Summer 2012 Edition Features
FRONT PAGE STORY
The True Story of Skagway
Youngest City in the World
How It Grew, What It Is Today, What It Will Be.
No mushrooming growth but the beginning of a shipping and commercial center at the undisputed Gateway to the Yukon.
Skaguay may be properly termed a child of necessity. When the first startling reports of the unprecedented gold strike to the Klondike region reached civilization in July last there began the greatest rush to the Yukon country that the world has ever witnessed. All routes leading to the interior were soon crowded with all classes and conditions of men, and these routes were soon congested, so great and precipitate became the fight in the land of “plenty of gold.”
The White Pass or Skaguay Trail was the newest and least known of the routes to the interior. It had been first opened three years before by Captain William Moore, of Skaguay bay, and a few miners. A rude trail had been constructed and it was known that the White Pass was 3,000 feet lower than that through the Chilkoot mountains. But soon the demand for a new and easier route became urgent, and soon thousands of people were flocking to Skaguay bay, an indentation of Taiya inlet at the head of the Lynn Canal. The place has since become famous, and where, on the 27th day of last August, were but three buildings of wood, now stands a really pretentious town of 3,000 souls.
At the beginning of September the place was, literally, a city of tents. But for the absence of the “pomp, power and circumstance of war,” one might easily have imagined that here rested a great army, recuperating, it might be for a fight on the morrow, or awaiting reinforcements for a decisive battle.
But the glitter of warlike accoutrements was not there; no buglers called the men to arms or roused the drowsy sentry at his post. There was a roar of many voices; all was bustle and excitement, but the sound of the cannon was not there and the panoply of arms was absent. Instead of artillery there were pack trains, and picks and shovels, as a rule, were the only weapons seen on the shoulders of the men who threaded their way about the tented town. There was indeed a tumult of voices, but not of battle; a hurrying that betokened not the approach of deadly combat, but the hot pursuit of a vast multitude in eager search for gold.
It was indeed a motley throng that reached Skaguay bay during those months of July and August. Men who had figured conspicuously in the “days of old, the days of gold, the days of ‘49,” were there, the light of their eyes taking on new luster, as they thought of the new, golden El Dorado, at whose gateway they stood; the old frontiersman was there, with a new lease on life, and participating actively in the rush and hurry of the great exodus, and so was the “tenderfoot,” fresh from the Eastern college, or the fertile agricultural country, the office, the store or the banking house. Preachers, doctors, lawyers, professional men of every known calling, sat cheek by jowl around the campfires or elbowed each other on the crowded thoroughfares, in the tented hotels, saloons, or other places of public resort. Politics, religion, even home and family, were, at the time being, lost sight of in the mad desire to reach the golden country.
Such were the conditions prevailing in Skaguay at the beginning of August. They continued a month longer, when those enterprising men, always found in the vanguard of civilization, and who had engaged in the diverse kinds of business, foresaw that this place would be built up a large city – the future metropolis of a great territory, whose riches are not alone locked in the bosom of Mother Earth, but which contains vast wealth of treasure which dash and beat upon its coastline, and in its thousands of timber-studded valleys, whose rich alluvial soil will yet be made to yield agricultural products for the sustenance, in part at least, of its population.
When the necessity of laying out a townsite became so apparent that it could no longer be deferred, a mass meeting of the citizens was held and a survey of the townsite was ordered. The citizens decided upon a width of the streets and alleys and the size of each lot of land. The survey was made as directed and the town was plotted. Immediately began the location of lots, and the few weeks that have followed since have been productive of results little short of marvelous, but which, after all, are simply emblematic of the pluck, enterprise and determination that are characteristics of the American people.
The town is situated in as charming a valley as the eye of man ever rested upon. The valley is narrow, being most precipitous, as well as most picturesque. Halfway up the mountains on the east, just above the town, is a mountain lake, from which pours a great volume of water, leaping down the mountainside in cascades and waterfalls, sufficient to furnish motive power of thousands of industrial enterprises, and which will form the future water supply of this growing city.
On either hand, as you look northward up the valley, tall mountain peaks are seen, their serrated tops standing out in bold relief. On the west eternal winter is personified in a vast glacier that just out from the mountain side, as if ready to leap below. West of the town, hugging the foothills, runs the Skaguay River. The Natives call this stream the Skagua. The name, they say, has been in use since the crow made the earth and the Tlingits. A woman was drowned in the river and her name was Skugua. On the banks of the river lived a man, so the Natives claim, named Ken-noo-goo or the north wind. Skugua came to him and became his wife. She told him that her name was Koot-Kay-too-oon-du-chin. Afterwards she fell in to the river.
– SKAGUAY NEWS, December 31, 1897
The Skagway Townsite Chronicles
Capt. Moore stands defiantly outside his bunkhouse – marked with the 1892 date of its construction – which he was forced to move from the middle of a new Skaguay street. University of Washington
By CATHERINE HOLDER SPUDE
The Skagway townsite was established in a controversy that consumed town politics for the next fifteen years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Because of it, no one person could ever be said to rule Skagway.
