By Melinda Munson

On July 21 the assembly passed a motion recommending Railroad Dock’s front berth be shut down with the aft berth required to tender. This unusual move followed the publication of the municipality funded “Railroad Dock Landslide Initial Site Trip Visit Report” by geological firm Shannon & Wilson.

The report was spurred by the June 23 landslide. The new slide area, now known as the South Slide, caused slight damage to the Discovery Princess. Rocks landed where crew and passengers disembark the vessel, but no injuries were reported as a result of the 7:30 a.m. event. 

According to the report, the South Slide is not as concerning as the already established North Slide. Regarding the older North Slide area the report states: “It is our opinion that the slide mass will eventually fail and the consequences of such failure will be catastrophic in nature with significant risks to life and property. The timing of such a failure is difficult to predict but accelerating movement rates suggest that the failure event is approaching.”

The day after the assembly meeting, municipal representatives met with port leasee White Pass & Yukon Route and other interested parties. Instead of the assembly’s original recommendation, the team kept the front berth open and formed a mitigation plan, moving tour booths and other operations closer to the Small Boat Harbor and to the north of the landslide areas. The Seawalk Parking Lot was closed to the public and repurposed as a turning area for buses. The new patterns were in place on July 24, designed to keep people from congregating near the slide areas. Media stories about the Shannon & Wilson report quickly started circulating. 

On July 25, White Pass closed the forward berth on Railroad Dock, “out of an abundance of caution and in consideration for the Municipality of Skagway and our cruise line partners to review and evaluate the mitigation in place.”

Ships berthed in the aft position had the option to tender, although few chose the time consuming alternative.

Eleven days later on Aug. 3, as passengers began trickling back to the Norwegian Encore, another northern landslide occurred at 5 p.m. No one was injured but footage of panicked passengers and staff running from clouds of dust, accompanied by the sounds of loud rumbling, spread across travel websites. Eighteen hundred passengers stood lined up in the rain as they waited to be tendered back to their ship. Since the Encore has lifeboats but no tenders, the Holland America Noordam assisted.

“I want to return my Skagway t-shirt!” someone in the crowd shouted.

Rona Percy of New Jersey reacted well to the upheaval.

“I kind of look at it like when else would I get on a tender? It’s all right. I’m a little hungry,” she said.

Percy didn’t want to give back her Skagway t-shirt. Actually, she hadn’t purchased one. She said the unique events made her wish she had.

After Aug. 3, the forward berth on Railroad closed through the end of the season and all operations were moved north of the restroom. The aft ship is now required to tender.

Yet another landslide occurred the morning of Aug. 5, punching an enormous hole in a shipping container and a small hole through the roof of the security booth. Again, no injuries were reported.

White Pass said they have “made all the data and evaluation reports produced by our engineering team available for review by the municipal consultant. We would also welcome and are committed to a sharing of ideas between our two engineering teams, to help develop appropriate rockslide/rockslide mitigation measures and risk management strategies that are mutually beneficial to all of us.” 

White Pass noted they installed an alert system four years ago, receive regular monitoring reports from geotechnical consultants, constructed and improved rockfall attenuator fences, perform annual scaling of slide areas and provide additional mitigation measure such as covered walkways, catchment berms and eco-block wall barriers along the length of the dock. 

Skagway will lose approximately 30 ships with the closure of Railroad Dock’s forward berth – a depressing reality following two dismal seasons due to COVID-19.

Mayor Andrew Cremata proclaimed a declaration of emergency on Aug. 5 which the assembly voted on Aug. 10 to extend the declaration. The declaration could help procure funding and “alert the public to the seriousness of the risk.”

Mitigation for Railroad Dock is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, with the source of funding yet to be determined. Work is expected to begin after the cruise season ends.

Cremata, who has spent countless hours on the phone with local, state and federal entities, is optimistic the rockslides won’t crush Skagway.