This Canada

The train to ‘outside’

Thomas Hopkins August 18 1980
This Canada

The train to ‘outside’

Thomas Hopkins August 18 1980

The train to ‘outside’

This Canada

Thomas Hopkins

Outside. It's a word a visitor hears all the time in the Yukon. It means, simply, any place that's

not Yukon. When you leave Whitehorse or Dawson City to travel south to British Columbia or west to Alaska, you’re heading to the “outside.” For the 80 years or so that non-Indians have paid any attention to the flattened humps of Yukon mountains or the wide moving plains of its rivers, the way to get “outside” has meant the teetering and unlikely White Pass and Yukon Railway. Built in the flush of Victorian gold greed to ferry naïve American prospectors over the notorious “Hell Trail” of the White and Chilkoot Passes, the White Pass Railway—a cultural and economic aorta for the territorygrinds 175 km from the ocean port of Skagway, Alaska, north into Whitehorse.

In recent years, however, the controversial railway has come unravelled. The reason is that what is charmingly poky for tourists can be comically inefficient for modern transport needs. The once ironclad monopoly that led the company to boast that, if something moves in the Yukon, White Pass moves it, and caused locals to bitch with the heartfelt hatred of a Weyburn farmer for the CPR, has broken down in the face of new competition from roads and trucks. Although the railway is a boon to the region’s vital tourist business with its potbellied stoves, ornately worked baggage racks and rattling picture-window views of the precipitous valleys of the St. Elias coastal mountains, the Winnipeg company that owns it has nonetheless said it will close the railway unless it gets government help. In early 1979, the federal Liberals said no help was coming. Since the rebirth of the Liberals, current Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Munro has said the railway will be saved with a formula to be revealed later this month.*

“It’s all politics,” snorts brakeman Wally Lind from the engine cab of a southbound White Pass train as it

*American assistance is complicated because the railway is entirely Canadian-owned. pitches and lurches beside 45-km-long Lake Bennett. For Lind, engineer Bernie Mortimer and conductor Dale Kinney, it is a good life. “I make $10,000 more than my brother gets doing the same job on CP,” says Lind. For the American crews that take the trains up the treacherous climb from Skagway in Alaska to Bennett in British Columbia, the hovering threat of shutdown is more acute. “The railway is the town,” says Bob Messegee, mayor of Skagway, the tiny tourist-oriented village at the head of the Lynn Canal. Fully 200 of the town’s 800 residents work for White Pass, most for their whole lives.

For the Yukon, it’s a “vehicle for development” as well as a continuing magnet for tourists. Many start the sixhour trip to Skagway, where they can board one of seven tour boats that dock there, from Whitehorse, a city of green hunting vests, cars stained uniformly dun with dust and lines of cracked windshields like Jasper Johns paintings. Flattop buildings dating from the Gold Rush are covered now with the eggshell lustre of aluminum siding and locals stride in jeans once blue but now the pale tint of Alpine ice. Planted at the end of Main Street on the banks of the Yukon River is the White Pass train station, constructed of log siding with red cedar shingling on the roof. Beside the forest-green cars, a mound of backpacks and designer luggage grows. Lounging in the mid-summer sunlight, waiting to board, are knots of native people in rustling nylon hockey jackets and French tourists in tweeds and cravats. This day the train will carry 261 passengers pulled by two rusty diesel engines over the tiny one-metre track. (The return trip up the 875 metres to the top of the White Pass will need five linked engines.) Rumbling almost due south, it will pass the historic townsite of Carcross (Caribou crossing) before coming into Bennett and a help-yourself meal of beef stew. From Bennett, the little train crosses the boulderstrewn moonscape of the White Pass and sinks into the long valleys to Skagway. “See that way down there,” says young Skagway conductor Keith Nore, pointing to a faint

scratch in the hollow of a valley bottom far below. “We’ll be down there in half an hour or so.” From the back of the car comes the quiet prayer, “We hope.” The train groans, rasps and squeaks as it strains down the steep grade and personable conductors launch into the White Pass history for Mexican, Japanese and French tourists for whom the term Gold Rush means nothing.

It’s an oddball history. When an American steamer unloaded three tons of gold in Seattle, gathered in Bull Durham sacs and moose-hide pouches from gravel creeks around Dawson City in 1896, the greed-fired stumble toward Dawson by an estimated 100,000 men led most first to Dyea and Skagway. There they found the brutal hump over the Chilkoot Pass was the fastest start to the 885-km trip to Dawson via Whitehorse and the Yukon River. The slightly longer and less arduous route was over the neighboring White Pass, and it was here that a Canadian railroad contractor named Michael (Big Mike) J. Heney decided to push a railway through using British capital. Starting in May of 1898 and using up to 2,000 down-on-their-luck would-be

prospectors, the line was pushed up and over the pass to Bennett by July, 1899. By July, 1900, the line was completed to Whitehorse and celebrated with a comic-opera abortive attempt by dignitaries to drive a spike into the final rail.