Canadians William Moore and his son Bernard came to Skagway Bay and built a cabin in 1887. That year, the elder Capt. Moore and Skookum Jim reconnoitered the White Pass for U. S. government surveyor William Ogilvie. Over the next few years, the two Moores returned to Skagway from time to time to improve the cabin and begin building a wharf. In 1896, Bernard became a naturalized American citizen and staked a 160-acre claim to a manufacturing and trading site at Skagway.
At the same time, the two Moores made a deal with the British–owned Alaskan and Northwestern Territories Trading Company (A&NWTT Co.) whereby the latter advanced them $50,000 worth of labor and materials in return for a mortgage on the homestead. The objective was to develop the site as a departure point to the interior, with a wharf for off-loading ships, and a trading post for outfitting parties for the interior. The company also helped the Moores develop the White Pass Trail.
By early July 1897, William Moore and the A&NWTT Co. had established a small community at Skagway, concentrated around today’s intersection of Fifth and State Avenues (see accompanying map). A small store supplied groceries and other stables to the Moores, and the workers for the company. A blacksmith provided services for the work animals and construction crews. Stables and corrals contained work horses for the trail and for skidding logs from the nearby forest. Two bunkhouses served the crews that worked at the wharf and the sawmill. Warehouses were being prepared for an anticipated future need. William Moore kept his residence in an office near where he would eventually build a hotel on the southeast corner of Fifth and State. Ben Moore kept a separate residence to the east side of the Skagway Valley, near a creek, adjacent to the first cabin he and his father had built in 1887.
When the S. S. Queen landed in Skagway Bay on July 21, 1897, it was full of hopeful miners headed to the Klondike, all who had heard the news of the great wealth to the north. Thinking that the Moores were both Canadian, and did not have a right to claim land in Alaska, a citizen’s committee asked surveyor Frank Reid to lay out a townsite, which he began on August 7, 1897 at what is now the southeast corner of Fifth and Broadway. This committee became known as the Committee of 101. Within six weeks, 212 lots had been claimed and recorded with the federal court commissioner.
All lot claim recording ended on September 16, 1897 when Bernard Moore renewed his original 160-acre claim. This land included everything from tidewater to Eleventh Avenue and from the Skagway River to the bluffs on the east side of town. The townspeople were shocked. Bernard Moore offered to sell each person the lot he occupied, but those who had already paid five-dollar filing fees felt they had paid enough. As part of the “rules” for claiming a lot, the “owners” had built structures and invested in their properties. In many cases, the people occupying the lots had purchased them from the original locators, who had since gone on to the Klondike. Furthermore, the people now settling into Skagway felt that it was the British-owned A&NWTT Co., not the Moores, who were really trying to get their money. The townspeople decided to sue.
The Committee of 101 met on October 9, 1897, and decided to hire a lawyer. Five days later, they hired J. C. Price, who would eventually become Alaska’s first delegate to Congress, to represent the people of Skagway in a lawsuit against Bernard Moore and the A&NWTT Co.
The “Committee of 101” challenges Capt. Moore to move his building from the intersection of what is now Fifth Avenue and State Street. Moore allegedly tried to fight them off with a crow bar, but eventually relented. Moore Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks
The General Land Office of the Department of Interior began hearing testimony in the lawsuit on March 31, 1898 in Sitka, Alaska, at the time when legend says that Soapy Smith ruled Skagway. As neither Soapy nor any of his people were involved in these very important proceedings, it does not seem logical to say that Smith “ruled” Skagway. All of the truly important people of town were involved in the townsite case, which involved the ownership of virtually all of the town lots. Nine people testified for the plaintiffs and seven for the defense. This testimony was recorded verbatim and is now stored at the National Archives. It gives us a detailed picture of what Skagway was like in the first days of the gold rush.
Some of the testimony got quite detailed, and even amusing. For instance, Attorney Price asked Annie Leonard, who had been hired as a cook in one of the bunkhouses, if Bernard Moore had any farm animals on his homestead. He was particularly interested whether there were any pigs and how she knew whether they were Captain Moore’s and Ben Moore’s.
Mrs. Leonard answered: “When the Yukoners came there and pitched their tents and piled their outfits in different places, those pigs made a practice of inspecting them. The miners objected and came and asked me whose pigs they were and if they wouldn't have them penned up, and I sent them to Ben Moore. They went to him and told him if he didn't pen them up they would shoot them. He said shoot them, they don't belong to me but to my father and have no business around anyhow.”
Intially, the General Land Office ruled in favor of the people of Skagway. The Moores and the A&NWTT Co. appealed this decision in the fall of 1899. A final decision was not reached until January 1901, at which time, the Department of Interior awarded Bernard Moore and A&NWTT Co. the sixty acres of land indicated on the accompanying map that stretched from Fourth Avenue to Sixth Avenue and from Main Street to Spring, encompassing the bulk of the business district of town. An agreement was reached by which the people occupying the lots could clear their deeds by paying Bernard Moore and the scions of the A&NWTT Co. – Moore’s Wharf Co. and the White Pass and Yukon Route – a quarter of their 1900 property assessments.
