Big Mike Heney tamed men and mountains

It was March 1898, and the Close Brothers, a London financial firm, were looking to make their money off the stampede to the Klondike.

It was March 1898, and the Close Brothers, a London financial firm, were looking to make their money off the stampede to the Klondike.

They sent an engineer, Thomas Tancrede, to assess the possibility of constructing a railroad through the White Pass, a rough stretch of rocky mountainous trail that more than 30,000 stampeders had struggled to cross a season before.

Tancrede made his survey and determined that the railroad could not be built: “The granite slopes are too steep; the winter snows are too deep.”

He was ready to send his negative report back to England when he happened to meet Michael aka “Big Mike” Heney, a young Irish-Canadian contractor with an iron will.

Heney made his own independent survey of the White Pass and he thought that building the railway was quite possible.

He famously declared: “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build you a road to Hell!”

In Skagway, Tancrede and Heney met with a few other men over brandy and cigars and came to an agreement: the Close Brothers would provide the financing, and Heney would build a 180-kilometre narrow gauge railroad, over the Coast Range from Skagway to Whitehorse.

Construction on the railway began in June of 1898, and by August of that year, Heney had about 2,000 men – mostly gold seekers – working to build the rail.

Heney ran a tight work camp and did not allow his men to drink alcohol.

When Soapy Smith’s gang set up a gambling and drinking tent near one of his camps, at Rocky Point, Heney ordered them to leave the area.

And when they refused to leave, Heney dropped a boulder onto the tent destroying the stock of liquors and sending Soapy’s man running down the trail in his underwear, according to Samuel Graves, the first president of White Pass.

As work progress Heney was on site, monitoring all phases of construction 18 hours a day.

Graves described him as “a mountain goat along the trail.”

There was

a cot set aside at each camp in case he needed a nap along the way.

“Heney was known by his loyal host of workers as the ‘Irish Prince’,” wrote Bill MacBride in his article On the White Pass Route.

“He was one of those old-time contractors who hitched his wagon to a star – the fulfilment of his contract. Come hell of high water he pushed his railways tortuous path through the wilderness by every adroit means. He was fair and just to his men, like Stikine Bill, but tough and kind, and the men broke their backs for him on the pick and shovel jobs.”

When the final spike was driven on the railroad, Heney’s men celebrated with a surprise dinner held in his honour.

“Poor Heney was horror-stricken – and yet pleased beyond words,” wrote Graves. “After the applause died down, he stood silent before attempting to reply but soon found his voice and words and made a manly reply.”

The White Pass railway made Heney a small fortune and an international reputation.

He moved on to the Copper River in Alaska, where he oversaw construction on the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, which crossed two glaciers.

As construction neared completion, Heney took a trip to Seattle to secure horses and supplies for the remote operation.

On the trip back to Alaska the ship on which he was travelling struck a rock 720 kilometres north of Seattle and sank.

He did not get a spot on a lifeboat and was dragged by his collar to land.

Though he survived the accident, his health was never the same and, a few months later, on October 11, 1910 Heney died of pulmonary tuberculosis.

But over his 45 years, he left behind two legacies that stretched all over the northern landscape.

“Without technical training he built two railroads considered impossible by the leading engineers of his day,” wrote Elizabeth Tower in her book, Big Mike Heney: Irish Prince of the Iron Rails.

“I ready Irish smile drew people to him and they became his friends for life. Where ever ‘Big Mike’ led, his workers followed; each proud to be ‘one of Heney’s men’.”

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail

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