Skagway began as a gold rush boom town during the late 1800’s. Miners poured through town on their way to the gold fields of the Yukon. White Pass acquired the nickname of the Dead Horse Trail as overworked horses got sold from one miner to the next without getting a chance to rest or have enough to eat between trips up the pass. The Canadian government required each person to have a large supply of provisions before crossing the boarder, so it often took multiple trips up the pass with pack animals before loading supplies on a barge they built to float downriver to the gold fields near Dawson City. The White Pass and Yukon Railway was built to accommodate the miners, however its completion in 1898 happened near the end of the Klondike gold rush.
The railway was an engineering marvel for its time with its steep grade, sharp turns, and bridges, one of which was the tallest of its kind in the world at the time. (This bridge has since been replaced with a much simpler bridge spanning a far smaller gap just a short distance away from the original.)
The white horse and yukon narrow gauge railway was designed for the gold rush as a means to make the trip up the pass far easier for the miners and their massive load of supplies. Following the end of the gold rush the trains hauled cargo for a number of years before becoming shutting down in 1892 when the mining industry in the Yukon collapsed due to low prices for minerals.
The trains re-opened in 1988 as a seasonal tourist attraction and now mine a new kind of gold. It comes from the sea in the form of cruise ships full of tourists willing to spend their money. Summertime in Skagway brings seasonal workers and a cruise ship population that far outnumbers the actual population of the town. The railway has become the most popular shore excursion in all of Alaska.
Riding the Rails in Skagway
We booked the train excursion online within days of booking our Alaskan cruise on the Norwegian Sun. After all, we specifically picked an itinerary that included Skagway so we could take Justin on the train since he loves trains. The ship offered a variety of excursions involving the train, however the ones that actually went somewhere that you could get out of the train all seemed to involve a bus ride in one direction. We opted for the basic ride the train up the pass and back down trip since our whole purpose was just to ride the train.
This excursion had a number of start times, so we picked a middle of the day sort of one that did not involve getting up early to catch the train or rushing back to the ship before it left port. The train has tracks that run down to each cruise ship dock, so whichever ship you came to town on, you board near that ship with other passengers from the same ship. It also has a station in town for people who either did not come on a cruise or book through their ship. Everyone gets off at the town station. That’s where all the shops are. Sort of how rides in theme parks always exit through the gift shop.
The town had a display of things from the train’s working era including a snow remover and a hand-pumped cart.
We had some time to look around town before we got on the train. We’d heard about tanzanite in the jewelry lectures, so we went to a jewelry store to look at some. The shops there had blue tanzanite stones. The ones in the Caribbean on the cruises I’ve been on since all have purple tanzanite. I could have had a very nice tanzanite and white gold bracelet for $500, the sort that is pretty much a solid line of stones without a whole lot of metal between them. Nice stones too, not just a shallow inlay. I could kick myself for not spending the $500 because the price has gone up and up since and a bracelet that is not nearly as nice costs at least three or four times that much now.
We had kept hearing throughout our cruise how great Alaskan sourdough bread is, but had not had the opportunity to try any. We found a little bakery down one of the side streets and bought a loaf. We didn’t have time to take it back to the ship before our train ride, and also are pretty much too cheap to buy lunch when we could have had it on the ship for free. It was beside the point that we were not on the ship at the time, nor did we have time to go there for lunch.
We ate our loaf of sourdough bread on the train. It made a good enough lunch for us and even Justin actually ate it. It was good bread, but we weren’t really sure what the difference was between that and any other sourdough bread.
The trains are pulled by diesel engines now rather than the original steam engines, but the some of the passenger cars are restored originals. Others are replicas.
Once they check the tickets and get all aboard, the train begins its journey up the mountain. There’s always something to see whether its great scenery, historic landmarks, or another part of the train going around a bend. Sometimes we saw other trains above or below us when the tracks zigzagged up the mountain. A guide on the train pointed out any important things as we chugged past them.
On the way up the mountain the train passed over a number of bridges and through many tunnels. We saw all sorts of wildflowers and even some glaciers. We rumbled past the huge old steel bridge spanning a long gap. Once an engineering marvel, it has now fallen into disrepair. As the train crossed the new bridge we wondered why the people of old didn’t just go the few hundred feet farther to the narrow in the gap where they could have built a much smaller bridge as their modern counterparts did.
At the end of the climb the train just crossed over the border into Canada. It stopped there awhile, but as this excursion did not require passports, and there is no customs in the middle of nowhere, we were not allowed to get off the train. Three trains had come up the mountain, each from a different cruise ship dock. There’s only one set of tracks so they had to wait until all three arrived before heading back down.
Early on Justin saw the thing that fascinated him most on this whole journey. While randomly looking out the window, we saw lying in a ditch next to the track a rusty old steam engine that had derailed many years before.
All the way back down Justin stood eagerly at the window, camera in hand, waiting for the derailed train. We tried reminding him we had seen that on the flat land before the train even started uphill, but nothing would deter him from his post. By the time we got there he nearly missed the shot. That was a disposable camera that used actual film rather than a digital camera so I’m not sure what happened to the picture.
Things to do in Skagway
The Skagway Chamber of Commerce lists a variety of activities for visitors to do on their website. Everything from jeep adventures, zip lines, bus tours, boat or fishing charters, to gold panning or helicopter rides.
Shore excursions in Skagway can be booked through the cruise ship, or through outside companies in town. There were also plenty of places that had signs on the sidewalk offering a variety of tours to book on the spot for people who got off the ship with no definite plans.
Cruise ship shore excursions offer plenty of choices. Train excursions include many options including hiking, biking, kayaking and gold mining. Or just ride the train. Other excursions offer dog sled adventures, zip lines, salmon bake, walking tour of the city, horseback riding, river or other water based adventures, glass blowing, rock climbing, riding 4×4’s, helicopter rides, fishing and more.