The rotary fleet crosses a bridge as it nears Fraser. JB

Rotary fleet steams back into action

Historic snowplow works all the way to Bennett for first time since 1958


An all-steam WP&YR rotary fleet last week broke through compact snow on the summit and then plowed through drifts on down to Bennett, acting like its old self.
It was the first time since 2001 that vintage Rotary Plow No. 1 had been used to open up the line, and the first time since 1963 that it had been pushed by two of the company’s steam locomotives, restored Engines 73 and 69.
The fleet started out with some fanfare on the morning of Saturday, May 2. A crew of rotary veterans, rotary rookies, engineers, trainmen, and steam mechanics climbed aboard the three workhorses, which also pulled a passenger coach of guests that included Governor Sarah Palin’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, and Northwest Air pilot Ralph Taylor.
With three distinctly different steam whistles, they blasted off to the summit, where snow awaited them at American Shed, just south of the summit. It plowed through there, but then it hit some heavy, compact snow close to the border. During this grind, something broke on the 69, and they had to return to Skagway.

Chuck Heath poses in the cab of Engine 73, and the rotary train heads out with the 73 and 69 pushing hard. JB

Steam mechanic Dave Sorrell and crew worked through the night getting the engine fixed and ready for the hill the next day. It was slow-going at the top in wet, heavy snow that had also been compacted by Cats, but they made about a mile past the summit on the second day.
After a day off to let the tourist trains run to the summit, the rotary was back in action on Tuesday, May 5, and worked like a champ. It plowed about 12 miles, through Fraser and Log Cabin, to about Mile 35.
At Fraser, the crew stopped an hour to take on water supplied by the Carcross-based track crew.

The rotary grinds through the heavy, chunky snow at White Pass, and the crew poses for a shot in front of the blades. Cody Jennings, WP&YR

Larry Sullivan and Alvin Gordon, the last members of the old rotary crew that worked in the 1950s and early 1960s, climbed down from Rotary No. 1, their faces tinted black with soot.
“Piece of cake,” Sullivan said. “If you’re trained right, you never forget it.”
He then added a favorite quotation from the late Jack Hoyt, the superintendent who hired him in 1952: “I don’t care if it’s wrong, as long as I see you doing something.”
But they were doing it right in the softer snow.
Sullivan was in the rotary’s engine cab training the firemen, and Gordon was up front in the pilot house training John McDermott.
“This is what railroading’s all about,” McDermott said.
“It was great going into Fraser,” Gordon said. “She worked fantastic. The guys on it did fantastic. We gave them lots of tips.”

Pilot house veteran Alvin Gordon, the rotary bucking the big Ptarmigan Point drift, and Dave Hunz, another sooted warrior. CJ & JB

Just past Fraser they hit some big, 10-foot-high drifts at Ptarmigan Point.
“It was doing what it should be doing up there, handling the stuff it is used to handling,” Gordon said.
Rail Superintendent Ed Hanousek announced, “We’re going on to Bennett!”
The rotary pushed on till it was time to send the crew back home. They returned the next day and made the final run into Bennett in a couple hours.
Gordon said it was the first time the rotary fleet had worked into Bennett since 1958.
He credited the success of the operation to the mechanics.
“I have to say that Dave Sorrell and his helper were fantastic,” Gordon said. “If it wasn’t for Dave, we would not have been operating at all.”
Gordon loves the work and said he will be ready to un-retire for the rotary again next year: “I’ll be on call.”