Many citizens paid their debt promptly and let the controversy pass. For instance, J. M. “Si” Tanner, who claimed the lot at the northeast corner of State and Fifth on August 7, 1897, and built a hardware store there, paid the A&NWTT Co. $750 in August 1902. However, others, such as Mary Bernhoffer of the New Home Restaurant and Lodging on Fifth Avenue near the Catholic Church, refused to pay until 1911.
To help settle conflicts over the values of tax assessments and to collect the payments, the city and the Department of Interior jointly selected a Townsite Trustee in 1908: William Boughton. Some members of the Skagway town council felt that Boughton assessed properties far too high and tried to push for his removal. The retention of Boughton as the Townsite Trustee became an issue in the 1908, 1909 and 1910 city elections. Citizens who supported the railroad and the wharf company as major employers in town also supported Boughton as the Townsite Trustee. Those who supported the workers, laborers and unions, and wanted to pay low taxes supported replacing him with a different trustee.
In fact, city politics had been split along those same lines pretty much since the first bi-artisan city election in 1903. Until that time, the men who had comprised Committee of 101 eventually came to be known as the Citizens Party. They chose the first city council in December 1897 and continued to do so on a yearly basis until Si Tanner met with thirty other men in the rooms above his hardware store in June 1903 and formed the Taxpayer Party. Only Tanner, of all the Taxpayer candidates, won a seat that year: he became the city magistrate. He served as magistrate for the next six years, even though his party fell into disarray. The Citizens did not lose their hold on city hall until 1906 when saloon owner Chris Shea led his Labor Party to victory in the city elections. Shea and Tanner resurrected the Taxpayer Party in 1908, and it would dominate the city politics for the next several years.
The Taxpayers could not oust the Moore Wharf Company and White Pass’s chosen trustee, William Boughton, however, until 1912, when his term came to an end. At that point, the last lot that had been claimed within the Moore Claim was paid off, and the Trustee was let go of his position.
The Citizens Party did not run a candidate in Skagway politics again. White Pass, which had long since purchased the Moore Wharf Company, no longer had as much of an interest in real estate in Skagway. An era had passed.
• National Archives, Record Group 49, Records of the General Land Office, Division K, Townsite Files, Skagway Townsite. See http://www.montanadawn.com/Skagway_Townsite_Files_4H1X.html
• The Skaguay News, October 15, 1897- April 1899
• The Daily Alaskan, 1898-1912.
Catherine Holder Spude is a free-lance writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She worked for the National Park Service in Skagway, Alaska during the l980’s as a historical archaeologist. She is an active member of Western Writers of America and has published in Alaska History, Arctic, and True West. Her books include Sin and Grace (Lynn Canal Publishing) and Eldorado: The Archaeology of the Northern Gold Rushes (University of Nebraska Press). Her next book, That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith in Legend, will be published from the University of Oklahoma Press next September.
A map compilation by the author from the original rough map, a copy of which is on file at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Quotes from the Testimony
During the Townsite hearings in April 1898, attorney Price asked Frank Reid if he ever had a conversation with Ben Moore about the survey being done at the townsite.
Reid replied that he did:
“Some time before I surveyed the Mill lot, Ben Moore asked me if I didn’t think he ought to have 5 acres in where his house is. He re¬marked that he had lived there two years and thought he ought to have something there. I told him to go ahead and fence off 5 acres as quick as he could and take it as near in a square piece as possible and he did so putting his fence around the tract shown on the plat marked Exhibit “C” as Moore's lot. I agreed not to survey that into lots and blocks, and have kept my agreement.” At the time, Moore did not say anything about having a 160-acre claim on the place.”
Emory Valentine, who helped finance the Juneau Wharf, where the infamous Soapy Smith was killed, told how he and his partners came up with the idea to build their wharf:
“I arrived in Skaguay on the 20th of August; the first time I had ever been there. On the 23th of August, I walked down to the beach in company with Geo. Rice, while standing there Mr. Jorgensen came off of the steamer "Al-ki" which had just come in, and in a kind of a joking mood I said Jim let’s build a wharf here. He seemed to take it more serious than I had thought he would; while we were talking Mr. Sylvester came up. Jorgensen proposed to Sylvester to go in with us and build a wharf. Sylvester proposed that we should go back up to some tent in the woods and talk it over. We went up on the trail to Fred Hyde’s tent that afternoon and there the partnership was made. We left on the 24th of August, on the Al-ki for Juneau, Jorgensen and I. Jorgensen went on to Wrangel I set men to work getting out pilings and sent up the pile driver on the 30th of August, and up to that time we had kept it a secret.”
Attorney Price, during the questioning of carpenter William A. Bigelow, tried to ascertain whether Bernard Moore was a “gentleman” who could afford to invest in the sort of enterprise that developing a townsite would require. His questioning went as follows:
Q. I will ask you if Ben Moore at the present time, or during your acquaintance with him has been a man of any means whatsoever?
