April First Historical Review

White Pass & Yukon Route

Last Updated April 1st

Internal combustion switcher winter trials

WP&YR was an early experimenter in the use of internal combustion locomotives.. These trials were conducted in Whitehorse during the winter in order to provide data for severe cold weather service. Some photos of these early switcher trials have recently been discovered and are presented below.

Switcher pulling baggage car

Tractive effort contest between the switcher and engine #71.


Internal combustion locomotive and train winter trials

The success of this winter experiment led to trials on a large scale, which also involved a replacement of the track and roadbed with frozen water. However, this was successful only in the winter. In the summer, the rolling stock tended to operate on the bottom of the water instead of the top, drastically increasing the tractive effort needed to move the train. Another difficulty in the summer was keeping the water in place on the railroad's many grades. Shown below is a photo of the successful winter portion of this trial. The WP&Y decided to keep the traditional steel rails on wooden ties, due to better year-round service.

New diesel locomotive proves popular with railfans

The success of the diesel mentioned in the trials above led to the purchase of several GE diesels. Contrary to common railfan reaction to diesels in the lower 48 states, northern railfans were fascinated with the new engines. All seats on fan trips were sold, but a large number of fans desired cab rides and were determined to experience the new locomotives first-hand. Shown in the photo below was the most popular accomodation for the railfans denied a cab ride.

Experimental ditcher modification for locomotives

With the loss of the railroad's spreader in a fatal accident, there was no convenient method of cleaning trackside ditches. The railroad's Master Mechanic and well-known coupler inventor, Lincoln Penn, developed a conversion to use the pilots of the 70 class locomotives for trackside ditching. This involved replacing the drivers on the right side of the locomotive with smaller drivers from the retired Duchess locomotive. The locomotive would lean to the right and clean out ditches with the plow while moving foreward. This was satisfactory except when the wind was strong from the left side or the track was banked to the right. Under those conditions the smaller drivers on the right side allowed the engine to lean too far right, causing it to fall over. After several trials, the modification was considered a failure and was discontinued, with the small drivers being returned to the Duchess.

Below is a series of photos of the trials.

Successful testing in Whitehorse with #71

#70, cleaning ditches near mile 82, is overturned by a strong gust from the left.

#70 on its side proving the modification doesn't work well on sharp right-hand curves.

The only remaining physical evidence of this experiment can be seen in Carcross. To this day, the drivers returned to the Duchess have not all been reconnected to the side rods.

Carcross-Whitehorse High Speed Commuter Train Service

Recent research in the Yukon was uncovered the story of one of the world's first high speed commuter train projects.

The Yukon government proposed high speed commuter train service between Carcross and Whitehorse as a way to provide more jobs for Carcross residents and reduce the labor shortage in Whitehorse. With a grant from the government, the White Pass experimented with rocket boosters on the GE 90 class locomotives, pulling passenger trains. The goal was Carcross to Whitehorse in 20 minutes.

To make a long story short, the project failed for two main reasons; mechanical and financial.

The steel passenger cars with streamlined roofs seriously overheated in the rocket exhaust, even with the insulating reddish-brown paint applied to the roofs. Noise required the passengers to wear hearing protection. Unhappy passengers refused to ride behind the rockets.

A financial estimate of the cost of track re-alignment and developing new, sound and heat insulated passenger cars found that it would be less expensive to buy the entire village of Carcross, move it to McRae, and buy every adult resident a new car. This plan was dropped after resistance from the residents of Carcross, who didn't want to move.

The New York Central Railroad heard of this project and initiated their own high speed test program. Their improvement was to use self-propelled cars (no following coaches to overheat) and cooler running jet engines.

Remains of the project can still be seen around Skagway.

90 class GE locomotive with silver rocket motor mounting clamp on top.

Three rusty old rocket casings behind the shop.

Passenger cars with streamlined roof and with roof paint still soot-stained from the rocket exhaust.

New York Central high speed test.

Note the modified front end copied from WP&Y 90 class GE locomotives.

Many Turning Tracks

Railfans and tourists have always wondered about the many turning tracks on the WP&Y. There was a turntable, a wye, then a loop in Skagway. Fraser had a wye, then a loop. Bennett had a wye that was converted to a loop, and now has both. Carcross had either one or two wyes at various times. Whitehorse had a wye, then a loop. There were proposals to build a wye or a loop at Glacier.

The reason for all these turning facilities was due to the extensive use of rotary snowplows in the winter. The rotary plow has a huge fan in the front that blows snow off the track. Since rotary plows are quite rare in modern times, people are unaware of an unfortunate characteristic of rotary plows.

When rotary plows are pulled in reverse, the fan blade running backwards will suck in any loose snow nearby and refill the snow cut previously made, thereby preventing use of the tracks. Rotary plows must always go forward when being moved in snowy conditions. The many turning tracks were built so the rotary plows could always be turned and moved with the fan forward.

Rotary plow fan blade shown up close.

Rotary plow being pulled backwards, toward the right, sucking in loose snow and filling the cut.

Dual Dual Gauges

The White Pass is famous for having several sections of dual gauge track. The first and most obvious example is on the cruise ship docks. There is 800 feet of standard gauge/narrow gauge track imbedded in the concrete. This is the result of "habitual thinking" by newly hired track foreman, Tooloos Letrac, who had previously worked only on standard gauge railroads. During dock construction, track crews under his supervision laid 800 feet of standard gauge track before the discrepancy was noticed. Officials determined that it would be less expensive to add a third rail for narrow gauge than to remove the standard gauge track and relay narrow gauge track. An unexpected benefit is that when the Freedom Train makes the next tour carrying historical exhibits around the United States it can be on display at Skagway.

Dual gauge track on the docks. Northeast end.

View of dual gauge track. Looking southwest

Dual gauge track bumper on the southwest end of the track.

Standard gauge steel ties near the shop, left over from the dock construction.

The second example, as has been stated in a recent book by a noted WP&Y historian, is that the White Pass took advantage of a unique characteristic of 3 foot gauge narrow gauge track. Three foot gauge track is the only narrow gauge that can be narrowed to 36 inches where clearances are tight, to avoid costly cuts and fills. This has saved the White Pass considerable expense it would otherwise have incurred during construction and maintenance.

Photo of the rails gradually getting closer together as they approach a restricted clearance area at the north end of Clifton.

The Golden Spike

Famous photo showing the crowd
gathered around the Golden Spike ceremony.
What is not shown in any of the official photos
is the object of their attention.  They are not
there to see someone drive a spike.
Newly discovered photo taken the next day
 showing the trackwork everyone from miles around
wanted to see before it was changed.

This page will be updated whenever more examples are discovered, but it will always be April First here.

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