By Gretchen Wehmhoff

When Michael Heney developed the plan for the current White Pass Railroad in a Skagway bar with Sir Thomas Tancrede, a representative of London Investors, he probably had no idea what the distant future held for the company. 

Initially designed to transport miners, equipment and gold back and forth from the Yukon to Skagway, the tracks now guide a major tourist attraction over White Pass, against sheer mountain sides along the east side of the Skagway River and on into Canada. Over 35,000 workers took part in the construction of the railroad. Now nearly a million visitors to Skagway are expected to board the train in 2023.

Heney was also unlikely to have been able to predict that one of his descendents would return 125 years later to celebrate the longevity and anniversary of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (WPYR).

Patrick Michael Karnahan plays with Black Irish Band (BIB), a progressive folk band with ribbons of Celtic, Spanish and Italian influences. They are known for performing historic songs and ballads. Karnahan is a direct descendent of Michael Heney

Black Irish Band members pose by steam Locomotive 73. The band played at the celebration and the next night at the Red Onion Saloon. Photo provided by the Black Irish Band

 BIB came to Carcross for the 100th celebration of White Pass and made the journey again for this summer’s 125th anniversary of the iconic railroad. One of their ballads, White Pass & Yukon Railway Theme is available on their album “Lonesome Whistle – Railroad Ballads,” and features the vision, story and journey of Michael Heney.

The band entertained hundreds of residents, employees and visitors at the WPYR depot on July 29. Guests were invited to socialize, enjoy light refreshments, explore the locomotives and meet up with current and former employees and their families.

Engineer jeremy simmons  (who does not capitalize  his name) pulled Engine 73, a steam engine,  up to the celebration. Emma Tronrud, age six, climbed onboard. With a little help from her dad, Andrew, she pulled the whistle rope blasting a sound that made her jump — as well as many residents of Skagway who heard the toot of the train go off at irregular intervals that evening.

“It was so loud. It scared me,” Emma said. 

She and her mother, Cynthia Tronrud, talked about how hot it was in the engine room. Tronrud has worked for White Pass for 23 years.

“jeremy said it’s really hot when it’s moving,” Tronrud said.

Emma saw several uncles and family friends who worked on the engines. One was Uncle Pete.

“We call him Uncle Pete, but he’s really Dave Hunz,” Tronrud laughed. 

Skagwegians have multiple ties to the railroad either through current jobs, tourism connections or decades of family employment. Some families can trace their history back a century through parents, grandparents and siblings. Family descendants who include, but are not limited to, Burnham, Hunz, Lawson, Mahle, Mulvihill, Rose, Taylor, Thoe and Tronrud still live and work in Skagway, many connected to the railroad for generations. 

WPYR has seen its capital grow from smaller engines to powerful locomotives. About 95 parlor cars are used during peak season. Named after lakes, the cars came from various historic railroads. The Emerald Lake, built in 1883, is the oldest car of the fleet. 

In 2018 White Pass & Yukon Route was purchased by Klondike Holdings, LLC, an ownership group formed of majority partner Survey Point Holdings and its affiliates and long time partners based in Seattle along with minority partner Carnival PLC.

The railroad has survived closures due to the slowing of mineral mining, landslides and a pandemic. All of these setbacks were jointly felt by the small town of Skagway, home to visionary railroad builders that changed the nature of the Klondike Gold Rush and the future of its descendents.