Railroading through History in Skagway
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Silversea’s Silver Shadow came alongside in Skagway, Alaska early this morning, tying up at the Ore Dock on the western edge of town. After another delicious room service breakfast delivered by my butler, Muhammad, I set out to explore Skagway before embarking on my Silversea shore excursion this afternoon: a chance to ride the rails up from Skagway to Fraser, British Columbia.
Silversea offers six different excursions here in Skagway that include the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (WP&YR). These range from the standard White Pass Scenic Railway (SGY-Y) excursion to the massive White Pass Railway & Alaska Sled Dogs and Musher’s Camp option that spans seven hours in duration.
However, the one that truly interested me – and the one I ended up taking – was the four hour, All Aboard Steam Train – White Pass & Yukon Route (SGY-I).
Priced at $199 per person, this tour offers several notable advantages over the standard, 3.5-hour run that comes in at $135. Where the other excursions are pulled by diesel-electric locomotives, the All Aboard Steam Train excursion is pulled by a Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado constructed in 1947 and delivered to WP&YR that year. The numbers 2-8-2 designate the number of wheels the engine has; in this case, two in front, eight main drive wheels, and two trailing wheels. Designated as No. 73, she was the last steam locomotive purchased by the WP&YR before diesel locomotives were introduced in the 1950’s.
It’s also noteworthy for the fact that it goes completely past the White Pass Summit to Fraser, British Columbia, letting guests see more of the rugged terrain that would-be prospectors were greeted with on their long journey to the Klondike.
The train backed up onto the siding right next to Silver Shadow at her berth at the Ore Dock on the western side of the town. The two last cars – in my opinion, the best cars – were reserved exclusively for guests on the Silver Shadow, while the foremost cars seemed to be utilised by guests from other cruise lines, who had to be bussed over to our dock.
I took the last seat on the last car, numbered 248. It was originally built in the late 1890’s, but as you can imagine, it has been substantially refurbished over time. Once everyone was onboard, the train gave a great lurch and began its journey up to the White Pass summit and Fraser.
When I first cruised to Alaska as a teenager, my parents took my sister and I on the White Pass train’s shorter, diesel-powered excursion. It must have cost my father a fortune. Sadly, I think it was lost on the 15-year old me: my memories are of it being beautiful, but boring. Sixteen years older and hopefully wiser, I’d packed a newspaper and a book in case I was ever bored. I never took either out.
To start with, this is the railway that was supposed to have been an impossible pipe-dream to build in the first place. But a man named Michael J. Heney was undisturbed. The veteran railwayman, who had extensive experience with Canadian Pacific, reportedly stated, “Give me enough dynamite and snoose, and I’ll build a railroad to Hell.” I don’t know what ‘snoose’ is, exactly, but I do know I’d stay the heck out of Heney’s way.
Construction started in May of 1898, and by the following February, the first train had reached the summit. With its steep grades and enormous change in elevation (the summit is 2,685 feet above sea level, but only 20 or so miles from Skagway), the fact that the railway was even built is nothing short of astonishing. But consider this: the bulk of that work was done during the harsh and unforgiving winter months.
To keep costs down – and because of the limited available space – the WP&YR is what’s called a “narrow gauge” railway. The distance between both rails is only three feet, and the entire width of the track ties is just 10 feet. In many places along the 27.7-mile journey up to Fraser, the landscape drops off sharply on one or both sides of the train. The track looks impossibly small, and the sight of the 145,000lb Baldwin Mikado crossing timber bridges made more than a century ago does have a bit of a “pucker” factor to it.
But the sight of the Mikado belching smoke, soot and steam into the air is unbelievably romantic. It’s not very environmentally-friendly to say so, but when you see that ash-black smoke fire into the air like a dragon roaring, it gets the hairs on the back of your neck up. It’s a beautiful sight; a sign of the raw power this workhorse is able to generate. Coupled with the restless click-clack-click-clack of the cars against the track and Engine No. 73’s lonely whistle bouncing off the mountains as it climbs ever higher, this excursion manages to bring back the heyday of the Gold Rush – if only for a little while.
