The train that made Skagway

White Pass & Yukon Route celebrates 100 years and more

Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Skagway's most important private employer is having another party.

The White Pass & Yukon Route railroad is celebrating the centennial of the completion of the 110-mile line that linked Skagway to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush.

On Saturday, July 29, about 1,500 people are expected at Carcross in the Yukon Territory for a five-hour public event commemorating the driving of the final spike into the rail.

``It'll be more like a county fair than anything,'' said Gary Danielson, vice president for marketing and corporate planning for White Pass. ``We expect really a fun day up there.''

White Pass also marked 100 years since the beginning of the railroad construction in 1998, and then last year celebrated the centennial of the completion of the line to Lake Bennett, currently the termination point for passenger rail operations.

Asked if there would be another centennial of some sort to promote in 2001, Danielson joked: ``We're trying to figure that out. But this will be the biggest.''

Regardless of when the centennial clock was started, White Pass remains inextricably linked with Skagway and is a pillar of its tourism-dominated economy.

White Pass' director of marketing, Tina Cyr, is also president of the Skagway Chamber of Commerce. Skagway Mayor John Mielke is an employee of the company.

``It is a pretty close relationship,'' said City Manager Bob Ward, citing ``a multitude of easements and agreements and cooperative stuff'' between the city and White Pass. ``Like most relationships, it has its ups and downs.''

White Pass owns one of the three cruise ship docks in the Skagway port, and operates the other two through a tidewaters lease from the city.

The company is the No. 1 property taxpayer in the city, contributing $358,000 this year, or slightly more than a third of $1 million property-tax revenue, Ward said.

And with about 100 employees in Skagway in the summer, it is seasonally the No. 1 employer in the city, said Sharon Bolton, office administrator for the Chamber of Commerce.

``Skagway wouldn't be Skagway without it,'' said Mielke, the company's chief mechanical officer.

White Pass is owned by a Toronto holding company, Tri-White Corp., which spun off from Russel Metals in 1997, McCorriston said. Tri-White has one other operating unit, a long-haul trucking company that it's trying to sell, he said. Soon, White Pass could be the company's focus, he said.

Tri-White, which is publicly traded on the Toronto exchange, had $162 million in revenues for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999, with $12 million in earnings, McCorriston said. White Pass itself had $30.3 million in revenues and $8.6 million in earnings, he said. (Figures are in Canadian dollars.)

White Pass' earnings have been slowed somewhat by investment, McCorriston said. The company bought back five locomotives it sold to a South American company in 1992 and has also added 10 coaches recently, he said.

But popularity isn't a problem.

Each year since reopening as a tourism-only venture in 1988, following a six-year closure that ended freight operations, the White Pass has set records for ridership.

This year's ridership is on pace to break last year's record of 274,000, said Fred McCorriston, president of the company since spring of 1998. The threshold of 4,000 passengers in a single day was broken for the first time this year, Mielke said.

``I'm sure it's the biggest shore excursion the cruise ships have,'' McCorriston said.

Recently, there has speculation about bringing freight operations back to White Pass.

The company's involvement with freight ended with the temporary closure of the railroad in 1982, after the opening of the Klondike Highway and the downturn in Yukon mining, which had supplied ore for shipping out of Skagway.

State Rep. Jeanette James, a North Pole Republican, envisions White Pass connecting with a new link to the Lower 48, if an intertie between existing Alaska and Canadian railroads could be accomplished.

But McCorriston is skeptical. ``I think it's a long shot. ... I've seen too many mega-projects announced and fall through in this state.''

A greater possibility is a resumption of the mining industry in the Yukon, although the short-term outlook for metals prices isn't encouraging, he said. ``Opening one mine isn't going to do it. It would basically take a revival of the mining industry'' to get White Pass back into freight.

Conceivably, White Pass could provide some support services to the operator of a proposed natural gas pipeline running from Alaska's North Slope along the Alaska Highway to Alberta.

Even then, though, it would make economic sense to renovate the track only for the 27.5 miles from Lake Bennett to Carcross, where supplies could be trucked north, McCorriston said. The renovation of the entire 110-mile route to Whitehorse would cost millions of dollars, he said.

``We're not doing anything to preclude freight being an option,'' McCorriston added.

But for now, tourism is working quite well.

``I think the railroad is doing pretty handsomely off the tourist economy,'' Ward said.

The centennial events on July 29, beginning at 11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, will include appearances by prominent Canadian politicians, including Yukon federal Sen. Ione Christensen, Yukon Premier Pat Duncan and Yukon Commissioner Judy Gingell. Alaska state Rep. Al Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat, will represent the Skagway area, Danielson said.

Along with vendor booths, there will be entertainment by the Black Irish Band, a California group that specializes in rail folk songs, and the Frantic Follies, a '98 revue from Whitehorse.

There will be the traditional driving of a ceremonial golden spike into the rail. And a group of private rail car owners, known as the Narrow Gauge Gang, plan to operate their cars on the currently unused portion of the line between Carcross and Whitehorse.

Although the event should provide a good shot for the economy of Carcross, population 431, White Pass is not looking to make much money directly, McCorriston said. ``I don't think the event per se is going to be an economic benefit. It's an event to create some additional awareness of the railroad.''

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