Series: Chilkoot Tramways

The Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company Tramway

Hand drawing of historic tramway basket hanging on a cable
Tramway basket

NPS image

The Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company first entered into the commerce of the Chilkoot trail in late September 1897, when it claimed a wharf site along the west side of the Taiya Inlet, three miles south of Dyea.30 The company was headquartered in Portland, Oregon, and its intention was to operate a coordinated transportation system over Chilkoot Pass. Plans originally called for a dock to receive goods in Dyea. From there, a "narrow gauge tramroad with cars like those used in the mines" was proposed to head up the pass. At the end of the line, an aerial tramway was proposed. In December 1897, it was claimed (perhaps too optimistically) that the company "has two 5,000 foot cables up side by side which run on a 20% grade. The cable used weights 1½ pounds to the foot." Construction of the line was expected to be completed on March 1, 1898.31

Based upon those ambitious plans, construction proceeded. Work commenced at the wharf, and by the fall of 1897, press releases announced that construction was well underway. A huge boiler and adjoining dynamo, which were destined to power the system may have been moved up to Canyon City by this time.32 Soon after the company's initial push, however, progress slowed. In late December, it was reported that DKT president Thomas I. Nowell encountered financial reversals in local mining ventures.33 He was therefore forced to leave the firm. The reorganized company had fewer monetary resources.

The company apparently anticipated the financial crunch, and by early December, its officers recognized that the competing tramway line (the CR&T) was also under construction. Therefore, the company made more modest efforts.34 It planned, and eventually implemented, a tramway that went only between the Scales and the summit of Chilkoot Pass. Instead of a tramroad, it chose horses to carry goods up the lower part of the trail.35 The power plant at Canyon City, which had earlier been planned to propel the tram road, was instead projected to power a bucket-type tramway system. Electricity from the power plant was to be conveyed to the Scales by means of a seven mile power line.36

Historic photo of an item on a tram line flying over a rough valley camp.
Aerial tram carrying freight including a canoe, Chilkoot Pass, Alaska, ca. 1898.  Notes: Possibly of the Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company. Caption on image: "Power house showing tramway in operation, Dyea Trail"

This image was cropped from a black and white historic photograph titled "Aerial tramway powerhouse, Chilkoot Trail, Alaska, ca. 1898." from University of Washington's Eric A. Hegg Collection.

The powerhouse was the basis for the tramway system. It was built on a knoll overlooking the Scales and was situated so that the hanging tramway cables would not interfere with the other packing operations. The building was a vertical-board wooden structure. It was actually two parallel, offset, simple gable buildings, with one wall partially common to both buildings. One portion of the building, which contained a protruding stovepipe, may have been a bunkhouse for the workers, while the other part of the structure contained the tramway's gears, cables, and other machinery.37 Today, the ruins of the building measure 60 feet by 30 feet.

As historical photographs show, the building was by no means imposing, but it was one of the few wooded buildings in the Scales area. The Scales was very active during a few memorable weeks in the spring of 1898, but it was a short-lived excitement, and few stayed there. It was cold, snowbound, exposed and prone to avalanche. Many of those that did reside there worked for the various tramway operations.38

The tramway system, with its powerhouse, its cables and the small towers which carried those cables, was erected during the winter of 1897-1898. The exact dates of construction are unknown. On March 14, the DKT company announced the opening of its tram and boasted that it was "the only tramway in the world operated by electricity."39 For over a month during the spring of 1898, it was the only aerial tramway open over the pass.

The completed system was of limited capacity, but it worked. The cable was 2,400 feet long.40 In April 1898, a correspondent for the Dyea Trail explained its operation:

It simply carried goods from the bottom of the pass to the top. All there was to it was a heavy cable stretched from the top of the pass to the bottom. On this cable were buckets, swing onto wheels, that were hauled to the top of the pass by a steam engine. There were two buckets and each could carry about 500 pounds. They made the round trip in about fifteen minutes, and were kept busy all day long. There were no supports to this cable, except at the ends, and in one place it swung about 300 feet above the ground. This cable road charged 5 cents a pound to take freight from the bottom of the pass to the top.41

The tramway ran for a relatively short time. In June 1898, the three aerial tramway companies merged. Various histories have stated that the three continued to operate on a cooperative basis for the next year or so. No accounts or reports, however, mention the DKT tram as operating after July 1898, and the company was sold to George Teal, its main mortgage holder, in early August.42 J. N. Teal, the company's secretary, attempted to get the tramways running during the winter of 1898-1899, but apparently nothing ever came of this.43

In order to prevent competition, the various trams were purchased by the White Pass and Yukon Route railway in late June of 1899.44 Soon afterwards, they began to be dismantled. The DKT company was the first to have its equipment removed.45 Removal began in the fall of 1899, but George Teal, the former DKT cashier, still held a mortgage on the system. The White Pass railroad, therefore, was prevented from removing all of the company's equipment, and some of the items that were spared by the removal crews remain along the trail today.46

At the southern end of the Scales, a large, collapsed mass of boards is all that remains of the DKT powerhouse. It is the most extensive historical resource in that area. The company's steam boiler at Canyon City also remains but the electric generating plant is gone. At least one standing and a number of downed power poles are also left.

Written by Frank Norris, edited by Karl Gurcke

30. Deeds, vol. 17, p. 39.

31. Engineering and Mining Journal, 12/11/97, p. 704.

32. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 198.

33. New York Times, 12/28/97.

34. Alaska Mining Record, p. 199.

35. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 199.

36. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 198-199.

37. KLGO collection, photo SS26; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 58.

38. Dyea Trail, 4/9/98; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 70, 72, 143; KLGO collection, photos SS3, SS4, SS16-22, SS26.

39. Dyea Press, 5/14/98.

40. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 198.

41. Dyea Trail, 8/98, p. 6.

42. Deeds, vol. 5, p. 334.

43. J. N. Teal to John F. Malony, 2/22/99 (Malony collection, AHL).

44. Deeds, vol. 5, pp. 728-732.

45. Skagway Alaskan, 1/31/00.

46. Dyea Trail, 8/98, p. 11; Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 199.