A. I never considered him a man of means or he wouldn't have been there. He wouldn't be up in this country.
Q. Do you know of anything aside from that, is he a man that has to work for a day’s living, state if you know?
A. He had to work for a living.
Q. What trade or business is Ben Moore now engaged in on this tract of land?
A. He seems to be a gentleman of leisure, I never see him doing anything at present.
Q. State whether or not he exercises any control, supervision or management whatsoever over what is known as the Moore dock, the Alaska North West Territories Trading Co.'s saw mill, the Co.'s store, the Co.'s boarding house, the saw mill bunk house, Captain Moore's business block, or any other premises or buildings testified about, excepting his personal residence?
A. I do not know.
In fact, much of the questioning of witnesses seemed to rest on whether Bernard truly did supervise the work of the company. A witness for the Moores, Charles Cole, asserted that he did, in fact, keep the time of all the men, and that Captain Moore paid them for work on the trail and wharf. Cole also gave some details about the location of the Skaguay News Office in April 1898 (near Fourth and Broadway) and a common outhouse used by most of the residents of Skagway.
Q. In speaking of the clearing that was done, I will ask you if you are acquainted with the present lot owned by a man by the name of Morse in which is the News printing office and other tenants, and if so, about what distance that is from the original cook house?
A. The corner of the lot is perhaps forty feet, something like that.
Q. Is it not a fact that old man Morse cleared that lot and felled large trees there before erecting his building in the month of September?
A. I don't question but what he may have fallen some trees, but the underbrush had been cleared out, and trees left there purposely. I remember the spot well from the fact that we had an outhouse there that was in general use by the people of Skaguay at one time.
Attorney Price also asked Cole if Bernard Moore’s horses were named Bell, Dick, Prince and Maude. Cole replied that he knew a couple of Bernard’s horses’ names, but not all of them and refused to answer the question. These names appeared in a letter Bernard Moore had written in which he named his horses.
– Compiled by Catherine Holder Spude
Alvin Gordon, pilot of Rotary No. 1, when it came out of retirement in 1996. Skagway News
The Great Snow Blockade of 1962
Fifty years ago this past winter, the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad dealt with one of the greatest challenges of its storied history: a snow blockade that stranded travelers and kept steam-powered rotary snow plow crews on the line for a week trying to free themselves and open up the line. We have two accounts of the story, the first from Alvin Gordon, a brakeman on one of the rotary fleets, and an article about the bulldozer crew that came to the rescue, forever changing how the railroad dealt with snow. During this event a southbound passenger train from Whitehorse with the Skagway High basketball team was trying to get home. It made it as far as Log Cabin and then was forced to return to Bennett, on account of the blockade. They overnighted there and then returned to Whitehorse. It would take a week before those players made it home. This interview was conducted by Jeff Brady in Gordon’s Skagway home on April 4, 2012. During the interview, there are references to a detailed 24-page report on the incident by the railroad. Gordon remembers some details differently from what’s in the report.
ALASKAN: How did it all begin?
GORDON: We departed at 8:35 Saturday morning (Jan. 27) in Rotary 2 with (pusher) Engines 70 and 71. On a normal day we cleared the rail to Glacier (station) and took on water there and worked our way up the hill. A storm had blown in, and that day it was 20-below and we worked our way up to White Pass (a station at the summit), bucking slides that were down and removing all the snow. We took water again at White Pass, and checked the fuel. And then we left White Pass, and everything was full and drifted in. All the cuts were full. The rotary left a cut of about 11 feet high, which is just the size of the rotary and the plow itself. It was heavy bucking all the way out to 20 Mile, and we went to 23A Bridge. We checked water on the locomotives and the rotary and we were low on water and decided to go back to White Pass for water and fuel. And on our way back to White Pass, I was in the caboose with a section hand, and along about 22.4 – there’s a slight cut there – and it was full. I pulled the air (brakes) because I could see we weren’t going to make it through. There was no way because it was so deep, and that’s where we got stuck. And we sat there. We called into Skagway and they proceeded to get Rotary No. 1 ready to come on out and get us.
Our fleet consisted of the rotary and the two steam engines. The pilot in the pilot house of the rotary pretty well controlled the movement of the fleet. He was the one who had a series of whistles for turning the plow on and when to stop, and you had air up there so you could stop the train if you needed to. But at this time, when we got stuck, I was the rear brakeman, so I was on the caboose. We had no radios at that time; everything was still hand signals. This was all during a time when there were switch lanterns and hand signals, and you’d walk up and talk to everybody. (To communicate with the dispatcher in Skagway), we had the telephone line running along the rail, and you had to hook up with poles and hook into the telephone lines and use a radio packet that had a crank on it.
ALASKAN: So you’re stuck and they send up another rotary crew. How much food and water would you have on hand?
