Alaska to the Yukon, Canada train: White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is an engineering marvel

Soapy Smith was a very bad man. He came to Skagway, Alaska, at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, as prospectors swamped the port on their way to the goldfields in Canada.

These Yukon-bound newbies were ripe for rip-offs by Soapy, a consummate con-man whose gang fleeced the unwary via gambling dens and fraudulent businesses. Smith was riding high – until he was gunned down at the docks in a shootout with vigilantes.

It seems fitting I'm passing Smith's gravesite in the atmospheric Gold Rush Cemetery as I leave Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. This narrow-gauge railway is also a legend of the gold rush, though one that's had a longer life.

It's also an extraordinary engineering achievement. From sea level the railway climbs almost 900 metres over a 30-kilometre route, twisting and turning as it negotiates slopes, bridges and tunnels.

The WP&YR closed in 1982, defeated by a new road and a mining slump, but reopened six years later for tourism. Nowadays it draws its riders from the cruise ship passengers who swarm the docks where Soapy met his end; along with hikers walking the popular Chilkoot Trail.

It's a comfortable way to ascend, within a vintage green-brown carriage with cushioned bench seating and polished timber tables.

The train rises quickly up the wooded slopes once we pass the cemetery. Way below to our left, the Skagway River churns through rapids, and above us are mountains wreathed in low cloud. Our slow-moving, gently rocking train seems like an intruder in this green wilderness.

At 330 metres altitude, Black Cross Rock underlines the difficulty of the railway's construction. Live commentary explains it's the resting place of two construction workers who died in 1898, when a blasting accident buried them beneath a huge granite boulder.

After passing the site of the former Heney Station, where freight was once transferred to packhorses, we head off at a right angle in order to loop back above the riverbed. Our conductor points out what appears to be a road way up on the opposite slope. When he mentions it's the next section of our railway, we gasp – it seems so high, and precarious.

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"Up here on the high-line section, you'll notice our train is running along a very narrow ledge," notes the understated commentary. Thanks, I noticed! Peering out, it seems as if we're teetering on the edge of oblivion as we haul up Tunnel Mountain, almost 700 metres above sea level.

Then we pass Dead Horse Gulch, whose name commemorates the many poorly-treated animals used by early prospectors to carry their goods. Some 3000 pack horses died along the trail, says our conductor, quoting author Jack London on their fate.

At 800 metres altitude we pass another engineering marvel, a 1901 cantilever bridge that was once the tallest in the world. We also sight remnants of the Trail of '98, a narrow, unforgiving path along which the prospectors hiked.

As we approach the US-Canada border, the landscape changes to a sub-alpine zone of exposed grey stone and smaller trees. This stark terrain was known to the prospectors as the Tormented Valley, a harsh place to cross in winter.

Finally we reach White Pass Summit, at 879 metres the highest point on our journey. Flags and an obelisk mark the transition from Alaska to Canada, as do uniformed agents who board the train to glance sternly at our passports.

We're not in Yukon yet, but crossing a corner of British Columbia. The highlight here is a 45-minute stop at Bennett, once a busy lake port. Now it's been reclaimed by the forest, other than the train station and a lone church hidden among the trees.

Having picked up hikers, looking the worse for wear compared to we leisurely rail travellers, the train departs. A final scenic lakeside run ends as we cross a century-old swing bridge into Carcross.

The town upholds Yukon's frontier reputation, being an interesting jumble of weathered old shops, log cabins, and the remains of a historic sternwheeler boat.

Now all I have to do is wait for a bus transfer to Whitehorse, the train's original terminus. Yukon ho! Though I might be too late for the gold.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

wpyr.com and skagway.com

FLY

Air Canada flies via Vancouver to Whitehorse, from where passengers are bused to Carcross to meet the train to Skagway. See aircanada.com

Alternatively, Skagway can be reached via the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. See ferryalaska.com

STAY

Westmark Skagway, westmarkhotels.com Easy walk to sights and the train station. From $US160 per night.

Coast High Country Inn, coasthotels.com Comfortable accommodation in central Whitehorse. From $C170 per night.

TOUR

Trains run between Skagway and Carcross from late May to early September. One-way fare $US169, with bus connections and shorter excursions available. Book via wpyr.com

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway System, Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Destination Canada (destinationcanada.com)

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