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Carl Mulvihill, Interview 1
Carl Mulvihill was interviewed in July 2003 by Mark Cosson in Skagway, Alaska for the KUAC-TV Documentary "Klondike and Alaska: A Rail History." In this interview, he talks about the history of the Whitepass and Yukon Route Railroad between Skagway, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. He also discusses who built the railroad and why, hardships and obstacles during construction, survival of the railroad and impact of World War II, use of the rotary to clear snow from the tracks, the company’s pioneering development of containerization for shipping, and the transition from a freight line to a tourist train.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History AAF 10210-10211

Project: Railroads of Alaska
Date of Interview: Jul 15, 2003
Narrator(s): Carl Mulvihill
Interviewer(s): Mark Cosson
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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The history of the White Pass and Yukon Railway

Building a railroad through challenging terrain

Starting out as a transportation company and maintenance work

Activity on the railroad during World War II and after the war

The steam engines used on the railroad and the difficult 1980s

A revival of the train for tourists and his family's history with the White Pass and Yukon railroad

The major task of snow removal on the railroad

The idea of containerized cargo and the impact of the Klondike Highway

Buying back their diesel locomotives and passenger numbers

Legacy of the White Pass and Yukon Railway

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


MARK COSSON: Carl, would you consider yourself a rail historian, specifically a White Pass rail historian or what would you consider yourself?

CARL MULVIHILL: I’ve been so called, yes.

MARK COSSON: Carl, what -- give me a little rundown of what led up to the initial idea of building a railway to the Klondike?

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay, during the famous Gold Rush of 1897-98 there was a tremendous amount of people trying to funnel through the White Pass and the adjoining Chilkoot Pass. They all had to carry their own freight and food stuffs and enough materials to last them for a full year. The Mounties would require them to carry one ton of supplies with them to the Klondike. We’re going through a tunnel now. It’s black. Okay, with the thousands of people trying to get over to the Klondike obviously there had to be a more efficient way of transporting their supplies,

freight, and other goods. The various schemes that were involved. Chilkoot Pass had three aerial tramways. This pass, which is lower, there were tramways considered. It was -- a wagon road was started to be built out of Skagway and eventually the railroad was built. It began in May of 1898. It was completed to the summit in February 1899 and on to Mile 40, which is Bennett on Lake Bennett in June 1899.

MARK COSSON: Carl, who -- who came up with the idea to build this railway?

CARL MULVIHILL: There’s many people thinking about the railway, but the biggest problem was getting the finance behind it to do all the work. Eventually the Close brothers of London, England became the financiers who built the railroad.

MARK COSSON: Now what -- who was Michael Heney?

CARL MULVIHILL: The principal people involved in the railroad were Samuel Graves, who was the President of Close Brothers North American operations. D.C. Hawkins, who became the chief engineer for the railway and he was ably assisted by Michael Hilsop. Mike Heney was initially the foreman in charge of the workforce of the first section of the railway between Skagway and the summit. Eventually he became the prime contractor for the next two sections to Whitehorse.

MARK COSSON: Carl, tell me what kind of obstacles. This must have been an enormous undertaking. What were the obstacles involved in building the White Pass?

CARL MULVIHILL: Well initially the biggest obstacle was getting all the people and supplies and equipment to Skagway. They had to come over a thousand miles by ocean from Seattle. Once they got here and trying to go over the rugged White Pass was a major obstacle. They had to do a tremendous amount of blasting in order to create a shelf on the high cliffs to support the railway.

MARK COSSON: Well, explain to me a little bit, a little more detail if you would about -- about them. These guys didn’t have gloves -- they had star drills and sledgehammers and black powder pretty much wasn’t it?

CARL MULVIHILL: This is quite true. All the drilling had to be done by hand. There was one person that would be holding the drill itself and another person would have a sledgehammer to tap it. Make one hit, insert the drill, and make another hit. Eventually you had to drill through several feet of very hard granite before you could put your charge in. And they had to do this over the entire rock face, just a few feet apart all the way through. This took a tremendous amount of time, energy, and in some cases the people had to be hung from the top of the cliff by ropes. So it was a good job for.

