The White Pass and Yukon Railroad Co. began construction of its narrow-gauge railway to access the Klondike gold fields in May 1898. Along with the challenge of crossing coastal mountains – and a vertical rise of 3,000 feet in 20 miles near Skagway – engineers had to work around a boundary dispute between the United States and Canada.
There was no border established between the Great Land and Canada in 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for 2 cents an acre. The lack of an agreed-upon boundary caused problems from the get-go.
But it was the Klondike gold rush that brought the boundary issue to a head. When every square foot of ground could yield enormous wealth, the exact location of the border became critical.
The Canadians sent a detachment of North West Mounted Police to the head of the Lynn Canal in Southeast Alaska, a main gateway to the Yukon. Canadian officials wanted ownership of Skagway and Dyea, which would allow Canadians access to the Klondike gold fields without crossing American soil.
But prospectors flooding into Skagway didn’t agree. Some say that a group of heavily armed Americans demanded the Canadian flag at the police post be lowered or the Americans would shoot it down. The Yanks thought that the head of Lake Bennett, another 12 miles north, should be the boundary between the two territories.
The Canadians retreated and set up posts on the summits of the Chilkoot Pass and White Pass – each post equipped with a mounted Gatling gun.
With both the Canadians and the Americans claiming the land as far down as tidewater on Lynn Canal, one can see how relations might be strained as tracks for the White Pass and Yukon Railroad approached the summit of the pass.
A Canadian guard raced to stop construction. He told the railroad men they could come no farther, since it was British territory.
An American named Stikine Bill Robinson went to the summit as an unofficial ambassador. The story goes that he had a bottle of Scotch whiskey in each coat pocket and a box of cigars under each arm. When the guard woke up a few days later, the construction gang was working miles down the other side.
Many thought the railroad project impossible. But thousands of men with picks, shovels and explosives fought harsh climate and tough terrain to lay 110 miles of track through two tunnels, numerous bridges and dozens of trestles to connect Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in just 26 months. The railroad was completed on July 29, 1900.
It took several more years before the boundary dispute was settled, however. In 1908, a formal treaty was signed between the United States and Great Britain that set up the International Boundary Commission to mark it officially.
And just as laying track for the White Pass and Yukon Railway was one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, the 1,538-mile-long Alaska-Canada border, marked by metal cones and a clear-cut swath 20 feet wide, signifies one of the greatest feats of wilderness surveying.