Danielson reflects on the people who make a company, Skagway’s future

Skagway News editor Jeff Brady sat down with retiring WP&YR President Gary C. Danielson during his final week in the office. A retirement party for Danielson was held at the rail depot on April 9.

1. Last fall you told me you were not retiring just yet, but now you are. What changed since last fall?

Danielson: Nothing actually, I was not able to discuss it. I discussed it with the chairman (Rai Sahi) two an a half years ago and he asked about my plans and how long I’d like to stay on, and I said at least until I reached retirement age (Feb. 2010). He said fine and I could work as long as I wanted to. So during the first week of November (2009) I told him I’d like to retire as close to my birthday (Feb. 16) as possible, so we set March 1 as the day.

2. You’ve had quite a run off-and-on at WP&YR and in-and-out of Skagway over the past 34 years. Is this really the end of your time here?

Danielson (laughs): I’ve learned never to say never. Margo and I are just like the salmon except we return every decade instead of every four years. But I think this is it. When I first came up here to work in the winter of 76-77, the first person I met was Marvin Taylor pumping gas from the one pump in the weeds over by your building, and then Bev Feero at the hotel. I remembered calling Margo and she asked me if it was smaller than Nome, and then she asked if there was indoor plumbing, and I said “yes” and she said, “we’re going.” The first years were the most enjoyable. She worked for Holland America-Westours and I worked for the railroad. It was not our choice to leave (railroad cutbacks on eve of 1980s shutdown). I was fortunate to return to town as tourism director and left at that time due to my father passing away in Minnesota and needing to take care of a lot of personal things. In the fall of 1998 I got a call from someone named Fred (McCorriston) who asked if I’d like to come back to White Pass. I’d like to thank Fred and a couple other people who remembered me and gave me the opportunity to come back again. We also spent three years in Whitehorse part-time (while vice president) and enjoyed living there, being part of the community and Rotary. I want to thank all our neighbors in Whitehorse for their friendship too.

3. What do you know about the new president, Eugene Hretzay (pronounced retzay)? Will you be assisting during a transition period?

Danielson: He’s right across the hall. I’ll introduce you to him. Eugene used to work for ClubLink (formerly TriWhite) in Toronto. He’s a practicing attorney and he came here for the Golden Spike in 2000. He’s the guy in the white shirt and tie on the steam engine in the photo. I know he loves Alaska and this area. Later, I was in his office (Toronto) and it was full of photos of Alaska and Skagway. He left the company to pursue his U.S. accounting degree and then worked for Deloy (accounting firm) in Calgary, before being brought back.

4. What special memories or accomplishments do you take from your time at the helm of the railroad?

Danielson: I think any time you look back over the years you hope you left some sort of legacy. But the legacy is the people. I get more joy from seeing staff exceed in their accomplishments and watch them grow. Many have gone out and taken more courses or learned more trades to get better. Over my years we have expanded all three docks, rebuilt infrastructure to Carcross, restored the Bennett eating house, restored the entire steam fleet, increased the parlor car fleet by 42 percent, and embarked on diesel engine upgrades. Those 90s will be good another 50 years. Returning White Pass to the Yukon was one of the first things I wanted to do, and it became a reality three years ago. There have been some growing pains but the eating house is now doing a wonderful job. We’ve also changed the branding of our product so there is one consistent theme throughout. And one little thing – I wanted original artwork to show our current history every year, so we brought in J. Craig Thorpe to record our history in art rather than just with photographs. Last, we were able work within the parameters of our budget so almost everyone stayed employed. There have been no major layoffs. And we set some records that I believe will never be broken: more than 461,000 in one year (2008), and 7,009 in one day. Those were historic milestones.

5. As president you’ve seen the railroad break records, and then seen tourism decline due to ships pulling out and the recession. What do you think the future holds for tourism here?

Danielson: I think that’s one of the main reasons six of us got together to form Alaska ACT. As single entities, it was hard for us to make changes in the legislature, but by bonding together a group of small businesses and letting the state know the loss of jobs, we could do more than standing idly by. The membership has grown from six to 800. I applaud the governor and the legislature for seeing the true impact of the (2006 cruise initiative) and working together to make changes. The next two years will be really challenging but there are opportunities from 2012 forward to make significant changes to get back to where we were. One thing Alaskans don’t realize is how changes around the world affect our business, whether it’s terrorism or other things that cause economic impacts. Our industry is a worldwide industry and things have to be watched and worked on every year to keep what we have.

Departing WP&YR President Gary Danielson recalls some fun times on the railroad with the many folks who came to his retirement party on April 9. As a member of Alaska ACT, the railroad was active in the negotiations leading up to the agreement between the governor and the cruise lines. Jeff Brady

6. Let’s talk about port development. The railroad was at odds for a period with the borough on some elements of the TIGER grant application related to the timing of port expansion, and an MOU was supposedly in the works to resolve these issues. Then AIDEA wrote a letter to the borough expressing interest in acquiring the ore terminal lease when it expires in 2023. Where does White Pass stand on the future of the ore terminal expansion and the tidelands lease?

Danielson: It’s not just White Pass. I’m very encouraged with the recent meetings with all the stakeholders – municipality, AIDEA, the Yukon, and port users – that we can all talk to each other. A draft MOU is being prepared and when we come up with the language, we will all be working in the same direction. I’m encouraged it will go a long way. There are still some challenges and we’ve talked with several potential shippers to try and resolve those for the benefit of everybody.

7. Earlier this year in a Tacoma News Tribune article about the locomotive rehab program, it was stated that: “The railroad might also re-equip its ALCO locomotives with new power if a new mine opens in Canada that will use the White Pass to take ore or concentrate to the docks.” Is the railroad seriously looking at getting back into the ore hauling business?

Danielson: We’re looking at all the possibilities. If there is a capability of a long-term mining operation, of which the potential is there right now, with the possibility of a couple of shippers, where there could be a potential of a partnership somewhere along the way, then yes, we would be interested. But, that being said, to do it on our own would be a huge investment that I don’t think we would be prepared to make. As for the ALCOs, we don’t want to get rid of them if we can use them.

8. Retirement? What will you be up to in Minnesota?

Danielson: I’ve never had a summer vacation since I was 15-years-old. I’d like to see what that is like. We’ll be in the lake country of northern Minnesota, so there will be fishing, outdoor activities, mowing a 1.5 acre yard, and driving my ’56 Chevy on some country roads. I’m 66 so there’s still some opportunities. I’ve started a business called Far North Consulting, so we’ll see where that goes. But we have family, nieces, nephews, grand nieces and nephews, and of course, my mom, who is 93 and in great shape.

9. Will you come back here? Any final thoughts?

Danielson: We’d like to take a cruise to Alaska some day, depending on the port charges (laughs). You know, a lot of the people who work here I first knew as 4 and 5-year-old kids, and now they have 4 and 5-year-old kids. That’s the joy of a small town to watch that evolution. There’s a lot of history in this company, four or five generations that have worked here, and I’d like to see that string maintained. I’d like to see the school and the company get together on an apprentice program so they can keep the kids here working if they so choose, keeping that bond. I always tell people, there really isn’t a company. A company is the name on a building. It’s the people, no matter what they do, who are in that building. When there is a challenge, they come together to overcome it.

Letter from Governor Parnell read at retirement party (pdf)