GORDON: We always carried hardtack, Spam and beans in an emergency food locker and some coffee. And you could stretch that out for a day or so. But when we ran low on fuel, one of the section hands snowshoed up to us (from White Pass) and brought us food packed in on his back. His name was John Wally. My thinking back on that… when the second rotary came up behind us, they took back part of our crew. I think we had two firemen and maybe the engineer and a track supervisor, George Barry, with us. He came up on the second rotary, and then they went back, and reported “unable to move in either direction.”
ALASKAN: So you’re there overnight and you got more snow (12 inches) overnight.
GORDON (pointing to report): You see where it says here that “Crew will keep steam engine and rotary under steam by shovelling snow into tenders.” Okay, the wind must have been blowing 40 miles an hour. Have you ever experienced picking up a shovel-load of snow, standing on a snow bank with the tender right there and the hatch open. You go like this (motions heaving a shovel load), do you know where the snow went? It didn’t go in the tender – it went down the track! Well, we tried and it just wasn’t working. We weren’t getting enough snow in the tenders. George Barry and I decided to look for a creek running along there that we knew of. We carry a siphon and equipment on the fleet for taking on water. So we had to dig down and break through the ice. When we were hooking up the siphon, we looked south and either George remarked to me, or I remarked to George, “Well look how that moon is hanging down there.” And it was blowing snow out there and you couldn’t see a hell of a lot, but we could see the moon, we thought. So we didn’t pay any more attention to it, and went about our business taking on water and checking the hole all the time because it would freeze up and we’d have to knock it through for water. It was about the second or third time we were down checking the hole, and one of us said, “Look at that, the moon hasn’t moved.” And that’s when we realized that Rotary No. 1 was stuck back there and not moving. And they had all their problems with the drawbars and stuff with the locomotives. They had the (diesel) 90s. They finally broke through and got back to White Pass, and that’s when they decided to move the Cats up (the next day).
A Caterpillar bulldozer was up on the line at Mile 16.5 but apparently needed a blade, so one was brought up by diesel locomotives at the start of Day 2. The second rotary was able to plow down to Glacier station at Mile 15 but the weather worsened. Northerly winds were gusting to 50 mph in Skagway. Cat operator Paul Cyr got the blade on and was ready to work by that second evening. He went back to Glacier and walked back up the next morning. In the meantime Rotary No. 1 was at White Pass and had taken back some of the stuck rotary’s crew: Jack Lee, Lee Pribbernow, Carl Hoover, Eric Selmer, and Tom Mason. Rotary No. 2 was still stuck at 22.4 Mile with a remaining crew of Gordon, Barry, J.D. True, Larry Sullivan, Joe Sheleby, and Maynard Barber.
It was miserable weather up there too. During all this we were still stuck, taking on water, checking on our siphons, checking on the tenders, and keeping the fires going. We had plenty of fuel.
ALASKAN: So you enter Day 3 with quite the mix of weather. The Cat was on the U.S. side of the border trying to get up to you guys, and he’s over the steel bridge and arrived at White Pass at 11 a.m. and left there at noon to free you. At 2:57 p.m. the report says you were unstuck and would follow the Cat down hill and call from Glacier.
GORDON: We didn’t ever come back to Glacier, not then. We went to White Pass and got situated to go to Bennett. Rotary No. 1 tried to return to Glacier.
The report notes that a diesel Engine 90 tried to follow the Cat down the track but got stuck in snow eight car lengths south of the water tank. The other rotary remained in Boundary Shed near White Pass with the other diesel Engine 92. The Cat had to come back and “clear a trail” so equipment could take on water and fuel. There were also taps into the old fuel pipeline that ran alongside the railway. By 10:36 p.m., Gordon and the crew of Rotary No. 2 were “out of White Pass going north.” But they would end up coming back to White Pass a few hours later.
ALASKAN: Here’s where the weather really changes, going into Day 4. “Eight inches of wet heavy snow fell on Skagway during the night and turned into a freezing rain at about 7:30 a.m.”
GORDON: It says we had returned to Boundary Shed with Caboose 907. That was us. It had snowed two or three inches since 10:30 p.m…. The next morning we were heading towards Bennett. It says we went to Fraser and then headed back to White Pass, but I don’t remember heading back to White Pass. We took water at Fraser and went on to Log Cabin, and that’s where we were digging in the snow there for the pipeline in order to take fuel on.
Meanwhile the section crew at Glacier reported several slides down up the line above the station, from small sluffs to two that were 50 feet long and 12 feet deep, and a really big one at Box Canyon that was 16 feet deep and 150 to 200 feet long. The tracks were starting to ice up and the other rotary had derailed. After it was freed, it was then hit by a small sluff at the north end of 18-A Bridge and was “on the ground” again. A train that had left Whitehorse also had problems when its engines got stuck in snow at Bennett. By the end of Day 4, it had warmed up to 40 degrees F in Skagway. The report says the Rotary No. 2 crew actually finally left White Pass for Bennett at 8:15 p.m. on Day 5. It derailed at Fraser, but got back on the track and arrived at Log Cabin at 2:40 a.m. on Day 6. When they were heading along the lakes in those early morning hours they could see a lot of flame coming out of the fire box.