MARK COSSON: Tell me about some of the bridgework they had to work on.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay bridging was always a problem cause you could only bring your materials up from one side. You couldn’t work too much on two sides at once. You had to start on one side and work your way across. All of the early bridges were all built out of wood trestle and then eventually after the first year the railway replaced many of these with steel bridges, which were far more permanent. Probably the biggest bridge they replaced was the steel cantilever bridge at Mile 18. This was over 215 feet high and at the time it was built was the most northerly cantilever bridge in the world. This was built during the winter of 1900-1901.

MARK COSSON: And prior to that they had switchbacks.

CARL MULVIHILL: They had a wood trestle that went to the canyon and then switched back on the other side of the canyon. They’d head up the canyon as far as they could and then back across and once they got it back across they had to turn the engines around and put them on the other end of the train in order to continue their journey.

MARK COSSON: How long did it take for the White Pass Railway to be constructed first from tidewater to the summit and then to log cabin in Bennett?

CARL MULVIHILL: Basically they got to the White Pass Summit in February of ‘99 and continued on to the next major station at Bennett which is at Mile 40 and got there in June of ’99. Because there was so much rockwork at Lake Bennett they elected to move one portion of the construction crews by barge to Carcross. That continued from Carcross to Whitehorse, this became the second section. Meanwhile they had other crews who were blasting between Bennett and Carcross and finally they reached Carcross in July of 1900.

MARK COSSON: Now generally by the time the Klondike Gold Rush is pretty much over by the time the railroad got to at least to Whitehorse.

CARL MULVIHILL: The Gold Rush was winding down, yes and most of the people who were the prospective prospectors didn’t realize at the time but they were just tourists because they got to the gold fields too late to stake any ground and all the better ground had all been staked the year prior -- 1896 and ’97 long before the people of ’98 and ’99 got up that way.

MARK COSSON: So why did the railroad even continue from there? I mean what kind of business did they have?

CARL MULVIHILL: They had the freight business for everybody going into the Klondike. They had hoped to have lots of mineral business coming out and eventually this did happen.

MARK COSSON: Well, now the White Pass Yukon didn’t just -- didn’t just get into railways, what else were they into?

CARL MULVIHILL: White Pass Yukon was basically a transportation company. They started out strictly a railroad. They purchased some of these small companies operating, riverboats on the Yukon River, and eventually ran from Whitehorse down to the Bering Sea at St. Michael. They were also in the aviation business flying tri-motor Fords, Condors, a lot of the smaller bush planes from Skagway to Whitehorse and Whitehorse to Dawson

and they sold out in 1940 to a conglomerate that eventually became Canadian Pacific Airlines.

MARK COSSON: Now some of the first locomotives, not the first, but some of the first locomotives that White Pass had went to the Klondike Mines Railway.

CARL MULVIHILL: Some of the, two of the first, the early second-hand locomotives were sold to Klondike Mines Railway, as well as one of their first engines, as I recall -- a compound, a salvation type locomotive. These three locomotives are still in Dawson City on display.

MARK COSSON: Now once the White Pass was established, I mean had they planned on going beyond Whitehorse or was Whitehorse as far as they just wanted to go. Did they not want to push the rails to Dawson?

CARL MULVIHILL: Their initial end of construction was at a place called Fort Selkirk, about halfway between Whitehorse and Dawson. There the river navigation was real good, but they found that they could navigate the water between Fort Selkirk and Whitehorse by using a little smaller steamers and they did this up to 1954.

MARK COSSON: Do you want to take a break? Okay. The White Pass Railways it’s in place, it’s to Whitehorse, it’s hauling freight. Tell me about maintaining, how it just pretty much just -- where did it go from there once it went to Whitehorse?

CARL MULVIHILL: Once it got to Whitehorse they came back and began to make all the improvements that they couldn’t do on their haste make -- to build the railroad. They rebuilt all the bridges. They relocated the track to a better gradient. They established more permanent section houses. They put a lot more ballast on the tracks -- get rid of the just laid on dirt -- they had to use to initially build the railway. Then of course they continued that over the next 100 years. Each year trying to make the railway a better operation.

MARK COSSON: Up until World War II how did the White Pass Railway survive?

CARL MULVIHILL: During the depression it was pretty meager. The trains would leave Skagway. They’d go to Whitehorse and stay a week or so until they had enough freight to pay for the train to come back. This was during the 1930s. When World War II started this became quite a major effort in order to transport the immense amount of materials needed for building the Alaska Highway, the staging airfields for the Alsib route, the Canol pipeline to Norman Wells.

It was staggering and the White Pass had insufficient equipment to handle the -- all the tonnage.

