“GOLD!!” The cry rang out on the banks of Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike river, on August 16, 1896. It wasn’t just a small find—it was the jackpot discovery miners in the Yukon had been dreaming of. In the midst of a depression, this momentous find kicked off one of the most frenzied gold rushes the world had ever seen, drawing thousands of fortune-seekers to the Yukon in just a few years’ time.
The remote location of this gold discovery, combined with the punishing climate, made it extremely difficult to reach the gold fields. The most common route was by boat up the Inside Passage to Skagway or Dyea Alaska and then on foot for the last 50 km over the White Pass Trail or Chilkoot Pass Trail. On these infamous overland routes, travellers faced avalanches, hypothermia, frostbite, malnutrition and roaming bands of thugs. Sections of the trails were even too steep and narrow for pack animals. Shortly after the stampede began in 1897, Canadian authorities realized many miners were dying when they reached the Yukon Territory unprepared for life in the remote north, and introduced rules requiring anyone entering the Yukon to bring with them food and supplies to last at least one year, which typically weighed over 2,000 pounds. This new requirement meant moving supplies and equipment over the pass had to be done in stages over multiple trips. Of the 100,000 who attempted to reach the Klondike at the height of the gold rush, from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898, only 30,000 actually made it. The rest died on route or turned back when they realized they would never complete the journey.
As the stampede of miners continued and the once-tiny towns in Alaska and the Yukon grew, it was obvious that a safer, more reliable route was needed to transport people and goods. While most people were hesitant to attempt a project of this magnitude in such challenging conditions, Michael J. Heney, an experienced railroad contractor was unconcerned. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose” he bragged, and “I’ll build a railroad to Hell.” In 1898, Heney and financier Sir Thomas Tancrede formed the White Pass & Yukon Railroad Company and began construction on a narrow-gauge railroad over the Coastal Mountains—the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere.
Completing the 177 km White Pass & Yukon Route from Skagway to Whitehorse was no easy feat. The railway climbs from sea level in Skagway to almost 1000 metres at the summit in just 32 km and features steep grades of almost 3.9%. Construction required cliff-hanging turns of 16 degrees, two tunnels, and numerous bridges and trestles. Temperatures during construction reached as low as -50°C and snowdrifts reached up to 9 metres deep in the winter. Every tie and bridge timber had to be imported and more than 450 tons of explosives were required. The route was completed on July 29, 1900 in Carcross, Yukon Territory, where the ceremonial golden spike was driven by Samuel H. Graves, the president of the railroad.
Over the past 119 years, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway has seen multiple boom and bust cycles, even ceasing operations briefly in the 1980s. These days it carries thousands of tourists and train enthusiasts back in time each summer—past rushing waterfalls, spectacular glaciers, thick forests, and around stomach-dropping mountain bends. It is consistently ranked as one of the greatest train journeys in the world for a reason!
For a taste of what you can experience on this breathtaking trip, check out the railway’s official Instagram account here.
Experience the “Railroad to Hell” with Wells Gray Tours
If you would like to experience this bucket-list train journey, join Wells Gray Tours on our unique Whitehorse and Glacier Bay tour this spring. This is a very unique cruise tour because it is not offered in Holland America’s catalogue. Most Alaska cruises are round-trip from Vancouver or Seattle and don’t allow enough time for exploring the Yukon. On this special tour we will travel directly to Whitehorse where we have plenty of time to enjoy attractions including the Beringia Centre, Takhini Hot Springs, and the SS Klondike. Then we board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway at the village of Fraser and experience the journey through the mountains and down the thrilling grade to Skagway. Once we reach the coast, we cruise one-way on Holland America’s Volendam to Vancouver with a day spent in the incredible scenery of Glacier Bay. We last offered this trip in 2016 and Holland America does not make it available every year, so don’t miss your cha
Written by: Pam Jensen