Your Alaska road trip guide

Fascinating White Pass Railway history

White Pass & Yukon Railway

Photo credit: Boris Kasimov

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad was built in just 26 months, with the English financing of the Close Brothers, the Canadian contracting of Michael Heney, and the determination of tens of thousands of mostly American workers. Construction was considered impossible at the time, and this railroad was literally blasted out of solid rock mountains and a harsh and unforgiving environment. In some sections, men had to be suspended from the sheer cliffs on ropes while working. Some 35,000 men helped build this railway and 35 lost their lives doing it.


The completed line runs 110 miles to Whitehorse and opened in July of 1900 right as the gold rush was ending. The final grade climbs almost 3,000 feet in just 20 miles—incredibly steep for a railroad—with grades of almost four percent. Today, the railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty.


Up until a year-round road was built from Whitehorse to Dawson City in the mid-1950s, the White Pass & Yukon Route also operated a fleet of steam-powered wooden sternwheelers on the Yukon River each summer. During the winter months, they ran the Overland Trail and Royal Mail Service using horse-drawn sleds and wagons. Years later, it was the White Pass Route that pioneered the use of the shipping containers you see everywhere on ships, trucks, and trains today. They started that in the 1950s with the first integrated container service on the world’s first container ship, the Clifford J. Rogers, which ran between Skagway, Alaska and Vancouver, British Columbia.


While in the early days the White Pass & Yukon Railway was affectionately known as the “Wait Patiently and You’ll Ride” railway, in 1982 the railroad was forced to shut down completely after the closure of the lead-zinc mine at Faro, Yukon that was the primary source of its traffic. The railway reopened in 1988 as a seasonal tourist operation and today carries over 380,000 passengers a year on this historic and scenic narrow-gauge line.

Excerpted from Road Trip Alaska’s The Road to Emerald Lake guidebook.