Ironically, the mashed spike also signalled the end of the Gold Rush and the railroad struggled from that point on. In an attempt to diversify, the British owners branched into paddle-wheelers, owning as many as six on the Yukon River run from Whitehorse to Dawson, into airlines and stagecoaches, and later into trucking, pipelines and shipping. For tourists, those were gentler times, and oldsters like Skagway’s George Rapuzzi, 81, recall travellers in jodhpurs standing in the botanical gardens of the Ben-My-Chree estate, a popular White Pass excursion, and raising the owner’s home-made rhubarb wine in a toast before singing God Save the King. The tours came even in the winter, braving the cold and snow, especially on the Alaska side of the line where up to 1,200 cm of snow was not uncommon. Ice floes that formed over the tracks had to be blasted with dynamite and six-metre drifts were rammed by rotary snowblowers like cast-iron Cuisinarts attached to the snouts of locomotives that would burrow into the drifts while workmen above shovelled more snow into its blades. All the while, the engines would

have to be kept moving or they would freeze to the rails.

Despite the large payrolls (Skagway, for example, reaches $600,000 a month), the railroad is not viewed with much sentimentality by most Yukoners. With the opening of the Carcross-Skagway highway last year, many locals travelling “outside” began taking the 2V2hour car ride to Skagway rather than the long $115 return train ride, and ridership slumped from 74,000 in 1978 to 46,000 in 1979. “If you can offer a northerner faster, cheaper service,” says one Yukon hand, “he’ll say screw the historical connection.” For many Yukoners, xenophobic at the best of times, the White Pass, like Ottawa, represented bigness and the arrogance of absentee authority. For decades the line controlled all freight in and out of the territory. As a result, often unfairly, everything tended to be blamed on them, from the high price of lettuce to the lack of a spare part for a pickup.

The company’s corporate structure did little to ease the problem. Owned by British interests for most of its life, the White Pass was bought in 1973 by the Winnipeg-based conglomerate Federal Industries Ltd. In a housecleaning, the company swept the senior management clean of old White Pass veterans and installed their own people unfamiliar with railroads. The previously successful rail operation steadily began to lose money as well as prime contracts due to what a 1980 Canadian transport commission report termed a “general absence of hardheaded business acumen.” The result was that the railway, which has never received a subsidy in 80 years of operation, asked for one in 1978 and launched a draconian reorganization that axed nine senior executives and started layoffs that will see employees’ numbers plummet to 650 from a high of 1,100 by the end of this year.

Current Vice-President and General Manager Thomas King, who now runs the operation from Whitehorse, insists the non-rail operations of White Pass are all healthy but is candid about the problems of the line. “Everyone agrees it’s a loser. The question is for how long.” He sets the railroad’s losses last year at $3 million, with anticipated continuing losses this year. He cites management errors, loss of a major asbestos contract, competition from trucking companies and a soft Canadian dollar that boosts the cost of American employees as the culprits. King hopes the federal formula expected this month will tide the line over until anticipated pipeline revenues ease the territory out of its current economic slump. Some think King’s smartest move was the rehiring of Alaskan Marvin Taylor, 58, who was pushed out as head of rail operations in 1974. Rotund and taciturn, Taylor says his first job is to restore staff morale and spruce up the railway’s passenger service to what it once was, beginning with the painting of the line’s 19 rusted diesel locomotives. Behind him in his Spartan Skagway office, the whistle of a departing train sounds. He holds up his watch which reads exactly 10 a.m. “That’s what I mean by morale,” he says.

Over Olympia beer in Moe’s Frontier Bar, the railroader’s local in Skagway, the regulars sport windbreakers with the tavern’s name stencilled on the back and talk about the latest hopeful White Pass news. Stretched along the bar is part of the crew from the recently arrived Whitehorse train, including veteran conductor Alf Nore and his young brakeman son Keith. It’s clear from the banter that these men think the railway will go on, despite the fact that the final decision is in the hands of a foreign government. “But you know, people ask me all the time if the railway is going to shut down and it’s hard to kill a bad rumor,” says Keith Nore, reflecting the thoughts of many in Moe’s. “I don’t know what would happen if it went down. It’s my Dad’s life; it’s my life.”