Victoria’s Secrets: Slowing down in Alaska

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, built during the Alaskan Gold Rush, winds its way through the hills and mountains of Alaska

While our cruise ship the Ruby Princess meandered through the inner passageways of southern Alaska, I was struck with the tranquility of nature’s beauty.

As we cruised to our destinations, I took pleasure in the white-winged birds as they flew by my state room balcony, set off against the stark mountains, many covered with a moss-like green clinging to their cliffs. Behind those mountains were glorious, sharp-edged, ice-capped mountains. It’s hard to believe that the mountain ranges and chasms have been here since the Ice Age.

Our stop after Juneau was the historic town of Skagway, home to Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and one-time Republican vice presidential nominee, when she was a young girl. With a population today of about 700 people, Skagway was founded and grew during the Gold Rush of 1897. Enterprising and desperate men and women rushed to the area, hoping to strike it rich.

The historic streetscape of Skagway, Alaska
The historic streetscape of Skagway, Alaska

Realizing the need in 1898 to navigate the steep, treacherous hills and mountains the Gold Rushers had to climb, two enterprising men — one a London investor, and the other a Canadian railroad contractor — invested $20 million to build the railroad. It was completed it in only 26 months.  

As our train slowly climbed 3,000 feet through 20 miles of steep grades and cliff-hanging turns, I marveled at the ingenuity and engineering skills of the creators of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. Michael Heney, the railroad contractor, was known to have told his English investors, “Give me enough dynamite and noose, and I’ll build you a railroad to hell.” Did he ever!

We had decided to pay extra for the luxury car that offered plush leather 360-degree rotating armchairs, drinks and lunch — and, importantly, an informed guide. The most remarkable part of our two-hour adventure was meeting the train’s engineer, Steve, whose uncle is the respected Guy Molinari, who represented Staten Island for decades as its borough president. Steve had lived in Queens and asked me if the Blue Bay Diner was still there (indeed it is!).

Our conductor in Skagway, Alaska was the nephew of former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari
Our conductor in Skagway, Alaska was the nephew of former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari

Steve also told us how he “ran away from home” in the 1970s and found his way to Fairbanks. He admitted, “I didn’t like being landbound and I found my way to Juneau, where I am a journalist and in the legislature. And, for the five tourist months, I work as an engineer on the train and make a living.” A most remarkable meeting!

The views from the luxury car, with the 79 degree sun warming our faces, made for a unique experience.

When we left the train, we walked through the historic town of Skagway, which never suffered as many frontier towns did with fires. I felt the history of the town as we walked through the doorways as had the Gold Rushers. The wooden sidewalks and well-maintained, freshly painted storefronts made me feel that I was on a movie set of a frontier town — yet it was all real.

Before long, we were back on the ship, heading toward Glacier Bay National Park, covering 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, dynamic glaciers, temperate rain forest and deep sheltered fjords.

Read more next week!

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