|Our first full day in Haines we decided to take advantage of a favorable weather forecast to book a Fast Ferry trip over to the gold rush town of Skagway. Although there is a road that connects Skagway and Haines, it’s a 359 mile drive – the fast ferry only takes 35 minutes to cover 15 miles by water!
Skagway is a town that has been making money from tourists for its entire existence, it seems. It came into early prominence during the 1897-98 Gold Rush, when thousands of gold-seekers and other adventurers arrived by ship from Seattle and other points south on their way to the Klondike. Because the Klondike is in Canada and the Canadian Government required each prospector to have one ton of goods and supplies with them to be sure they were able to survive the difficult journey and harsh conditions in the Klondike itself. The local economy prospered from the sales of goods and provision of services (some legitimate, some not so much!), lodging and entertainment to prospectors and other adventurers who just wanted to see what all the excitement was about in this new land.
Today, 110 years later, it is a stop for large cruise ships filled with people from the lower 48 and the rest of the world, coming here to explore this “new land” (new to most, anyway) and to look for gold. Of course, today, most of the gold is found in the endless parade of jewelry stores lining the main street of Skagway, advertising all manner of gems and “bargains” (complete with discounts for ship passengers), and, in the end, the gold ends up in the pockets of the merchants. On the other hand, Skagway has no other real industry than tourism and it’s a short season in which to make a full year’s income.
If you’re not interested in shopping, however, there are a few things to do in Skagway that are interesting and informative – they have a very nice series of visitors’ centers and exhibits showing life during the Gold Rush days and explaining the construction and history of the White Pass and Yukon River railroad, which was begun during the Gold Rush and continued as a lifeline to the interior areas of the Yukon. There are also some nicely restored original buildings (mostly today used to support the tourist traffic in some way) and some beautiful gardens. There is also a Gold Rush cemetery which looks quite interesting but is a couple of miles out of town and we didn’t have time to visit it before we had to board our scheduled train for a ride up to the White Pass Summit.
The White Pass and Yukon River Railroad, as I said, was constructed over 100 years ago to assist miners and others making the journey through the mountains toward the Yukon River and the Klondike gold fields. It’s a narrow-gauge railway that now serves only tourists. They run a number of trains every day and, on the day when we were there, had a steady flow of passengers from the four large and one smaller cruise ships that were in port on that day. In fact, we were distinctly in the minority, both on the Fast Ferry from Haines (which also had a cruise ship in port that day) and on the train, not being from a cruise ship.
The train takes about 3 hours to cover the 20 miles to the White Pass Summit (which is nearly 3000 feet above sea level) and come back. Along the way you get a real appreciation for the difficulties faced by the builders of the railroad, who had to dig through massive rocks and cling to the side of steep mountains, not to mention constructing trestles and bridges over deep canyons. You also can see a portion of the Chilkoot Trail, which was used by the prospectors heading up to the Klondike (with their ton of goods and supplies, remember). It’s a fascinating peek into a history that today seems glamorous but clearly was hard, risky and ultimately usually ended in failure or death. It’s a great trip and, once you get over the logistics of managing several trains and several hundred cruise ship passengers, many of whom don’t speak English, well worth the effort.
We had some technical difficulties with our photos from Skagway and the train trip, so you’ll just have to take our word for it that it’s a fun trip.
By the time we got back to Haines that night it was fairly late and had been another long day of travel, but this time the fun type!