The rotary was giving us trouble, so at Log Cabin we needed to take on fuel and we knew there was a valve there in the pipeline, somewhere south of the switch, that we could get fuel out of from about a three-quarter inch line. There’s 11 guys out there. Ten guys on the rotary and a section hand digging in the snow, and we finally found it. And then we didn’t have a fitting, and it says here we took apart the cabin to get one off the sink in there. We got our oil at Log Cabin and went down to Bennett. We derailed on the back track and got her back on, took on water, and we went to bed at 7:15 a.m.
ALASKAN: Had you slept at all before then, this was Day 6?
GORDON: Hit and miss, whenever you could grab a few zzz’s you took it. Now everyone smoked back in that time, and we ran out of cigarettes, and this was before we got to Log Cabin. When we got to Log Cabin, Red Bain was on the section there, and he smoked roll-your-own, and he had an extra can and papers and he gave it to us. Now he could drive a motorcar and roll a cigarette and make it perfect. The fellows out there that I worked with, you should have seen us. I smoked at that time too. Some of the cigarettes we rolled were hilarious, but we had tobacco.
ALASKAN: Were you tired of hardtack and Spam at this point?
GORDON: Well, when we went back to White Pass that one time, we got resupplied and made it to Log Cabin and I’m sure we got stuff there. They had regular stations. When Train No. 2 come out of Whitehorse we were in Bennett, and they brought down Canadian cigarettes and tooth brushes and things we didn’t have. I tell you what, to have that tooth brush and tooth paste, that was a God-send. Anyway, after we rested, later that day we left for Skagway (about 3 p.m.). We came south. We had picked up Jack Hoyt (railroad president whose office was in Whitehorse) at Bennett. Our southbound trip was usual, stopped at White Pass to get fuel and everything.
The rotary, pushed by two steam engines, plows snow along Fraser Lake.
According to the transcript, they actually had to wait almost a day for the Cats to clear the slide at Box Canyon and for the other rotary to be rerailed.
Well, when we left White Pass, we derailed the rotary and the first pusher at the north end of the steel bridge. I don’t care what that other rotary did. This is what happened to us. We got back on, and then when we came down to Inspiration, we derailed the rotary and finally got back on the track with the rotary working quite a while. That’s when we saw the basketball team, which had gone up on the train the week before (to Whitehorse). When we were at Inspiration re-railing the Rotary, Alaska Coastal Airlines come down. We could hear the plane and they dropped down in the valley right across from us at Inspiration Point. They were flying the kids home to Skagway. It was weird to see that plane come whipping down through there. It was a Grumman Goose. Doug Hulk, who lives here, was one of the kids on that plane and remembers seeing us.
From Inspiration, the reason we kept derailing was the flange was full of ice because the Cat had been up the track and removed snow but had packed everything in. So Carl Hoover, brakeman, and myself got picks and we picked ice on the inside rail, I don’t know how long. And Jack Hoyt walked with us while we picked ice. You’ve got to give him credit because he had gout and had a tough time getting around…. It was miserable work, we were wet all the time. When we got to Glacier with the rotary, we were whooping and hollering and figured we had it made, had coffee and a sandwich, and then we took off from there and derailed at the switch!
It was 7:10 p.m. on Day 7 of their ordeal. By 8 p.m. they were back on the rails, but here, according to the report, there was so much ice on the rails that the Cats had to “walk” ahead of the fleet for the next three miles. After the first rotary finally reaching Clifton at 11:15 p.m. the other was released from Glacier, and both finally arrived home at the Shops in Skagway around midnight. The report finished with “12:20 a.m. All through operations are cancelled for Saturday, February 3, 1962. 12:30 a.m. THIS IS THE END.”
There were so many other things that went on. It was lack of sleep, working around the clock ... the best we could, just trying to get the railroad open. It was a miserable trip. But it was the most pay I’d ever been paid by White Pass. We were on continuous pay the whole time we were out there. They may not like that part, but it was the biggest check I’ve ever gotten from White Pass.
ALASKAN: You got back just after midnight on February 3, and they cancelled trains the next day. What did you do Saturday?
GORDON: You know, I don’t even remember. I know we went right back out on Sunday, went right back at it.
Gordon was in the middle of his White Pass career, which had begun when he was a youth stocking shelves in the old commissary, He then moved to the rail section crew at Glacier in the summer while he was going to school. After a stint in the service, he returned to work for White Pass, in baggage, and then was promoted to brakeman and finally conductor in 1962 when he was just 21-years-old. He worked the rotary fleet in the winter for about 10 years. After being involved in a couple of accidents, he felt his luck had possibly run out, so he went into the dispatch office in November 1966, and was later promoted to chief dispatcher, a position he held until his retirement in 1982. After this incident, the rotary fleet was phased out. One rotary was moved to a static display at Bennett, while the other was dumped along the river bank (a practice now stopped). Rotary No. 1 was brought back to Skagway from Bennett and was restored for a 1996 revival. Some parts were retrieved off No. 2, and its old light was even found in China. The rotary has been brought back a few times in spring for demonstration work, with Gordon and some of the old crew training current WP&YR train crews. When idle, the rotary sits downtown on a display track by Centennial Park.
