Series: Chilkoot Tramways

Alaska Railroad and Transportation Company Tramway

Hand drawing of a tramway transportation car
Tramway car for boxes and bales

NPS image

The Alaska Railroad and Transportation Company (AR&T), also known as the Alaska-Pacific Railway Company or the Oregon Improvement Company, was one arm of the vast Pacific Coast Steamship Company, a corporation which operated both railroads and steamship lines along the West Coast.47 Completed after the Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company's setup, the AR&T operation boasted a longer length, more freight-carrying capacity and higher technological sophistication than the DKT tram. The AR&T tram, in turn, was outclassed by the still larger Chilkoot Railroad and Transportation Company operation, which was the last of the three aerial trams to open.

The AR&T showed interest in the area in the early days of the gold rush. In early December 1897, the company established a claim for a trade and manufacturing site in Pyramid Harbor, twenty miles to the south of Dyea. In late December 1897, company representative A. R. Cook located a 36 acre wharf site on the east side of Taiya Inlet, approximately two miles southeast of Dyea. Soon afterwards, he also located a ten acre site a mile north of town for a "station and warehouse." By mid January, Cook had also filed for a ten acre depot and warehouse site, "twelve miles from Dyea, near Sheep Camp." The company's supposed intention, at that time, was to build a railway line north, but nothing more was ever heard of that plan.48

Unlike its competitors, the AR&T did not advertise in the local newspapers, and news about the construction of its tramway did not identify the company by name. The other two tramways were also being constructed at this time, therefore, it can only be assumed that sometime after mid-January, the company abandoned its railroad plans. Officials probably intended that the railroad would operate as far as the tramway site, but no railroad was ever begun.

Men standing on deep piles of snow
Scene on the summit of Chilkoot Pass depicting aftermath of the April 3, 1898 avalanche

Photo courtesy of University of Washington's Eric A. Hegg Collection

It is not known when the construction of the tram began, but original estimates called for its completion by March 1, 1898.49 The first physical evidence of the line's existence dates from April 3, 1898. On that date, the huge Palm Sunday avalanche cascaded down on the Chilkoot Trail, killing over fifty stampeders. The slide tumbled dangerously close to the AR&T powerhouse, which was located just north of Stone House and approximately two miles north of Sheep Camp. As the powerhouse was the nearest building to the slide site, some victims of the avalanche were brought there. Robert F. Graham, noted that twenty-three bodies, all of which were construction workers on the Chilkoot Railroad and Transport Company tramway were brought to the powerhouse by April 7.50 At the time of the snowslide, the much-ballyhooed (and much-delayed) CR&T tram was better known to the stampeders than the AR&T tram, therefore, many assumed that this powerhouse belonged to the CR&T company.51 The AR&T tram was not known to be operating at the time of the avalanche.

The powerhouse built by the AR&T company was sturdy, and part of it was constructed on pilings.52 It is not known why the firm chose to locate its powerhouse where it did. As a gasoline-powered tramway, it did not need to depend on either water or wood, it only needed a relatively level area for its powerhouse. The building could therefore have been located most anywhere along the trail, but its location, off the main trail and midway up Long Hill, appears perplexing. Perhaps the planners of the proposed railroad felt that the tracks could go no higher than this spot. The AR&T company, unlike the other aerial trams, did not operate pack trains or wagons in conjunction with it operations. Neither did the firm openly contract services to independent freighting companies.

The AR&T tram opened sometime after mid-April 1898.53 Powered by a gasoline engine, the line carried its cargo about six thousand feet northward. Of the three aerial cable operations, the AR&T tram was the center tram in the "Golden Stairs" area; it was east of the CR&T tram, and west of the DKT route.54 The line terminated at the station immediately north of Chilkoot Pass and just west of the trail.55

Unlike the DKT tram, the AR&T was a single rope tram system (where buckets were attached to a single moving wire rope). Many tramway towers were built along the AR&T right-of-way. Goods were carried, very slowly, over the pass by a long series of buckets. Going up Long Hill, the tram cables drooped so low between the towers that many packers helped themselves to the cargo by simply reaching into the swinging buckets.56

The line did not operate long. In May 1898, the CR&T tram was finally placed in operation.57 The various tramways competed against one another for only a few weeks, for in June, they signed a working agreement to charge a uniform rate to haul goods between tidewater and the lakes. The AR&T tram may have operated as late as the latter part of June 1899, when it was purchased by the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad, but no know accounts tell of the tram's operation after the summer of 1898.58 By that time its usefulness was clearly over, the stampeders had gone "inside," and those wishing to haul freight northward either sent it on the railroad or via the more sophisticated CR&T tramway.

The AR&T equipment was removed in February and early March 1900.59 Workers took almost everything of value. All that is left are the collapse ruins of the powerhouse and near by outbuildings. Adjacent to the powerhouse is an eleven foot high tramway tower, the only one still standing on the trail. Several collapsed towers also exist.

Written by Frank Norris, edited by Karl Gurcke

47. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 199; Skagway Alaskan, 1/31/00; The Pacific Coast Steamship Company was a successor to the Oregon Improvement Company. Gerald M. Best, Ships and Narrow Gauge Railroads (Berkeley, Howell-North, 1964) p. 101. New York Times, 4/10/98; Dyea Trail, 4/9/98.

48. Deeds, vol. 17, pp. 62, 106, 107, 171.

49. Pacific Coast Steamship Company advertisement, "Tramways" file, KLGO collection.

50. Graham "Diary," p. 6.

51. Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 57, 72, 119; Carley, Inventory, p. 463.

52. KLGO collection, photo LH6, slide 323.

53. Tuck, "Klondike Diary," pp. 9-10.

54. KLGO collection, photo SS6.

55. Dyea Trail, 8/98.

56. KLGO collection, photo LH7; Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 199.

57. Dyea Trail, 5/14/98.

58. Aylett Cotton, "Memoirs," p. 4; Deeds, vol. 5, pp. 728- 732.

59. Skagway Alaskan, 1/31/00, 3/6/00.