Engine No. 52 in Skagway helped build the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
Engine No. 52 was the first locomotive on the White Pass and
Yukon Route Railway. The drawing shows No. 52 as it looked
in 2011, sitting on a siding in the Skagway train yard.
In the summer and fall of 1897, thousands of gold seekers clamored ashore at the head of Lynn Canal in Southeast Alaska, eager to cross the coastal mountains and reach the Klondike gold fields at Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.
Argonauts had two choices for the crossing: the Chilkoot Trail out of Dyea, or the White Pass Trail above Skagway.
The Chilkoot had been used for centuries by the coastal Tlinget Indians. It was the most direct route; however, it was steep, arduous and unsuitable for pack animals.
The White Pass, although longer, had less severe grades, and pack trains could be utilized. It was far from easy though. The trail, punched through just prior to the Klondike gold rush, was new and rough and quickly became a muddy morass. Pack animals, crippled by the terrain and pushed to exhaustion, died by the hundreds. An estimated 3,000 horses perished along the route, and it quickly became known as Dead Horse Trail.
An easier method for the mountain crossing was needed. Enter Mike Heney, a railroad contractor with experience building Canadian railroads. In 1898 he came to the Lynn Canal area to assess the feasibility of a railroad crossing of the mountains. He quickly dismissed Dyea and the Chilkoot. After hiking the White Pass he decided a railroad was possible, albeit construction would be difficult and expensive.
According to the 2003 book, A Wild Discouraging Mess, while in Skagway, Heney serendipitously met with representatives for London investors also interested in a railway over the mountains. Those representatives, who had already investigated White Pass, thought the project unfeasible, but Heney, who is reputed to have said, “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build you a railroad to Hell,” convinced them to back the railroad.
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway (WP&YRR) was organized in April of 1898 and by May construction had begun. Workers quickly discovered that wood from local trees splintered too easily to be used for ties and bridge timbers, so all materials for the railway had to be shipped in. Even so, by the end of August over 12 miles of track had been laid.
The remaining eight miles of track to the summit, up the White Pass Fork of the Skagway River, took six months. On February 20, 1899 the first passenger train climbed from tidewater to the summit.
By July of 1899 tracks had reached Lake Bennett, at mile 41. Work on the final portion of the line, from Lake Bennett to Whitehorse, proceeded from both directions: one crew worked north from Lake Bennett, and another southward from Whitehorse. They met at Carcross on July 29, 1900, signaling the completion of the 110-mile line.
The drawing shows WP&YRR Engine No. 52. National Park Service documents state that it was the first locomotive to arrive in Skagway in the summer of 1898. It is also believed to be the locomotive on the first passenger train to attain White Pass summit in 1899.
The Brooks 2-6-0 locomotive (2 leading wheels, 6 drive wheels, 0 trailing wheels – often referred to as a “Mogul”) spent its first year in the Skagway area and then moved to Lake Bennett. In 1931 it was transferred to the Taku Tram between Atlin and Tagish Lakes. Retired in 1936, it spent the next 28 years on a siding at Taku before being returned to Skagway because of its historical significance. It was damaged in a roundhouse fire in 1969. After minor repairs is sat rusting on a Skagway train yard siding until 2014 when it was cosmetically restored and put on display near the railroad depot in downtown Skagway.
- A Wild Discouraging Mess: The History of the White Pass Unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. Julie Johnson. National Park Service. 2003
- Doing the White Pass: The Story of the White Pass & Yukon Route and the Klondike Gold Rush. Howard Clifford. Sourdough Enterprises. 1983
- “Skagway and White Pass District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” National Park Service. 1999
- White Pass and Yukon Route webpage, <www.wpyr.com>