ALASKAN: They’ve called you back for the rotary, for show, a few times.
GORDON: Yep, (1996, 2001, 2009, 2011). I was always the pilot and showed the young guys how to operate it. I had the honor of being the pilot on the last run of the rotary when they took it off (regular service). It was soon after this 1962 trip. That was quite an honor. Anyway, I broke in John McDermott the last time (2011), how to run the wheel and all that. He can do it and wrote up procedures for it, but basically the only way you learn is through experience. The last time, they were all wearing ear plugs, but I wouldn’t. I said “you have to listen to it,” and while we were coming down I heard something, and pulled the air. They all looked at me, and then Dave Sorrell (mechanic) went out there and found a broken rod. Another time, I pulled the air again, because I felt something in my feet, and we had derailed.
This last trip we made was the best trip we’ve made on the rotary. We were at the original consist (with two steam engine pushers) like in the old days.
Paul Cyr, middle, is joined by Alvin Gordon and Wayne Selmer, at Cyr’s induction into the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame in 2010. Jeff Brady
Changes and Events that Came After: Catskinner Paul Cyr
By Alice Cyr
The official reports ends with the words — THIS IS THE END. However, in many ways the events described mark the beginning of a new era with the introduction of a different way of snow removal on the White Pass. Up until that memorable winter of 1961-62, the one when sewers and water froze seven feet underground in Skagway, no bulldozers had been over the high bridges as it was considered too dangerous and simply not doable. When Maintenance of Way needed cats moved from one area to another and there was a major bridge in between, a work train and lowboy were summoned.
With the railroad solidly drifted shut between MP22 and MP 16, both rotaries stuck at the summit and the southbound passenger train with Skagway’s basketball team and supporters stalled at Log Cabin desperate times required desperate measures. Superintendent Marvin Taylor boldly dispatched the D-8 cat, positioned at MP 16.5 to make the run to the summit at MP 20. The report is a straightforward account of what happened but the full story of that long, devilish night is in the details.
Paul Cyr and flagman Lloyd Takak were stationed at Glacier MP 14, which in those days had a proper section house complete with a cook. The old D-8, Paul’s all-time favorite cat, was positioned at MP 16.5, close enough to Glacier Section to walk to and just before Box Canyon, the beginning of the worrisome slide zone on The Hill. The Old-8 had no cab on it and a cable located to the upper right of the operator’s seat operated the blade. (Paul’s right bicep was 2” larger than his left!) In winter the fan blades were reversed to blow heat from the motor back to the operator and the motor also provided a way to thaw their frozen sandwiches or warm their cans of Beanie Weenies.
When Cyr & Takak left MP 16.5 at 4:3 0a.m. on that chilly morning of January 29 with instructions to call from Inspiration Point the temperature was 12 below at White Pass and the winds estimated at 40 mph on The Hill. Drifts between 4 and 8 feet deep along covered both rails and it was necessary to clear them as they went as the cat kept getting high-centered. They did not reach Hannan Shed until 8:45 a.m. but from there on the rails were mostly clear and they were able to make better time. The Old 8 did possess a spotlight, however it was not working that night. When they got to 18A bridge, 150’ long and 215’ above Dead Horse Gulch below, dawn was barely breaking and visibility still poor so Takak rode on the blade and with a flashlight signaled for Cyr to go right or to go left as needed. Hungry and nearly frozen, having working exposed and in wind for nearly 8 hours, they clanked into White Pass at 11 a.m.
Paul Cyr always had great rapport with Marvin Taylor and to this day swears that when he came into White Pass that morning the Superintendent kissed him! With a hearty breakfast and a brief rest, the report dispassionately states the cat left White Pass section house at 12:01pm to head north and free Rotary No. 2.
In truth, nobody slept that night. The southbound train stopped at Log Cabin with its, now exhausted and finally quiet, basketball team plus rooters was ordered back to Bennett. The rotaries, held fast in the drifts, had to be fueled and, without water, their crews attempted to shovel snow into their boilers all night long. The cooks tried their best to keep the coffee and sandwiches flowing. And the superintendent and foremen, shouldering heavy responsibility, were no less weary than those who shouldered shovels and siphons.
The worst had happened and White Pass had overcome it and they did so because the Superintendent made a bold decision, and two men on an old cable-blade D-8 had dared to do what everyone thought to be impossible. The Cats could indeed run the high bridges. And since they could, and since the rotaries that had performed so well for 60-plus years were wearing out and constantly in the shops getting repairs, then maybe, just maybe, the railroad could be kept open with Cats entirely.
