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Building the Skagway to Dawson Road

by Murray Lundberg

      We all know that to get quality results takes time. But doesn't taking 83 years to build the final 60 miles of what is now the Klondike Highway seem extreme?

      The difficulty of transportation in the North has always been a major stumbling block to development, and from the earliest days, improvements have been constantly lobbied for. If not for the presence of the Yukon River, it seems unlikely that the Klondike Gold Rush could ever have occurred on the scale it did - after surviving the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, how many people would have had the ability to crash through the bush for another 500 miles to reach the goldfields?

      The completion of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway from Skagway to Whitehorse in 1900 marked the beginning of a new era in travel, and in commerce. The price in Dawson of many items dropped dramatically due to the lower freight costs in the summer, when the trains could connect to a fleet of sternwheelers. In the winter, however, the route from the end of steel to the goldfields was still long, difficult and expensive. And even worse, for a few weeks during breakup and just before the river froze, freighting by any means was virtually impossible.

      The Canadian Development Company had built a few miles of road in 1899 to improve their winter mail service to Dawson, but for most of the distance, travel was along the frozen river. Not until 1902 did the government give a contract to the White Pass company to push a road through right from Whitehorse to Dawson. Generally known as the Overland Trail, it cut the travel distance substantially - from Whitehorse to Carmacks, for example, is 202 miles by river, but only 131 miles along the Overland Trail (and the modern alignment of the road has taken another 20 miles off the distance). In some sections of the road, builders had to deal with permafrost, which shifts the ground as it freezes and thaws, and so forms a very unstable roadbed even for heavily graveled and paved roads - the effects of the shifting can be seen on roadside trees at several points along the highway. Maintenance of the Overland Trail where it crossed sidehills on permafrost was a problem of sustantial proportions, as was the problem of financing the road as the economy of the Yukon faltered after the gold rush. The road was used mostly in the winter, as when the sternwheelers were operating, the river still offered a far more efficient method of travel.

      The story of the southern section of the Klondike Highway is much more complicated. Even after the railroad was completed, there was talk of pushing a wagon road through from Skagway to Whitehorse. However, with the railroad providing efficient, though arguably expensive, service to the interior, it was a very low priority. The easy grade of the railroad influenced many people to walk along the right-of-way, but some horrific accidents occurred as a result:

      A distressing accident occurred on the W.P. & Y. Route yesterday at 11:55 a.m. about two miles south of Frazer station. Two passengers on the last up trip of the Dolphin, after reaching Skagway, decided to walk over the mountain and had reached the point above named when they were overtaken by the north bound train running at a speed of 25 miles per hour. At the place where the accident happened the snow is piled up on each side of the track to a height of five or six feet, with barely room for the passage of the body of the cars. One of the men was on top of the snow bank, but the other, a German, named Hauser, about 35 years of age, six feet tall, weight about 180 pounds, light complexion and light moustache, was on the track. The man on the bank heard the roar of the train and called to his companion, who endeavoured to scale the wall of snow; but he was too late and was caught by the snow plow, thrown under the wheels and frightfully mangled before the train could be brought to a stop. As soon as possible the train crew took the man from beneath the wheels and placed him on board the train, but he expired a very few minutes afterward. On examination it was found that his arms and legs were ground almost to a pulp and that a portion of his skull had been torn away. The body was brought as far as Bennett and there left to await an inquest.
      No blame was attached to the employes of the railroad, as at the time of the accident the train had just rounded a sharp curve and the plow was throwing such a quantity of snow that it was impossible to see anything in front.
      It is said that the deceased was a resident of Chelan Falls, State of Washington, and leaves a wife and four children.
(The Daily Star, March 1, 1902)

      In late 1905, a railroad survey was conducted to connect the transportation hub of Carcross with Log Cabin. The line, to be built along Windy Arm and Tutshi Lake, was prompted by a silver mining stampede at Conrad City which drew several hundred people, and resulted in the shipping of thousands of tons of supplies and equipment. The mining rush was over before railroad construction progressed past slashing out the route, but the current highway probably follows that railway survey very closely, and the remains of the mill of the Venus Mine which it would have served still stand beside the highway. The mining activity at Conrad, and in the Wheaton Valley to the north the following year, did result in a wagon road being built from Whitehorse as far as Carcross.

      By 1913, planning for a road to bridge the remaining gap between Carcross and Whitehorse was moving along nicely, despite opposition from the White Pass. This was largely due to opposition to the railroad's high shipping rates; although a Canadian federal commission forced them to lower their rates by 10% in 1912, it was still widely felt that the company was gouging Yukon residents. Throughout 1913, newspaper articles publicized the efforts of both the Yukon and Alaska governments to get the road pushed through, culminating in late August with headlines in Dawson that the "Auto Road From Skagway to Dawson May Be Opened Soon". The optimism was, however, not justified by the facts; despite initial indications that British Columbia, whose participation was crucial, would construct the necessary 35 miles of road through their jurisdiction, they never approved funding, and the project died.

      Although more surveying was done in 1920, and it was announced that the road would be completed in 1921, the highway project wasn't revived in any serious way until 1961. That year, a crew of Skagway volunteers, and then the State of Alaska, began work on the toughest part of the road, blasting through the solid granite of the Coastal Mountains. But, except for a rough road which was built in 1966 for the re-opening of the Venus Mine, nothing happened on the Canadian side until 1974. From then on, progress was erratic to say the least, due to constant funding problems, several legal challenges by the WP&YR, a fight with the Carcross Indian Band in 1977 and 1978 over crossing their land, and of course engineering difficulties.

      You would think that, after taking 80 years to build a road, that the opening would have been a huge event - maybe a special edition of the newspapers in the affected towns. But nothing could be further from what happened - in fact, there is disagreement as to when it did open. Canada Customs says that they opened their post at Fraser in 1979 as a summer-only operation because the highway was open, but some people claim to have gone across in 1978. What is known for sure is that, on May 23, 1981, a handful of politicians attended a ceremony at the foot of the hill in Skagway (at a spot called Liars' Camp!) to formally dedicate the highway.

      The completion of Klondike Highway resulted in vastly more efficient travel, both for private and commercial vehicles. As feared, though, the White Pass & Yukon suffered greatly, as no railroad can compete with trucks on short hauls. A year after the highway dedication, rail operations ceased.

References & Further Reading:

  • The South Klondike Highway - links to history, photo alums and service guides.

  • Cynthia Brackett Driscoll - One Woman's Gold Rush (Kalamazoo, MI: Oak Woods, 1986)

  • Roy Minter - The White Pass: Gateway to the Klondike (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987)

  • Greg Skuce and Barbara Hogan - "Historic Resource Inventory and Trail Assessment of the Southern Section of the Whitehorse-Dawson Overland Trail" (Whitehorse: Northern Research Istitute, 1997)