1957 Yukon Nuggets
White Pass The Container Pioneers
"Containerization." Today it is as commonplace as crocuses on the clay cliffs in the spring. Ports around the world are bustling with huge machinery loading and unloading goods. It wasn't always so.
Everything you buy today probably arrived from some foreign country inside a big metal box called a container, thanks to the pioneering work of a Yukon company. The White Pass and Yukon Route built and tested one of the world's first container shipping systems back in 1955, and was the first to enter the integrated ship-train-truck business.
The first load of freight in the test container carried rolls of building paper and had more bugs than a Yukon River fishing camp in June.
The material was intentionally chosen because it had always caused trouble when shipped by the old methods. The stuff usually arrived flattened or creased. In the November 1955 test run, beginning in the Port of Vancouver, the rolls stood on end inside the metal container, which was locked and custom-sealed, and swung sluggishly by a crane to the deck of the newly built container ship, the Clifford J. Rogers.
This was a red-letter day for White Pass. They were breaking new ground in the shipping business. At Skagway, the container was again swung through the air onto a White Pass train flatbed.
As the building paper travelled over the bumpy 110-mile rail line, it was held firmly in place, and untouched by human hands since it had left Vancouver. As the train chugged into the Whitehorse station, the container was greeted by an enthusiastic entourage of company officials and an exuberant crowd of Yukoners. Then, disaster. The container's doors wouldn't open. They were jammed shut. After considerable advice from the crowd, nervous White Pass officials ordered workmen to get a blowtorch from the nearby tool shed.
Finally, the doors swung open, and inside were the rolls of building paper in pristine condition. The doors had evidently jammed after being shaken on the long sea-and-land voyage from Vancouver. That minor matter could be fixed. The container concept was deemed a success.
The new ship and containers, combined with the upgraded railroad and truck fleet, made the Yukon the home of the first integrated container system in the world.
In 1965, the Clifford J. Rogers was sold and replaced with the MV Frank H. Brown, one of the world's most modern freighters, built in Montreal by the Vickers Shop Building Company.
Well, I recall attending the commissioning of the new ship at the Montreal waterfront and interviewing the venerable old man of the White Pass company, Clifford J. Rogers himself.
While the containerization principle on the Frank H. Brown remained the same, the equipment had important design changes. The first containers were relatively small, holding only about five tons of freight, while the new, improved versions held 25 tons of freight.
By 1969, the modern White Pass customs-sealed containers came in four types - heater, freezer, vented and dry. Containers and heavy deck loads of northbound freight were easily exchanged at Skagway for a southbound containerized cargo of copper, asbestos and silver-lead-zinc concentrate, when mining in the Yukon was at its peak of production.
By 1982, with mining activity at an all-time low, the White Pass was forced to shut down the little narrow gauge railway, and container shipping by rail came to an end. But not before the company had shown the world how to ship goods from the world's busiest ports to the isolated inland regions of any country.
It was a lesson well learned, and today's massive transfer of goods world wide reflects the pioneering work of a venerable company, the White Pass and Yukon Route.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.