Dredging up mining history is attraction’s theme

Story and photos by JEFF BRADY

When 85-year old miner Jimmy Lynch went out to his cabin on the Sixty Mile River in the Yukon last summer, an old friend was still there, but there were rumblings that she might be moving on to a new life.
Since last fall, the old Sixtymile dredge, now the centerpiece of Klondike Gold Dredge Tours, has been torn down piece-by-piece, trucked 600 miles, and reassembled in Skagway. It is now open for business.
Lynch spent five years working on and around the dredge in the early 1950s, about 10 years after it was shipped north through Skagway on the WP&YR and downriver on steamships to Dawson.

“I worked on the lower deck for a year and looked after the engines,” Lynch said. “But I spent a lot of hours on that thing. It was just as noisy.”
Lynch stood by the monitor, best described as a bulldozer with a long water spout. He said that he spent four years on the machine, spraying earth down to bedrock, so the dredge could come along and clean up after him.
According to a film shown during the tour, Lynch liked to work by himself, but the monitor and the dredge were quite the team and made more than $250,000 in one summer.
Lynch, who winters at the MacDonald Lodge retirement home in Dawson, still spends a lot of time at his cabin, but he doesn’t mine anymore.
“I can’t mine with a stick,” he said. “My balance is no good.”

Lynch was able to make it up to the top of the dredge and stand by the controls. It was an emotional moment for Tom Hall, the man who spearheaded the dredge project.
“To me it was important to get these old guys here for this,” Hall said. “People got the bug because they felt it was really history.”
Hall is like a kid describing the past year since he made a call on April 6, 1999 to Ron Holloway saying he was ready to come up and get the dredge from Holloway’s property.
The two had dreamed before about taking the dredge to Haines Junction for a tourist attraction on the Alaska Highway, but it didn’t seem practical. Then Hall, a Haines fuel distributor, had the idea of taking it to Skagway.
Hall put together a proposal and started taking it around to potential investors. One of them was Dave Hunz, who owns a strip of land along the Skagway River with easy highway access.
Hunz was in, but most people whom Hall called on told him, “If you get that thing to Skagway give us a call.”
Hall set about to move the dredge last fall, and it wasn’t until friend Bob Stickler of Haines came aboard that he had the funds to truck it to Skagway. Stickler, a welder, also committed his sons to the project.
They watched a Canadian crew disassemble the dredge last September. “People said it was too late, but we had 23 days of sunny weather,” Hall said.
Lynch said the dredge was remarkably well-preserved because it had been moved into a sheltered valley after it shut down in 1958.
There was snow on the pass when the five B-trains came down the highway last fall, and the dredge parts were dumped on Hunz’s property.
“We had no permits and 300 tons of steel in his (Hunz’s) yard, but I had enough faith it would happen,” Hall said.
The city and state fire marshal’s office were cooperative and he got the go-ahead. He also lucked out on the weather. Stickler’s welding crew was able to get the steel super-structure together by mid-December, and the mild winter allowed Hunz’s construction workers to get an early start on the building.
Starting up any business is a gamble, Hall acknowledges, but the dredge should be a big enough product to draw people to it, with some marketing.
He sits on a bench along side the Skagway River and looks east. “You see over there?” he says pointing to a stretch of the rail line between the shops and the Gold Rush Cemetery. “We feature the train in our movie. 300,000 people go by there. People are going to ask.”
Other strategies include running a shuttle from downtown to the dredge, marketing the product with “fam” tours to cruise agents, and advertising for independent travelers.
“On May 1, a guy heard about us and walked up here,” Hall said. “That was very encouraging. We weren’t quite ready yet, but I gave him a free tour.”
Hunz, who has a long-term agreement with the dredge company, also is impressed how the project came together so fast.
“I’m thrilled,” Hunz said, while showing some friends through the dredge’s inner workings. “It’s a piece of history that has been preserved and brought back to a place where people can see it.”
Hunz stepped out on the deck overlooking the river nearby, which can rise in the fall. Flood control is the next project, he added. “But, you know, it (the dredge) floats.”

