came to my turn to drive it home", wrote Graves.
I would have liked to go behind a tent and take a practice swing, but "the fierce light that beats upon" a President forbade, and so thinking "keep your eye on the spike", I swung with the orthodox full swing. Do you know the feeling at golf of getting off a rather good ball from a "bad lie." That was my feeling as the head of the hammer connected with the head of that disreputable spike. But I didn’t hit it quite fair, and the spike was bent as before. Then everybody cheered and a continuous clicking noise announced that the films yet remaining in their Kodaks were being used up, and there was a lot of hand-shaking. In the middle of this, the corner of my eye caught the foreman sneaking up with a spike puller which he stealthily applied to the dilapidated last spike. Poor thing, it didn’t take much pulling and Charley quietly marked the hole with a piece of chalk for the subsequent attention of his track men. I was rather pleased with the evidence of strict attention to business even in the midst of pleasure.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.