Skagway might no longer exist if it weren’t for the White Pass & Yukon railroad. The tracks were built to transport the gold miners into the Klondike during the gold rush. Until it was finished each miner was supposed to transport the 2,000 pounds of supplies he would need to stake and work a claim on his back or on an animal’s up steep mountainsides. After the gold rush came to and end, the train was still a good way to transport good brought in and out of the port by ships and in the 1930’s, tourists discovered the area and taking the WP&Y was a fashionable vacation choice.
During World War II the Alaska territory was closed to tourists and taken over by the military who built the road from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks. The tonnage handled by the train increased ten fold as heavy equipment and supplies were brought to Skagway by ship. The little town found itself suddenly entertaining thousands of soldiers. But after a road was built parallel to the train tracks, trucks took over from the train and it was closed due to lack of business.
In 1988 the train was reopened for tourism and today a favorite cruise ship shore excursion is to take the WP&Y to the summit and the Canadian border. Diesel trains do most of the business, but a steam locomotive makes the trip twice a week. We tried to buy a ticket for the steam train as soon as we knew when we were coming here, but it was already booked solid by one of the cruise ships in port today. So we jumped in the car and drove up the valley to the summit taking photos of the steam train whenever we could spot it. The huge puffs of smoke it generated as it chugged up the mountainsides made it easy to see.
When we neared the top of the summit the sun peaked through from the clouds, giving the eerie countryside we drove through yesterday a much more benign appearance. Train spotting was so much fun, we were glad that we didn’t get a chance to ride.