MARK COSSON: I wonder if we could start up with World War II again?

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay when World War II began the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands. Alaska became quite an important part of the defense of North America and to enable the -- start over again, my stutter.

MARK COSSON: It’s all right. Go ahead, back up a little bit and start again.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. When the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands and Alaska became a very important part of the defense of North America. With the Japanese controlling the shipping, their submarines, they were sinking a lot of our ships in the Pacific so it was necessary to build an overland route to the interior of Alaska so they built the Alaska Highway. In addition they were also building staging airfields for the transfer of hundreds of bombers and fighters and transport planes to the Soviet Union. So Skagway became a very important focal point for the transportation of military personnel

and then their equipment for the construction of the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway was being built from three different points. North from out of Dawson Creek, British Columbia, southbound from the center of Alaska, Fairbanks and out of Whitehorse going north and south. So all of the materials came through Skagway for the center section. The White Pass was being plagued with lack of manpower because of the draft. They were drafting all of the White Pass employees to be in the Army.

In addition they didn’t have sufficient locomotives and powers to handle all the tonnages. They tried to get all the narrow gauge equipment, locomotives and freight cars from the Lower 48 but this was insufficient also. Eventually the U.S. Army came in and leased the White Pass and they were able to buy equipment just coming straight out of factories for communities, railways throughout the world and moved it up to White Pass to help haul the immense tonnages.

The highway was built in 1944 and the military pulled out and also took a lot of their equipment.

MARK COSSON: So after World War II, things settled down, what -- what happened with the White Pass after World War II?

CARL MULVIHILL: Well they had to rebuild again after all the trains were run from the war, had to rebuild -- a lot of the equipment was worn out. They purchased two more steam engines. They were able to purchase a lot of the military surplus equipment which was all built of steel. It could haul heavier tonnage than the old White Pass wooden cars. Gradually the mineral industry in the Yukon opened up and they’re shipping lead zinc concentrates, as well as copper, southbound.

MARK COSSON: So these are from the mines up.

CARL MULVIHILL: These are from Yukon mines, northbound tonnage has increased -- mining supplies going in. A lot of petroleum products for people using the highways, trucks, and cars using the Alaska Highway, so that’s a balance of fuel to transport over the railroad to Whitehorse.

MARK COSSON: So it became a viable.

CARL MULVIHILL: Each year tonnage has increased and eventually the White Pass was forced to go into diesels in 1954 because no more steam engines were being built.

MARK COSSON: Tell me a little bit about the steam engines, the 70 series.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay, the 70 series were designed for the White Pass by Baldwin. First one came up here in 1938, second ’39, then they bought two more in 1947. These were Mikado type locomotive, with a wheel arrangement of 2 pony wheels, eight drivers, and two trailer trucks.

MARK COSSON: Now the 70 series I think 71 was burned up in a roundhouse fire?

CARL MULVIHILL: No that was the 72, the roundhouse fire in 1969.

MARK COSSON: Tell me about 73.

CARL MULVIHILL: 73 was retired, all the steam engines were retired in about 1963, 1964 and 72, like we just mentioned, was burned up in a roundhouse fire in 1969. The 73 meanwhile has been moved as a permanent display at Bennett. In 1981, they decided to rebuild the 73 and run it again actively for the tour traffic.

MARK COSSON: That has been now, well I guess -- I guess White Pass would like to have back some of their old locomotives.

CARL MULVIHILL: We would like to have all of the locomotives back now in order to handle the increased tonnages, the traffic, more parlor cars, more coaches. A lot of people come -- cruise ships every day they travel the White Pass.

MARK COSSON:1982, tell me about that.

CARL MULVIHILL: 1982 was a disaster for the White Pass with all the mines in Yukon closed down because of the depressed world mineral market. So things were pretty quiet in Skagway. The only thing running at that time was the White Pass Pipeline pumping fuel oil to the Yukon. The mines opened up again in 1986. Unfortunately, they all came down by highway. White Pass began operation again for the trains in 1988 when it was decided there was enough cruise ship traffic to take care of the expenses of operating a railroad.

MARK COSSON: And since then it seems to be booming.

CARL MULVIHILL: Since then it has increased every year. They now have 61 coaches. These haul about 40 people and they are planning on ordering another eight coaches this winter.

