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Carcross to Bennett on the WP&YR "Washout Special"

by Murray Lundberg

    On May 13, 2009, the White Pass & Yukon Route announced that the seasonal rail service from Skagway to Carcross which was scheduled to begin on May 22 had been suspended due to a major washout of the rail line 4 miles south of Bennett. Although only a small percentage of the 437,660 passengers who experienced the WP&YR in 2008 went all the way to Carcross, it's a growing market and Holland America uses the Carcross train to bring their Yukon/Alaska cruisetour passengers up from Skagway en route to Whitehorse, so repairing the damage is a high priority.

    On May 26, 2 passenger cars were trucked from Skagway to Carcross and the "Washout Special" was initiated using locomotive 95, which had been used to haul work trains south from Carcross for the past few years. When I went down to Skagway on June 3rd I got "train fever" and bought tickets on the Washout Special for Cathy and I to celebrate the incredible weather we've been having in recent weeks. For $126 US total, we got an incredible day!

Downtown Carcross is unfortunately a major construction zone, with rebuilds being done on both the rail line and the Caribou Hotel. While necessary, it's certainly not a very pleasant atmosphere to bring visitors into.

At 11:00 we headed south from Carcross. What a day! I'm going to start the trip commentary out by saying that every Yukoner should take this trip. It's so easy to take what we have for granted - even when you think you do appreciate this country, seeing it from a tourist's perspective will re-open your eyes or at least open them wider.

There are two narrators on the train, Carcross-born Ken Jones and long-time Yukon radio announcer Peter Carr. There's no canned commentary here, just real history and stories from the people who lived it - that's getting to be less and less common on Alaska cruise shore excursions, and Ken and Peter are a big selling point for these trips (in my opinion). Here, Ken shows passengers a photo to illustrate one of this stories.

At low water, it's possible to walk from the rail line to the largest of the Boundary Islands at the Yukon/BC border, where there are 2 graves of men who fell through the ice while trekking to the Klondike gold fields in 1898. While in theory the railway could let passengers off to see them, getting them all back on board in a reasonable amount of time would no doubt be a major challenge!

At noon we reached the Pennington section house at Mile 51.6. Whenever I see this building I think that it should be turned into an upper-end B&B - what a location!

I have a mile-by-mile photo-guide to the Carcross-Bennett section of the rail line posted here, with photos I've taken over the past 12 years (1997 was the first time I walked the route, then I did it again the next year going home from a Chilkoot Trail hike).

Looking back down Lake Bennett at about Mile 49.

Southbound at Pavey, Mile 46.4.

Peter Carr chats with a passenger, enjoying the view and breeze outside. The platforms at the end of each car were very popular places to be.

Looking south at about Mile 44.

We pulled into Bennett (Mile 40) at 12:45. Lunch at the Bennett station is very similar to what has been served to travellers there for the past century - beef stew, home-baked bread and apple pie for dessert. The "Eating House" part of the station opened in 1903 after all the restaurants in Bennett had closed as people moved on.

After lunch, Ken guided anyone who was interested up the Chilkoot Trail to the small Bennett cemetery. Parks Canada has put logs around the known locations of graves but few markers remain.

The headboard of Michael Bernard McKanna of Douglas Island, Alaska, is the best-preserved of the original ones. He died here in June of 1899, meaning that he either arrived very late or was already on his way back home.

The view down Lake Bennett on the way back to the station.

The Chilkoot Trail.

St. Andrews church, the only original building remaining at Bennett. It has been pretty much hidden by trees but the forest has being dramatically thinned this year and sprinklers have been set up around and on the building. With the hot, dry weather we've been having for weeks, the danger of a forest fire is very real.

On this day 111 years ago, the view would have been much the same but there would have been many boats of all types on the lake and hundreds of people working to get their boats finished or into the water. In the weeks following the breakup of the ice on the lake on May 28, 1898, over 7,000 boats were launched! There may have been a sternwheeler or two tied up to this dock, as several were making the run between Bennett and Canyon City, at the upper end of Miles Canyon at Whitehorse.

By 2:30 people were gathering back at the station for the return to Carcross.

Clearances are very tight at many locations - this is precisely why the railroad was built as a narrow gauge, to keep construction costs down.

In this photo you can see a little jog in the rail line. In recent years there's been some rockslides here and this jog was necessary to move the line back into the cliff. The cliff drops sheer into the lake to a great depth so building a new shelf for the tracks by filling never worked.

Since Cathy and I bought a house in Whitehorse we've been unable to figure out where our Carcross cabin (seen in this photo) fits into our lives. When we travel, we sometimes find a community that brings forth "I could live here" from one or both of us. Yesterday, we both said that about Carcross. While it does have some issues as a permanent home (though I lived there for 7 years when I was single), we do love that property.

[ We sold the property in 2013, though, and the cabin was demolished ]