taking the magical history tour on the klondike mines railway

Under Brian Pate's experienced guidance, I eased the throttle and the locomotive began to chug up Dawson's Front Street rail line from the waterfront warehouse between King and Queen Street.

Under Brian Pate’s experienced guidance, I eased the throttle and the locomotive began to chug up Dawson’s Front Street rail line from the waterfront warehouse between King and Queen Street. Despite my trembling hands, I activated the bell and gave two blasts on the whistle to announce my departure from the downtown station. I didn’t want to make any mistakes.

The train picked up steam as it moved down the avenue toward the bridge across the Klondike River. After stops in Klondike City, and at the mouth of Bonanza Creek, I directed it up Bonanza Creek valley. The 3.5 per cent grade meant hard work for the little narrow gauge locomotive and its two passenger cars. Finally, we reached the summit and pulled into the station at Sulphur Springs, just below King Solomon’s Dome.

From Sulphur Springs, the train could have continued to Gold Run creek, and then on the long journey to the distant Sicamous Interchange.

Wait a minute – there is something strange about this; isn’t Sicamous in British Columbia? The Klondike Mines Railway was never linked to British Columbia, and it never went to Gold Run Creek, so how is this possible?

In Brian Pate’s basement in his North Vancouver home, anything is possible, and the railroad in question is one of his own design.

I can’t remember when I first met Brian Pate, but at that time he was a researcher at the University of British Columbia, and a master model maker when he wasn’t conducting research.

He volunteered to build a scale model of Dredge Number 4 on Bonanza Creek, as it looked during its operating life.

The dredge model took shape over several years. He obtained a complete set of blueprints, and inspected every nook and cranny of the monstrous machine during his family visits to Dawson City. He was always full of questions about the dredge, and quickly became as knowledgeable of its construction as just about anyone on the planet.

Brian spent thousands of hours constructing that model. He sent regular reports complete with photographs to chronicle his progress. Over a period of time, the superstructure of the little model grew, just as the original had a half-century before. The photos of the model in the progress were so life-like that you could imagine you were looking at the original dredge reincarnated.

Finally, it was completed. He entered the model in a competition in the United States, and walked away with the grand prize for his model, which, including the sculpted landscape that surrounds it, is at least a metre and a half long. The last time that I looked, the model was still on display in the Visitor Information Centre in Dawson City.

Brian has, for many years now, turned his skills toward making a model of the Klondike Mines Railroad, complete with landscape, panoramic backdrops and buildings. It fills a 400-square-foot section of his basement and operates on two levels that are connected by a spiral tunnel that is hidden within the framing of the track layout.

Instead of shutting down in 1913, as it did historically, this railroad survived through the lean years of the 1920s and 1930s, and then expanded during the Second World War. It linked up with another line, that of the Vancouver, Westminster and Yukon Railway. It is now 1949. Brian has adapted the historical landscape somewhat to accommodate both the space, and the concept of his layout.

In this remarkable layout, each locomotive produces life-like sound effects to reflect the activities associated with their operation.

The buildings that he has reproduced in miniature along the rail line are as exquisitely detailed as his model of Dredge Number 4 and include the old Bank of Commerce on Front Street, an abbreviated fire hall and the dockside warehouse of the White Pass and Yukon Route. Farther along the right of way of the line, he has placed Joe Boyle’s house, the gold room and a truncated machine shop, all buildings from Bear Creek. This placement would not have been possible in reality, but with his concept, Pate has incorporated intriguing structures and the history they represent into the imaginary rail line.

But his model railroad is more than a hobby. And it is no circular track on the living room floor; it is a complex construction with an important social component. Groups of as many as a dozen like-minded train enthusiasts will periodically join Brian in his grotto and run trains throughout his complex network just as they would have operated on a real railroad. There is a dispatcher. There are timetables. There is a freight crew with a switch list. They operate it for hours.

Brian will soon be flying to San Jose to attend a big model train meeting, where, he will select from three choices. He will then go down into somebody’s basement with several other enthusiasts, and for eight hours they will operate the model railroad there just like the real thing.

His railroad is a work in progress. “There is nothing sadder than a railroad that has been finished,” he says. “There is nothing to look forward to.” Thus there are several blank spaces in his layout with the names of the proposed buildings pencilled in for future construction.

I have often been critical of people who take liberties with the facts for the sake of a good story when history can be just as interesting as fiction. Hollywood is often a target of my criticism in this regard. This is one case, however, where I find a studious yet whimsical application of historical fact yields fascinating results.

If you would like to learn more about this model historical railroad, you can go to: http://www3.telus.net/KMR/

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in May. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net