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Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 1
Reading 2



Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Transportation:
The Key to Skagway's Survival

Although Skagway is located more than 500 miles from the gold fields in the Klondike, the town benefitted from the discovery because of its location along a transportation route to Canada's interior. The Klondike Gold Rush established Skagway, but its ice-free, deep water port and the completion of a railroad to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in 1900 kept the town alive.

William Moore's investigation of White Pass and his knowledge of past gold strikes led him to stake a homestead in Alaska's Skagway River valley. His dream to profit from the stampeders' use of his property and businesses on their way to the Canadian gold fields did not turn out exactly as he had planned. His wharf was successful, but he was forced to share his profits with outside investors because he did not have enough money to expand the operation to keep up with the flood of stampeders. By 1898, three other companies had built wharves and were competing with Moore. Moore's business managed to thrive, however, because his wharf was closest to the site where railroad tracks eventually were located.

The Moores also sold lumber from their sawmill, but they were unsuccessful in obtaining permission to construct a toll wagon road. It was George Brackett, former mayor of Minneapolis, who finally received a permit to establish a toll road. Officially opened in March 1898, the 16-foot wide wagon road stretched 15 miles from Skagway to White Pass City, where the steep climb to the summit began. The road, which was made of logs in some places and blasted rock in others, allowed travelers a shorter and easier route to the Yukon. It was used heavily for the rest of that year, but it was destined to be replaced by yet another improved method of transportation.

In May 1898, the company which became the White Pass & Yukon Route began constructing the first major commercial railroad in Alaska. Beginning in Skagway, the narrow gauge railroad wound through the twisting, narrow, rock-strewn wilderness of the White Pass. The completion of the railroad from Skagway to Bennett Lake in June 1899, and to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, a year later, secured Skagway's role as the main transportation gateway to the interior of northern Canada. Without this improved transportation method, the neighboring town of Dyea could not compete and was soon abandoned. The railroad company helped Skagway's economy at a time when the prosperity of the gold rush period was diminishing. It provided jobs and built large machine shops, an office building, hospital, residences, and even a private athletic club.

When completed in June 1900, the $10 million White Pass and Yukon Route railroad connected the geographical area outside of Alaska and northern Canada with the Klondike. Steamers from West Coast cities docked at Skagway's port where freight and passengers loaded directly onto the train. The railroad carried goods and passengers 110 miles north to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where they transferred to sternwheel steamers on the Yukon River and continued on to the Klondike. This was a tremendous improvement over earlier transportation methods. Travelers no longer had to carry supplies on their backs or lead overburdened pack animals over the agonizing Dead Horse Trail.

The great rush to the Klondike gold fields had ended by the time the railroad was completed. Even after all the claims had been staked, however, this transportation route was still necessary to bring gold out of the Klondike and bring in supplies and equipment. Miners, surveyors, and mining engineers used the railroad and steamer route. They worked in the mines each summer, left the Klondike before the onset of harsh weather, and returned in the spring. With an efficient transportation system in place, Skagway replaced St. Michael, Alaska, as the major shipping center for freight such as zinc, lead, copper, and silver coming out of the Yukon.

The railroad provided Skagway with a narrow but stable economic base for almost 80 years after the Klondike Gold Rush ended. Today, the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad traverses the historic White Pass route, carrying tourists over a twisting rocky path through incredible scenery to an awe inspiring, snow-covered summit. This railroad is one of 20 engineering feats in the world declared an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Since 1978, the Klondike Highway has connected Skagway to Canada's interior. A transportation gateway for commerce and tourism, Skagway serves as an example of how a frontier town survived the end of its boomtown era.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why did Skagway become the major Alaskan point of departure to the gold fields?

2. How did Skagway continue to exist after the gold rush ended when other gold rush towns disappeared?

3. How did the railroad affect the journey to the Klondike? How might the railroad have affected the permanent residents of Skagway?

Reading 3 was adapted from Alice Cyr, "White Pass & Yukon Route Training Text for Terrific Train Guides," prepared for White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, Skagway, Alaska, 1993; Alison K. Hoagland, Buildings of Alaska (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Ken Johnson, "White Pass & Yukon - Cold Region Triumph," APEGGA, vol. 22, no. 8, September 1994; and Roy Minter, The White Pass: Gateway to the Klondike (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1987).



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