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Gold Rush Narrow Gauge

Video/DVD Review

A White Pass & Yukon Railfan's Bonanza

Reviewed by Murray Lundberg


      I probably don't qualify as a hardcore railfan. Sure, I've ridden on the White Pass several times, have hundreds of photos of White Pass buildings, rolling stock and track, and several times have walked the 27 miles of track from Bennett to Carcross just to see what was there, but I don't have every move ever made by every piece of White Pass equipment memorized, as some of the railfans I know seem to do. But yes, I'm a serious enthusiast, and the arrival of 3 films produced by John Booth has provided hours of wonderful flashbacks, as well as many historical photos and even more historical film footage that I hadn't seen before.

      As the years go on, I get more and more critical of superficial research and shoddy production being accepted by both video and book publishers who are interested in a quick buck rather than a product that they can be proud of. I'm really pleased to be able to tell you that these new releases by Mountain Automation Corp. serve as proof that John Booth's reputation for quality is well-founded.

      The White Pass & Yukon has long been recognized as one of the top rail attractions in the world, in such esteemed company as the Sierra Madre Express through Mexico's Copper Canyon, the Durango & Silverton in Colorado, and the Nile Valley Express in Egypt. The recognition of the WP&YR as one of 20 International Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks in the world has further solidified the line's reputation as an attraction not to be missed by visitors to the North.

      Each of the 3 videos has a very different slant on the White Pass - The Gold Rush Railroad is an in depth history of the line's development through good times and bad, An Engineer's Point of View provides a personal look at what it's like to run one of the locomotives from Skagway to the Summit, and Scenic Railway of the World is a brief view of the narrated tour from Skagway to Bennett, as seen more from a passenger's eyes.

      The Gold Rush Railroad (50 minutes) uses historic photos and films in combination with modern footage, and interviews with people such as the late Roy Minter, who literally "wrote the book" on the WP&YR, and the late Marvin Taylor, who spent 50 years on the railway, rising from baggage handler to top management. From the initial concept of a railway to the Yukon interior in 1887, Minter provides both detail and anecdotes, while Taylor gives a "hands-on" look at company operations as they changed over the years. Steve Hites, a very theatrical ex-conductor, is never dull, and adds a lighter touch to the film. The operation of the railway is put into context at various points through footage of subjects such as the British Yukon Navigation Company ships which connected with the trains at Carcross and Whitehorse, images of Dutch Harbour in flames after the Japanese bombing, and construction shots from the Alaska Highway. There is some spectacular footage of the Rotary snow plows in action in the 1960s in particular, and of Baldwin steam engine #73 at speed along the summit flats. And those with an eye for details will appreciate the shots of the Whitehorse roundhouse and Shipyards, a lengthy section on the military takeover of the line during World War II, and of the bridge-building and other upgrades necessary when the company started hauling heavy ore cars in the late 1970s.

      "I don't get bored with the trip... The first run in the morning is the nicest one, the way the sun hits on things." John Westfall's description of his outlook in An Engineer's Point of View (57 minutes) nicely sets up the mood of the film. Here is a fellow that I enjoyed riding with as he told (with the assistance of several others) about the railroad and its equipment. As we climb the 20.4 miles to White Pass Summit in a 1,200-horsepower Alco locomotive, John explains how to prevent a train from jarring on starts, stops and various grades, operational details such as setting power notches, and engine characteristics such as the General Electric 90-series' tendency to overheat and then produce power surges. White Pass employees have always been known as a somewhat separate breed up North, and the attitudes of both John and Steve in this film give you an idea of why - they are both dedicated White Pass fans as well as being employees. There is lots of variety in this film, with extensive use of historic inserts, and a wide variety of camera positions are used, from inside the cab, trackside, and even from helicopters. It's only 20 miles, so you can't get too far lost, but insetting a map occasionally helps keep your position on the route clear at all times. I found some of the descriptions of how and why trains would be broken up and reconfigured at various points on the line to be particularly useful in understanding just how complex mountain operations can be. This is certainly the film for railfans.

      Scenic Railway of the World (30 minutes) is tourist-oriented, and yet gives views of much that the other two films don't. Primarily a narrated, 40.6-mile trip from Skagway to Bennett, only 2-3 sentences are used to describe each point of interest, but subjects such as the Brackett Road, Buchanan Rock, and Black Cross Rock are shown. Shots of wildlife are much more prevalent in this film (as expected), but aren't overdone like in several films I've seen recently. Historic photos are well-used for illustration when appropriate, and a section on the Chilkoot hiking trail nicely rounds out the experience.

      I had expected a fair bit of duplication in the 3 films - as it turned out, there is extremely little other than one glacier shot that gets far too much play. Of the 137 minutes total, I would say there is only 4-5 minutes of duplicated footage.

A DVD is available that contains all 3 films plus 9 minutes of footage that wasn't included on any of them (146 minutes total, for only $24.95).

World's Scenic Railway DVD
Purchase From RailwayShop

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