Born of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, the White Pass & Yukon Route is one of the most dramatic railroads in the world.
Would-be miners had to negotiate a treacherous route from the nearest port in Skagway, AK across the mountains to the Canadian border. Worse, they would not be allowed across by the Canadian authorities unless they had a full ton of supplies with them. There was an obvious need for a better transportation scheme than the pack-horse.
Largely financed by British investors, a railroad was soon under construction. A 3' gauge was chosen; the narrower roadbed required by a narrow gauge railroad made for big cost savings when that roadbed had to be carved and blasted out of the mountain rock. Even so, 450 tons of explosives were used to reach White Pass summit. The narrow gauge also allowed for a tighter radius to be used on curves, making the task easier by allowing the railroad to follow the landscape more, rather than having to be blasted through it.
The railroad was complete by July 1900; of course, by then, much of the Gold Rush fever had died down. However, serious professional mining was taking its place; not so much for gold as for other metals such as copper, silver and lead. The closest port was Skagway, the only route there was via the White Pass & Yukon Route's river boats and railroad.
While ores and concentrates formed the bulk of the traffic, the railroad also carried passenger traffic, and other freight. There was, for a long time, no easier way into the Yukon Territories, and no other way into out of Skagway except by sea.
With the advent of World War II, things took a distinct turn for the busier. Alaska became of strategic importance for the United States; there was much worry that the Japanese might invade it, as the nearest part of the United States to Japan. The US Army took control, bringing many newly built locomotives to the railroad, and working it hard to haul construction materials for the new Alaska Highway and other projects.
Postwar, the railroad dieselised in the mid to late 1950s, one of the few narrow gauge railroads to do so. The railroad bought shovelnose diesels from General Electric, and later road-switchers from Alco, as well as a few small switchers. Other narrow gauge systems were dying off at that time, but the White Pass' custom held steady. There was no road from Skagway to Whitehorse until later. Even once the road was built, the White Pass still survived on the ore traffic from the mines.
The railroad was an early pioneer of the container; advertising of the time referred to it as the Container Route. With custom built container ships, railroad cars and truck trailers, the White Pass showed the benefits of intermodal transportation early.
In 1982, however, metal prices plunged, and that had a devastating effect on the mines who were the White Pass & Yukon Route's main customers. Many closed down, and with that traffic gone, the White Pass was doomed as a commercial railroad. The railroad closed down within months. Some of the road's Alco diesels were sold to a railroad in Venezuela, and the newer Alco diesels on order with Alco's Canadian licensee MLW (Montreal Locomotive Works) were sold to US Gypsum in Plaster City, CA. Only one of these modern narrow gauge diesels, the last narrow gauge diesel locomotives built for a North American customer, was delivered to the White Pass.
The shutdown, however, was not for long. Tourism to Alaska began to increase, with many cruise ships stopping at Skagway. The dramatic scenery of the White Pass' route sounded like a great tourist draw; and the rails of the White Pass & Yukon Route were laid right down to the docks, even along them, for the former freight traffic. Perfectly positioned to sell a railroad ride through the mountains to tourists; they wouldn't even have to walk far. The White Pass reopened in 1988 purely for tourist passenger traffic, and has been open ever since.
Most trains are hauled by the line's diesel locomotives, attractively painted in green (lower) and yellow (upper), but one of the line's original steam locomotives is still in operation too, #73, a 2-8-2 Mikado type locomotive. Another steam locomotive was on loan, but has now been returned.
Also operational, a few times a year, is an original steam-powered rotary snowplow, an essential device in the line's commercial service days. Now, it's not really needed; the tourist season is only in the summer months. It's certainly quite a spectacle in operation, though, and the White Pass runs the steam plow for railfan groups once or twice a winter, pushed by three locomotives.
The White Pass is certainly one of the railroad spectacles of the world; and even though it's now preserved for tourism rather than as an operational railroad, it's little changed.