I Rode a Ghost Train

I should start with a clarification: The White Pass and Yukon Road Railroad does not technically have a ghost train. Sure, some of the passenger cars looked pretty old, and the track was built way back at the end of the nineteenth century during the Klondike Gold Rush, and the fog was thick enough to cut with a butter knife had we thought to bring one, but the train I rode wasn’t actually haunted. Or so I hoped.

I boarded the train in Skagway, Alaska as part of a day trip over the border during a family trip to Whitehorse. Skagway, if you’ve never seen it, is a drop dead gorgeous tourist town. Mountains tower on either side of pastel false-front stores and wooden boardwalks. There’s a train depot and a coffee shop and a store filled with the most gaudy souvenirs you can find, half of which contain some form of the Bald Eagle (just in case you forgot Alaska was a part of the USA). Even in pouring rain, the place looks like the image off a postcard — which is good, since I heard Skagway gets maybe two days of sun per year.

Cruise ships like to stop at Skagway. There were three in the harbour when my family arrived, filling the town to the brim with eager sightseers. When I ignored the bright-coloured umbrellas and rain ponchos, it was easy to imagine the industry of Skagway back during the Gold Rush when hopeful would-be miners would gather at the town to prepare for their trek farther North into the Yukon.

Now imagine this: The border between Canada and the USA is nearly 3,000 ft above sea level at the top of the White Pass. Back before the railroad was built, Gold Rush stampeders weren’t allowed across the border without the required 1,000 pounds of supplies that would last them a year in the North, which meant as many as 10 to 20 week-long round trips up and down and up again.

And I’d thought it was bad enough packing for a week-long road trip! I’d thought a 24 hour drive over 3 days from Edmonton to Whitehorse was hard! At least I wasn’t climbing up and down a path about as wide as a train aisle with immovable mountain boulders on one side and a sheer drop off a cliff on the other.

Speaking of sheer drops, there isn’t any shoulder of land between the track and the cliff. No, the railroad was built in only 26 months at the end of the nineteenth century, and that meant there wasn’t the time nor the resources to cut a track closer into the mountain.

Riding in that spooky ghost train, staring out the window into a drop that ended in sheer fog and nothing else, I noticed quite suddenly that the passenger car leaned to the left. I’d been fine up until the point when it hit me that most passengers were crowded on the same side of the train with little regard to weight distribution. Minutes later, the remains of a decrepit bridge passed by, barely visible in the gloom.

“I feel like I’m on a ghost train,” said my sister, snuggling close to my side.

And I thought of all the thousands of men who had worked so hard to complete this marvel in engineering — some of whom had died from cold and exposure, others from falling mountain debris. I thought of the town said to have existed halfway up the mountain where only trees dwell now. I thought of the little graveyard at the start of our journey where two bandits lay buried after dying in a shoot-out. I thought of a century’s worth of history viewed through the swirling white fog, and shivered a little in agreement, and held my sister’s hand all the way back down the mountain.

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