SKAGWAY, Alaska — It sounded crazy, pinning a pint-size railroad on a steep, muddy mountain pass into the Yukon wilderness, just to carry fickle gold diggers toward their dream of Eldorado.
A century later, though, the White Pass & Yukon Route remains as viable as it is venerable. Long after its gold rush and freight operations dried up, the railroad lives on as a tourist attraction, carrying visitors on a historic climb through one of the world's most scenic but harshest railway landscapes.
"It's mind-boggling to think a bunch of people with pickaxes could build this thing," said Nesbit Jordan of Fort Worth, Texas, a tourist riding the White Pass last summer.
"This is the toughest terrain I've ever seen for a train to run through, and I worked on trains in the Rockies," Jordan said, speaking with the authority of someone who worked 27 years as a railroad policeman between Texas and Colorado.
Though built in a flash to accommodate the stampeders looking for an easier path to the Klondike gold fields in 1897-98, the railroad was almost obsolete when it opened in 1900. Gold fever had quickly faded and most of the prospectors went home, leaving the White Pass & Yukon in search of a new market.
Luckily, the gold-rush residue lingered as large mining companies moved in with industrial dredges to work over the old claims once mined with pick and gold pan. The railroad, the only practical route over the rugged Alaska coastal mountains to the Yukon River, made a passable living hauling workers and freight for the mines.
Skeptics thought the railroad would be impossible to build when construction began in May 1898. They said the grade was too steep, the mountain pass too narrow, the canyon curves too sharp. After all, the White Pass trail along which it was to be built had become known as the Dead Horse Trail because of the thousands of pack-animals that fell or froze or simply tired themselves to death along the steep incline.
About 35,000 men worked on the railroad, and 35 of them died during construction. They toiled through freezing winters, using pickaxes and blasting powder to level the trail and cut long tunnels through the mountains.
In 26 months, the full 110 miles of the railroad opened, from Skagway to Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon.
"Nowadays, the permit process alone would probably take three to five years," said John Jackson, a conductor on the railroad. "What they did with the equipment they had was amazing. It was one of the engineering marvels of the world."
The brains behind the project were Big Mike Heney, a Canadian Railway contractor, and Sir Thomas Tancred, who represented the White Pass & Yukon's British financiers. Because of the tight mountain curves, they decided to build a narrow-gauge railroad, with tracks 3 feet apart compared to 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches for standard rails. That saved on blasting powder and gave the trains a tighter turning radius to handle the curves.
The railroad had a made-to-order work force among the thousands of disillusioned gold stampeders who never made it the Klondike. People from all walks of life had joined the gold rush, and the laborers who built the railroad included doctors, lawyers, teachers, even French chefs.
"Probably no other railroad in the world was built with such highly educated men," said Sharon Hannan, a tour guide on the White Pass & Yukon trains.
Freight and passenger business slowed during the Depression, and the railroad nearly shut down. World War II revived it as the railway carried supplies for the Alaska Highway that was built by the U.S. Army.
Eventually bought by Russell Metals Ltd. of Toronto, the White Pass carried lead, zinc, silver and other ore from mines in the Yukon over the next 40 years. The railroad's freight days ended in 1982, when it closed after a highway opened between Skagway and Whitehorse and a slump in metal prices closed the mines.
It sat idle until 1988, when the railway reopened solely for tourists who were coming to southeast Alaska in record numbers aboard cruise ships and the new road to Skagway.
Though they occasionally do some longer runs, the railroad's 45 old-fashioned train cars now are used mostly for three-hour trips along the first 20 miles of the route, to the Canadian border at the 3,000-foot summit of the White Pass.
At a plodding 15 mph, the trains give passengers spectacular views of waterfalls, snow-peaked mountains, old wooden trestles and even a few remnants of the original White Pass trail slogged by stampeders.
"What we are in today is the entertainment business, and our product is the railroad," said Thomas King, the railway's president. "We're selling history. The appeal is the old passenger cars, how it was built, the fact that it's narrow-gauge with some of the steepest grades and sharpest curves of almost any railroad in the United States."
King, who ran the railroad in the early 1980s, came out of retirement in 1995 to take over again and prepare it for a possible sale. Russell Metals has since decided to spin off the railroad, giving its shareholders first crack at the new railway company's stock.
The railroad has weathered management troubles, with the company's former president and another executive convicted last year on federal charges stemming from an oil spill in 1994.
Since King took over, ridership is up, hitting a record 210,000 for the 1997 tourism season that ended in September. Revenues approached $16 million.
The company hopes its centennial celebration, which starts next spring, will attract even more riders.
"I'm a romantic guy, so it's great to see the trains still run," said Karl Raab of Munich, Germany, after a trip on the railway. "It gives you a feel for the whole original way of the stampeder and what they tried to do."