MARK COSSON: Now the section between Carcross and Whitehorse has sat idle since 1982 and perhaps a couple of work trains across it. Explain to me that section between Whitehorse and Carcross why it’s mothballed right now.

CARL MULVIHILL: Well basically there is no reason to operate a train into Whitehorse. Most of the traffic begins between Skagway and the Summit -- 20 miles. The next popular point is Fraser where the trains meet the buses. The buses take people into Whitehorse, Dawson and the interior of Alaska. They are moving right now into Lake Bennett on a daily train from Fraser. This is beginning to build traffic. Eventually they plan to go to Carcross which is at Mile 67, if the traffic merits.

This all depends upon the tour companies. Probably at that point they’ll transfer people from the train to the buses and the buses to the train and then both means of -- go back to the point of origin. The scenery between Carcross and Whitehorse is rather boring compared to the spectacular scenery between Skagway and Fraser.

MARK COSSON: That’s fine. Carl tell me a little about yourself. Your family history with the White Pass.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. My grandfather came here in 1900 as a dispatcher for the railway. My father came here in 1901 as a one-year-old boy and he began working for the railroad about 1917. He worked or he retired in 1965. Growing up here in Skagway I began working on the railroad at age 16 on the section and all the various years, the next 17 years I’ve held different positions on the railroad from section to brakeman,

I was dispatcher, and eventually became chief dispatcher and chief clerk for the railroad.

MARK COSSON: How did your interest in the history of the White Pass - what made you so interested in being a historian of White Pass?

CARL MULVIHILL: This part kind of grew, I suppose. Going to college I used the White Pass as the source of any of my many term papers I had to write, and eventually I did write a history of the railroad as one of my requirements.

MARK COSSON: And been doing it ever since.

CARL MULVIHILL: And doing it ever since and I don’t know how to stop I guess. It becomes addictive.

MARK COSSON: Fighting -- fighting snow on the White Pass railroad, tell me a little about how they did it, you know it looks like they started with shovels, the rotaries, the bulldozers, I wonder if you could touch on that.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. Snow removal in the White Pass is a major operation every winter. Initially they didn’t have any snow fighting equipment. They didn’t know what to expect and in order to run trains they had several hundred people ahead of them with snow shovels, hand snow shovels, shoveling their way through drifts. The early pilots on the locomotives were very inadequate, just an open plows for moving cows, caribou across the track. So they filled these in to make a small snowplow out of it and after the first winter they decided to build themselves a wedge plow

which is quite effective in the plains of North America, but they soon found out that the wedge plow was not very effective on the mountain side because there is only one place the snow can go, down the canyon. Half of the snow would go on the uphill side of the canyon and just follow the train in. So the second winter they ordered a what we call a rotary snowplow. This is a large steam driven plow that has a 10-foot diameter wheel that would cut through the snow and toss it either left or right depending on where the canyon was and this was pushed by two steam locomotives.

The third winter they had an additional snowplow. They found out that one snowplow was insufficient. Sometimes the plow had to be shut down and repaired so they always had to have a backup in order to keep the trains running on a regular basis. This proved very effective up to about 1962 when they began to experiment with caterpillar tractors. One big advantage of the caterpillar tractor over the rotary was that when the rotary is going through very deep snow conditions they would have a very deep cut

and in 10 minutes during a winter snowstorm this cut would be completely filled in by snow. When the caterpillar tractors were working they pushed the snow away from the track and build up a snow fence quite a ways away from the track and thus have better control over the drifting.

MARK COSSON: Now, periodically they resurrect the rotary.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. One rotary snowplow was rebuilt and they began using it in the late 1990’s to open up the railroad. This was a very dramatic way of opening up the railroad and in many ways it was quicker and more efficient than the caterpillars. It was also very expensive to operate. Because you had to have a three-man crew on the rotary. You had to have a crew on each of the pusher engines, as well as the conductor and a brakeman so they could rotary snowplow.

They will probably operate it periodically in years to come, but not every year.

MARK COSSON: Tell me about the last time they operated the rotary two years ago.

CARL MULVIHILL: Two years ago was the first time since 1963 that they had two steam engines pushing the rotary. This was quite dramatic lots of steam, lots of smoke.

MARK COSSON: Actually let’s -- let's back that up, do you need some water? It is my understanding Carl that the White Pass was the first ones to initiate the concept of containerized cargo and container ships?