Good news for operations since three Cats, three catskinners with three flagmen could replace the two aging behemoth steam rotaries, each with a 10-man crew. Not such good news for the train and enginemen who counted on the long hours of winter overtime to give a welcome boost to their annual income. Eric Selmer joshed Cyr that he told his children that Paul Cyr was the boogieman! Understandably, in their eyes he was.
Cats had been stationed at Glacier, White Pass and Fraser sections to keep sidings clear. Rotaries only cut a swath in the snow drifts whereas cats could push the snow back away from the switches, clear the yards and allow free movement of trainmen to walk beside the train to check wheels, etc.
Cyr was never afraid of heights and running the high bridges was always a pleasure for him. It was against the rules for him to take his flagman on the cat with him on the bridges but he would not allow them to walk, particularly on 18-A which was so long and exposed to the high winds. He especially relished getting a new flagman and would stop on the approach at the narrow north end where the cat tracks hung over 18 inches on each side of the bridge. He would check all his zippers, make the sign of the cross and then put the Cat into high gear and take off at full speed.
Avalanche conditions on The Hill played a big part in the decision to use Cats entirely. Rotaries, propelled by their pusher engines would back up and slam into slides repeatedly to clear them. If the rotary rode up on a rock or slab of ice embedded in the slide they would likely become derailed and then sit helplessly in an active slide zone until the crew could get them righted again. With the Cats the main duty of the flagman was to stand back while the catskinner worked on a slide and watch the hill above so that the cat could be warned of a new slide coming down.
Slides were serious business. One spring a crew of section men were working at the end of the 15 -mile snow shed and Cyr was nearby with the cat. Suddenly he heard shouting and saw two section men running toward him screaming, “A slide! A slide has buried the motor car and Wayne Selmer is in it!” Cyr high-bladed back and indeed a slide 12’ deep was where only minutes before had been a motorcar. If Selmer was still inside the motorcar and Paul could find it, then there was a chance to get to him in time. He opted to try and began to tickle into the slide with the big cat and finally, ticked the corner.
Selmer tells of hearing the Cat and feeling with certainty that Paul would somehow get him out. His hard hat had fallen over his face, allowing him a small supply of air, and the engine of motor had stopped for lack of air. Pitch black under the snow, he could hear the crunch of his companions on the snow 12 feet over his head and the cat coming ever closer. As the Cat began to carefully work into the slide, the snow began to push into the motor car and crowded his neck until Selmer was sure the next push would break his head right off! All the shovels were still in the motorcar and, with whoops and hollers, the three began to dig with their hands and hard hats.
Freed at last. Cyr cradled Selmer in his arms and asked if he thought he could ride with him on the cat down to Glacier section. They’d already called Skagway and a light engine was on the way. Paul stayed and finished clearing the hill for the southbound train on its way When he got home his wife tells of him sitting on the foot of the bed rocking back and forth and repeating over and over again. “I could have killed him, I could have killed him.” Only then did Paul allow himself to think of how the decision he’d made could have gone horribly wrong if Wayne had been out of the motorcar when the slide hit. The two men have a strong bond; Paul would do anything for Wayne and vice versa. When Cyr was selected as Yukon Transportation Pioneer of the year in 2010, Wayne was there to speak for him.
For all his skill and bravado Cyr didn’t get off scott-free with the bridges. He and Grant Lawson were going across 14-A bridge in a whiteout and went over the side. The wing on the Cat caught as they went over them and flipped them 360 degrees, landing them on the tracks in the frozen river below. Fortunately, it was one of the new Cats that had a cab as well as a heater and radio, things unheard of in his favorite Old-8. In the small cab and with their winter clothes on they did not get bounced around and emerged unscathed. Lawson reached for a cigarette but was shaking so he couldn’t get it lighted. Cyr never smoked, hated cigarette smoke and refused to allow anyone to smoke in his cat, yet he grabbed the cigarette, lighted it and handed it back to Lawson. “What are we going to do?” Lawson asked. “We’re going to climb out of here and radio White Pass to get the other Cat ready and then we’ve got to clear the hill so the northbound train can leave Skagway.”
Just another day in paradise! The snow was so deep that there was no injury at all to the two men and very little to the Cat; the exhaust needed fixing and the wing was damaged. When the cat came out of the shops Jim Boynton had cleverly welded a child’s training wheels to the side of the Cat!
After raising her children in Skagway, Alice Cyr went back to school and earned a double bachelor’s degree in history and anthropology from Western Washington University. She was a park ranger in Skagway for many years and then was a guest lecturer on cruise ships. Alice and Paul now enjoy a quieter life on the lake in Tagish, Yukon.
For a copy of this year's 32-page print edition, complete with a list of attractions and information on Skagway-Dyea, Klondike Gold Rush NHP, the Chilkoot Trail and other trails, and the best and most current map of downtown, call 907-983-2354 with a credit card number for a postpaid edition (cost will vary from $2 to US & Canada cities, more to elsewhere). Or just come visit us. The Alaskan is distributed FREE throughout Skagway, SE Alaska and the Yukon Territory and passed out every summer morning to cruise ship passengers.