If I sound enthusiastic about the experience, it’s because I am. I loved this. The WP&YR is something that every visitor should experience when in Skagway. The White Pass shut down in 1982 due to lack of demand and changing economic priorities, but reopened as a tourist attraction in 1988. It’s a marvel of engineering, and a testament to the endurance and tenacity of the earliest pioneers of the Klondike.
Some photos from my afternoon adventure with Silversea:
But experiencing the White Pass, pulled by a steam locomotive, is an entirely unique event. It’s also one with a precarious future: steam engines like the Baldwin Mikado are costly to maintain and operate, and – as our guide Erin pointed out – our engineer today has been doing this for 51 years. On our run, he was in the process of training an up-and-coming engineer on the Mikado; in this era of diesel-electric power, few operators know how to handle a locomotive like this.
Trading my steam train for decidedly newer transportation on the dock in the form of Silversea’s Silver Shadow, I sat on my balcony and watched our departure. It was warm enough out that I enjoyed a light beer and read the copy of the Juneau Empire that I picked up last night. We slowly maneuvered away from the Ore Dock and left Skagway and the White Pass behind.
Departure from Skagway always fascinates me, because watching the town recede into the distance strikes me as one of the loneliest sights I’ve ever seen. It only takes four or five minutes of sailing before the town disappears entirely, swallowed up by the landscape that has changed very little for centuries.
Lynn Canal is a lonely place, too. North America’s deepest fjord, we’ll be sailing back down this beautiful but isolated stretch of water as we make our way to Sitka tomorrow. Many gold seekers lost their lives in this Canal, and its historic significance sadly remains unknown to many.
There’s a beauty to this loneliness – one which, I think, is only magnified by the gorgeous surroundings of the Silver Shadow. Understated and laid back, I feel like I’m seeing more of Alaska aboard this ship than I have on my five previous trips. Perhaps the reduced number of guests onboard has something to do with that; I can’t be sure. But I do know this: Silversea is all about sensory stimulation.
Tonight, I was able to stimulate my tastebuds with a dinner at Le Champagne, Silversea’s signature specialty restaurant.
At a cost of $40 per person, Le Champagne is the only dining venue aboard the Silver Shadow to sport a surcharge. It’s less of a cash-grab and more of a way to ensure that those who want to dine here are accommodated. The menu, created in conjunction with Relais & Chateaux, has changed little since I first experienced Le Champagne two years ago aboard the Silver Spirit – not that anyone’s complaining. It almost doesn’t matter what you order here; chances are good that the food will be excellent.
For dinner, I had the foie gras, followed by the fish bouillon with Camembert cheese, prepared tableside. For my entrée, I chose the Forest Pigeon, which was superb. Of course, that description hardly does the food justice. It’s sublime, extravagant and wonderful. Some of the best food I’ve eaten on any cruise ship anywhere in the world has always been in Le Champagne. Best of all, you can pair your food from an extensive wine list, or chose to indulge in the complimentary white or red wine of the day.
Don’t take my word for it: with a week still to go here onboard the Silver Shadow, Le Champagne is booked solid for the entire cruise. I was only able to get in because of a last-minute cancellation. If you are at all interested in experiencing Le Champagne, my advice would be to book it online in advance using My Silversea.
No matter which day you chose to dine, it will be a magnificent end to your evening.
Our Live Voyage Report onboard Silversea’s luxurious Silver Shadow continues tomorrow with our arrival in Sitka, Alaska! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
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Silver Shadow, Alaska
|Thursday, June 19, 2014||Vancouver, British Columbia||Embark Silver Shadow||18:00|
|Friday, June 20||Cruising the Inside Passage|
|Saturday, June 21||Ketchikan, Alaska||08:00||14:00|
|Sunday, June 22||Juneau, Alaska||09:30||23:00|
|Monday, June 23||Skagway, Alaska||08:00||17:00|
|Tuesday, June 24||Sitka, Alaska||09:00||18:00|
|Wednesday, June 25||Cruising Tracy Arm / Sawyer Glacier|
|Thursday, June 26||Wrangell, Alaska||07:00||16:00|
|Friday, June 27||Prince Rupert, British Columbia||08:00||17:00|
|Saturday, June 28||At Sea|
|Sunday, June 29||Victoria, British Columbia||08:00||23:59|
|Monday, June 30||Vancouver, British Columbia||07:00||Disembark|