Railroad Board cuts retirement coverage; Backtracks on effective date

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad employees were blind-sided in late March when the Railroad Retirement Board decided employees were no longer eligible for retirements or unemployment benefits after 1988, when it ceased to haul ore shipments from Canada to the Skagway ore terminal.
“What it effectively did was disrupt retirement pay for all employees who work for the railroad,” said John Mielke, chief mechanical officer for White Pass. “It really is an emotional issue, especially for guys who have a lot of years in and are planning for retirement.”
Last week, employees got some good news, though. The RRB jumped the coverage to March 2000, possibly because the unions and the company asked the Alaska Delegation composed of Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young to intervene on their behalf. Employees and company officials also called the board to register their displeasure.
But Mielke said the original decision is unfair.
“To me that’s not right, we didn’t have a chance to be involved,” he said. “In America, you have the chance to be involved and be notified. It was effective in March, but we weren’t notified until April 27.”
WP&YR President Fred McCorriston said approximately 80-90 employees are affected by the ruling.
Employees may not be the only ones taking a financial hit, as Mielke predicted a ripple effect on the community.
“That means individuals in the shops or on train service may have to worry about having a railroad connection, and may have to go elsewhere to find a railroad job where they can pay into the system,” he said.
As for the operation of the railroad, Mielke pointed out that railroad jobs are so specialized and take so many years to master that they’re not something that can be done seasonally by college students.
“Together these guys have hundreds of years of railroad experience,” Mielke said. “They have mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were railroad workers. It unravels the thread that has existed since the railroad was built.
“...This is only part of the battle, we need to get the decision reversed,” Mielke said.
Teamsters Union Local 959, United Transportation Union Local 1626 and WP&YR have lawyers looking into the matter. UTU hasn’t taken a position on the issue, said John McDermott, local representative for the UTU train and enginemen.
“From what I understand, we have two lawyers working on it,” said Mark Van Houten, shop steward for the Teamsters.
Van Houten, who has worked for White Pass for 12 years, only has eight years vested in the retirement program because of seasonal work.
He wouldn’t leave Skagway, and neither would McDermott, both saying home and family are here.
Unemployment benefits were also impacted by the ruling, Van Houten said.
“What bothers me is that with the unemployment portion of it, we’ll lose $200 going with the state on unemployment, plus we don’t get any sick benefits. White Pass has up to 30 days, when that runs out, then what? Before, we could go to railroad unemployment and collect sick pay from that,” he said.
Tim Sunday, business representative for the Teamsters, was in Skagway on Tuesday and said if the company doesn’t ask for an appeal, the union would take the case to federal court for a complete reversal of the decision.
The three-member board cited two main reasons for denying coverage:
• That the West Virginia corporation, Pacific and Arctic Railway and Navigation Co. (Pacific), was a rail carrier under the Railroad Retirement Act and the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act from 1898 until it merged into the Alaskan corporation, PARN Inc.
• PARN, which changed its name to Pacific and Arctic Navigation Co. on Dec. 20, 1979, became a rail carrier employer on that date and ceased to be one with the close of business on April 30, 1988, just before it began its first season as an operator of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad excursion service.
The rail transportation policy also states that the Surface Transportation Board’s (formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission) purpose is to ensure fair competition in the conduct of interstate railroad commerce by the railroad industry. The board’s opinion is that White Pass is not involved in interstate railroad transportation, only tourism, with less than one percent of through tickets sold.
The RRB had not been notified since 1946 of the changes in the corporation, and reports and compensation continued to be made using the number assigned to PARN.
And a recent coverage investigation conducted by the RRB revealed that PARN is now a subsidiary of Tri-White, a Canadian corporation.
It is not known what effect it would have on the decision if White Pass were to become an ore carrier again if the mines in the Yukon opened up again.

Student board member demands apology

J.R. Edwards, the student representative on the Skagway School Board, has asked for a public apology from fellow board member Veronica Bush. To date, he hasn’t received it.
In a letter that he read to the board on April 25, Edwards said that following his presentation of a student petition in February, Bush “stated in a public business and at the basketball games that night, that what I did was wrong. And that I should be expelled and not let into any school activities next year of any kind.”
The petition, signed by about 20 high school students, asked to be involved in the decision whether to rehire Richard Lee, and recommended a change in administration.
At the Feb. 29 meeting, Edwards was asked to step away from the table to present the petition.
“The petition was not my idea,” he said in the letter. “I felt that I clearly stated that during the Board meeting. The reason Mrs. Bush gave for expelling me was that I bullied students into signing the petition. I did not bully anyone, in fact I never told anyone to sign it and even suggested that students think about it beforehand.”
Edwards said he tried to bring up the issue at the March meeting when Lee was rehired by a 3-2 vote, but said he was “point of ordered.”
“I am requesting a public apology at the April 25 Board meeting from Mrs. Bush. And an explanation of why she made the topic of conversation at this local business and then again at the basketball games,” the letter continued. “As the student representative to the School Board, and a concerned student of S.H.S., I deserve this much.”
Bush did not address the issue April 25, either following the reading of the letter or later in the meeting during board discussion.
When contacted right after the meeting, she said she’d get back to the media about it. When approached a week later, she said she had no comment “because it is not board business.”
Edwards was disappointed after not getting an apology at the meeting. He said his mother, Michelle Carlson, had actually heard from parents who heard Bush make the alleged statements.
One of them, Vicki Pickett, was willing to talk about what she heard from Bush at a basketball game.
“She (Bush) was just incensed that he (Edwards) spoke out,” Pickett said. She said that she asked Bush about rumors going around the school that day that Bush wanted Edwards expelled. “And then she (Bush) said that ‘they, as a board, could do that because he was out of line.’”
Carlson is one of the leaders of the recall effort against Bush and two other board members for voting for Lee’s rehire, but she stressed the incident with her son occurred before that effort began.
School Board President Bruce Weber did not want to comment on the dispute, saying it was “between two board members.”