The story behind the tramlines of Windy Arm

Michael Gates As you travel the Skagway Road south of Carcross along Windy Arm toward British Columbia, you will pass by an old tramway tower standing on the hill beside the road.

Michael Gates

As you travel the Skagway Road south of Carcross along Windy Arm toward British Columbia, you will pass by an old tramway tower standing on the hill beside the road. It is now a feature of historical interest, but it was once part of a silver rush to the mountains overlooking this narrow arm of Tagish Lake.

The tram was one part of several serving mines that operated in the area between 1905 and 1910. If you look carefully on the mountainside to the west of the highway, you may catch a glimpse of other tramway towers that were strung along the mountainside in several locations. They were an engineering solution to a major technical problem: how to economically transport the valuable ore off the mountainside.

William R. Young staked the Montana claim in 1899, giving the mountain upon which it was located its name. In 1900, three prospectors – Jack Pooley, Jack Stewart and Ira Petty – prospected the region of the Montana claim, staking the Mountain Hero claim next to Young’s property. The Venus and Uranus claims were staked the following year.

Interest increased and others started staking claims in the same region in 1903. During a visit to the Yukon in 1904, entrepreneur John H. Conrad showed an interest in various Windy Arm properties. He formed two companies and the development of the Windy Arm claims began in March 1905.

One of the main obstacles that had to be overcome in developing mines located high up on the bleak mountainside was transportation. Access was possible to the lakeshore near the mines by sternwheel steamers, or over land by road.

A railway spur from the White Pass and Yukon Route main line at Carcross was even contemplated from Carcross to the mines, but the company refused to proceed until there was “sufficient business in sight to make a railroad to the mines profitable.” Rail transportation continued to be an issue throughout the entire life of the Windy Arm enterprise.

But the most difficult challenge was to provide economical access to and from the mines located high above the lake, on the steep mountainsides.

At first, supplies were hauled up the dangerous, precipitous slopes with horsepower. This was expensive, and a liability to operating a profitable mine. The solution was to construct an overhead tramway to haul ore from the mines down to the waterfront.

In a state of euphoric optimism over the potential of his mines, Conrad contacted Royal Riblet of Nelson, British Columbia, whose brother, Byron, a civil engineer, had an aptitude for designing and building tramways. Byron, or B.C., as he was known, graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1886. He designed his first tramway 10 years later and developed a reputation as one of the best in the business.

In July of 1905, Conrad and Gustave Singer, the general manager of Conrad Consolidated Mines, travelled to Seattle to negotiate construction of the first tramway, and Royal Riblet was to visit Windy Arm for the purpose of laying out a second tramline.

The first tram line, which cost $80,000, was of a bi-cable design that ran from the rapidly expanding townsite of Conrad on the shore of Windy Arm to the Mountain Hero and Montana mines. It was 5,699 metres (18,697 feet) long, with a gain of over 1,000 metres (3,464 feet) in elevation. One span between two towers of almost 914 metres (3,000 feet) was the longest in the world at the time the tramway was constructed.

The ore cars were carried along a heavy stationary support cable, while being pulled by a lighter gauge running line. The cable supported 80 ore buckets, each holding a third of a cubic metre (12 cubic feet) of ore, and running on a gravity system at a speed of eight kilometres (five miles) per hour. The weight of the ore coming down was sufficient to power the carrying of men and equipment up to the mine site using special lumber carriers and passenger cars.

Construction of the tram line from Conrad to the Mountain Hero Mine began in September 1905. In October a capstan, or spindle, broke and another had to be delivered from Seattle. So many problems surfaced that the tramway did not become operational until June of 1906. Before the first tramway was completed two more were under construction. A line of 564 metres (1,850 feet) was completed from the Vault mine in August of 1906.

The Windy Arm stampede quickly petered out, and by 1908 mining was all but dead. According to one historian, “John Conrad lost interest, investors lost money, miners moved out, and the tramways were either abandoned or sold off.”

Conrad blamed the high freight rates charged by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway as a major factor in the demise of his venture. During disputes with White Pass over their costly freight rates, Conrad at one time threatened to bypass the railroad entirely. He proposed to construct a double tramway over the Chilkoot Pass to Lindeman Lake nearly 50 kilometres in length that would receive ore transported by boat from the town of Conrad. But by 1912, his mining venture was bankrupt.

The Venus mine operated sporadically until 1920, and then again in the 1970s. Today we remember it by the scattered ruins left abandoned on the mountainous landscape of Windy Arm.

The Riblet Company continued to prosper for another century. From the 1940s on, they began to specialize in skiing and chairlifts. Over the next 50 years, they designed and built hundreds of ski lifts all over the world. They specialized in fixed grip lifts, and because of the limited market for that design, the company announced that it was going out of business in 2003, and closed its doors for good a short time later.

This article was provided by the Association of Professional Engineers of Yukon.