The Klondike Gold Rush sparked a mad dash to build the first railroad to the Yukon. In 1897, 32 railroad companies applied to the federal government for charters to build a line into the Yukon. Ten were incorporated in British Columbia and 12 more in the United States.
The same year, the Canadian government sent surveyor J.J. McArthur north to investigate the feasibility of constructing a wagon or rail road into the Yukon over the Dalton Trail. His findings were favourable, reporting that once the summit of the Chilkat Pass was reached, the route to the Yukon River followed a very gentle grade.
Several companies hurried to begin construction of a route over the Dalton Trail. Pierre Humbert Jr., a millionaire from Boston, was quick to send a well-equipped crew to Haines, Alaska, to survey a route. By Christmas, a survey was complete to the summit of the Chilkat Pass.
A second schemer, Andrew F. Burleigh of Seattle, proposed a line that would go to a terminus on Kusawa Lake, where passengers and freight would be transferred to steamers that would travel down the Takhini River, and then the Yukon, to Dawson City.
Henry Bratnober, an agent for the Rothschilds, investigated the interior of the southwest Yukon, expecting to drive a track in to copper prospects in the White River region. In 1898, he brought in the son of Andrew Onderdonk, one of the chief builders of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, to do a reconnaissance of the terrain.
The Rothschild interests even made an offer to the Canadian government, early in 1898, to lay track from Pyramid Harbor to a point a few kilometres north of Five Finger Rapid on the Yukon River. In return, they wanted Canada to concede a five-year monopoly, approve generous freight rates, and grant title to portions of land along the right-of-way of the railroad.
The Canadian government interests lay elsewhere. They sought the advantages of an “All-Canadian” route to the interior by opening negotiations with the railroad construction firm of McKenzie and Mann. The plan was to construct a railway from Glenora, at the head of navigation on the Stikine River, to Teslin Lake, a distance of 232 kilometres. From there, a transportation link, via Teslin Lake and the Teslin and Yukon Rivers, would connect with the goldfields of the Klondike.
The Laurier administration conceded 6,000 hectares of land along the right of way for every kilometre of track constructed. A bill ratifying the contract was introduced to Parliament when the winter sitting began, but the Opposition, suspecting some kind of political chicanery, heatedly debated the bill. The bill was passed in the Liberal-dominated House of Commons but became bogged down in the Conservative Senate, and never got any farther. Work on the route, which had already begun, ceased, and that was the end of the “All-Canadian” route.
Another railroad proposal had been conceived even before the discovery of the Klondike. In 1896, Charles Herbert Wilkinson, a representative of the British Columbia Development Association (a firm founded by British capitalists in December of 1895), sent a representative to Skagway, where William Moore convinced him of the feasibility of constructing a railroad over the White Pass. In 1896, a small sum of money was given to Moore with which to start cutting a rough trail out of Skagway.
The spring of 1897, two Canadian companies were incorporated to construct a railroad from the summit of the White Pass to Fort Selkirk. Clearly, it was not the lure of gold alone that convinced the investors of the feasibility of the route. In March of 1898, the Close Brothers obtained a railroad charter for the American section of the railroad in West Virginia, and an act passed in Congress a few weeks later made the rail link from salt water a reality.
Three representatives of the Close Brothers, including Samuel Graves, and E.C. Hawkins (after whom a street in Whitehorse has been named), had a chance encounter in Skagway with Michael J. Heney, an independent railroad contractor. The optimistic Heney was able to persuade the three men of the feasibility of constructing a narrow-gauge rail line over the White Pass and on to the Yukon.
On May 27, 1898, men and equipment arrived in Skagway, and construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad under Heney began the following day. It was not without difficulties. The supply lines were tenuous, and the labour market was volatile. They were able to draw upon the migrant labour pool for manpower to build the railroad, but these workers had only one destination: the Klondike. Once they had enough cash to continue to Dawson City, they left, often taking their railroad tools with them.
When gold was discovered in nearby Atlin, nearly two-thirds of the workforce jumped ship, and the construction was delayed by two months because of a shortage of workers. By February of 1899, the line reached the summit of the White Pass, and regular rail service to that point was quickly established.
To get there, they had to work under the most severe of conditions. Strong winds battered them and the cold numbed them on the steep rocky mountain slopes, but the line finally reached Bennett, British Columbia on July 6, 1899.
The work jumped ahead to Carcross where the line from there to Whitehorse was completed by June 8 of the following year. The terminus was at the flat on the west side of the Yukon River just below White Horse Rapids. Across the river was settlement that had grown up at the end of the tram line that circumvented Miles Canyon and the rapids downstream.
Meanwhile, the intermediate link progressed until it was completed July 29, 1900. The total length of the line was 177 kilometres, with a maximum grade of 3.9 per cent and peak elevation of 889 metres above sea level, at Log Cabin. The total cost of construction was $10 million, plus an additional $2.5 million for rolling stock and equipment.
The railroad was built without government subsidies, and despite a shutdown in the 1980s, the White Pass now carries hundreds of thousands of passengers into the Yukon every summer.
If one of the other railroads had been successfully completed, then Whitehorse might not have become the important transportation hub that it has become today. Instead, the major centre might have been located on Teslin Lake, or somewhere else on the Yukon River, at Carmacks, Rink Rapid perhaps, or even Fort Selkirk. But that was not what history has determined.
During the summer of 1989, a plaque was unveiled by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declaring that the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad was nationally significant. You can see that plaque today, mounted on the side of the old White Pass Train Station at the foot of Main Street.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at