CARL MULVIHILL: White Pass was the first one to build the entire new system of integrated ship, train, and truck for containerized system. They built a brand new freighter especially designed for containers in 1955 and by 1965 they upgraded it with regard to the first ship and built a larger freighter tanker combination and all new containers so White Pass was a pioneer in the containerized business.

MARK COSSON: Now I see behind us the Klondike Highway. When was the Klondike Highway built and what impact did that have on White Pass?

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. The Klondike Highway was begun back in the 1960s and each election year they get another mile or so and eventually they got it completed in 1980 -- in 1978 I guess it was -- it was completed. And yet it had a very dramatic effect on White Pass whereas some of the freight can be hauled cheaper over the highway

which was maintained at public expense as compared with the railroad which was all privately owned. But it also contributed to the White Pass in many ways. A lot of rubber tire traffic would drive to Skagway and people could take the train as far of tourism.

MARK COSSON: For the longest time the only way in or out of Skagway to Whitehorse was just the train.

CARL MULVIHILL: Until the highway was build, yes. You got to fly Skagway going south or take the train going north. If you had to go to Whitehorse it was one day up and one day back. With the highway being built you can go to Whitehorse in about two and a half hours. So for local people it was quite a boom to have the highway built. Take a trip to Whitehorse, see the dentist, do some shopping, and get back all in one day. But of course the highway becomes a competitor for freight. So all the petroleum products, the gasoline and the jet fuels,

and the diesel all go by highway now. It’s just cheaper to operate.

MARK COSSON: After the shutdown in ’82, White Pass sent a lot of their diesel locomotives south, I wonder if you could explain about that and how they came back and why they came back?

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. After they opened up again in 1988 they didn’t need all of their locomotives at that time and some of the locomotives have been on the market since the railroad shut down in ’82 and eventually they sold some of their newer Alco locomotives to the Colombia Railway in South America. Unfortunately,

White Pass sold these things a little bit too soon without having a better feel of what the future was. As tourism increased on the White Pass they soon found themselves in need of more motor power and fortunately they were able to purchase back the locomotives from Colombia. Brought them back and rebuilt them and they are back in use now.

MARK COSSON: Typically explain to me about where the most passengers, if you would just talk about the cruise ships coming in -- they get off they get on -- that sort of thing.

CARL MULVIHILL: Okay. The cruise ships coming to Skagway get bigger each year. Now we’re having cruise ships carrying over 3,000 passengers per ship. Many days we will have as many as four large ships in port, plus the Alaska State Ferry and several smaller 100 to 150 passenger vessels in port. To accommodate this traffic White Pass runs three trains from Skagway to the Summit 20 miles from Skagway in the morning, three more in the afternoon, and often two more in the evenings.

In addition, there’s a train to Fraser where it connects with the highway in the morning and also in the afternoon. So on some days you can have in excess of 5,000 passengers traveling on the railroad.

MARK COSSON: I guess they also set off to Bennett for hikers

CARL MULVIHILL: They have an additional train that goes to Fraser to Bennett to pick up the people who go over the Chilkoot Pass. On weekends we offer a steam excursion from Skagway to Bennett and return.

MARK COSSON: Carl, what would you -- what would you describe the legacy of the White Pass and Yukon Railway?

CARL MULVIHILL: The legacy is -- that’s a good word -- how would you define legacy today? I’d like to say I guess it depends on the people, the White Pass spirit for everybody to work together to move thousands of people every day over the railroad. Certainly this is one of the highlights of many of the people’s experience in Alaska as one of the most popular ports in Alaska for cruise ship passengers.

MARK COSSON: -- anybody. I know it is for us anyway.

CARL MULVIHILL: Cruise ship passengers are the majority of the people, but we get a lot of folks come down by bus and cars down the highway just to travel the railroad. People from all over the world.

MARK COSSON: I was told once that if you could please repeat what I say in your own words that the White Pass’ future is in their past.

CARL MULVIHILL: The White Pass future is in the past, yes. This is the history. The Gold Rush certainly is part of the romance, traveling over the summits. A lot of people who today revisit the White Pass, their forefathers were some of the original gold seekers so they are following their footsteps so they have a better understanding of what the early prospectors and stampeders went through when they were on the way to Dawson and the gold fields. History is a very important part of the railway.

This is why all the coaches have their design with the clerestory roofs, open platforms, rather than the modern stainless steel type cars you see on Amtrak.