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Fabled Klondike gateway sold to cruise ship line for US$290 million

by Greg Klein | June 7, 2018

It’s been a local fixture for decades but a company that panders to pampered argonauts will officially take over the Alaska panhandle port of Skagway. This of course was the landing point for an earlier, much hardier breed nicknamed after Jason and his buddies of Golden Fleece fame. The Klondike argonauts also sailed storm-tossed seas but, while passing through this little town seeking gold, often got fleeced themselves.

Fabled Klondike gateway sold to cruise ship line for US$290 million

From frontier hellhole to tourist mecca,
Skagway trades on its Klondike connection.
(Photo: Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Such was the case when frontier bad guy Soapy Smith and his gang ran Skagway like a criminal fiefdom. They succeeded for a while, but it was right on the docks in 1898 that Smith and vigilante Frank Reid shot and killed each other. Their mortal remains rest in a graveyard on the edge of town.

Skagway was one of two main ports of arrival for the Klondike, along with Dyea, about five kilometres northwest. The latter town led to the Chilkoot Trail, where desperate hopefuls would make something like 50 trips of up to six hours each climbing to a North West Mounted Police checkpoint to carry supplies sufficient to survive a Yukon winter.

The rival route led to the White Pass, “a hellish place even for those inured to hardship and disappointment by having survived the different hell that was Skagway,” wrote Douglas Fetherling in The Gold Crusades. Railway construction began a few months before Smith’s death, with the line reaching Whitehorse in 1900. There, the White Pass and Yukon Route transferred its goods and passengers onto riverboats towards Dawson City.

In the 1950s the WP&YR became a world innovator by introducing the concept of containerized freight handling, loading the cargo from the world’s first container ship to rail at Skagway and then truck at Whitehorse. The distinctive containers can still be seen around Skagway, serving various purposes such as garden sheds.

The WP&YR’s fortunes rose and fell with those of the mining industry, recounted Marina McCready in Gateway to Gold. Competition arrived in 1978 from a new Whitehorse-to-Skagway highway. A mining slump shut down the service in 1982, but it reopened in 1988 to offer summer sightseeing excursions. They still run 110 kilometres between the little downtown and Carcross, Yukon, passing through a corner of northwestern British Columbia.

Today “dat tourist trap Skagway,” as a character in Ken Kesey’s Sailor Song called it, features numerous restored turn-of-the-century buildings, some of them transplanted from Dyea. Part of the town comprises the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which in 1998 became an international site managed by both the U.S. and Canada.

From May to September the narrow docks host cruise ships magnificent for their stature but still dwarfed by mountains rising suddenly to the north and south.

On June 6 TWC Enterprises TSX:TWC announced an agreement to sell the WP&YR’s “complete rail, port and merchandise operations” to Carnival Corporation & plc for US$290 million. Debt estimated between $70 million and $80 million will be deducted from the price. TWC may take up to $84 million of the proceeds in Carnival shares. Expected to close by July 31, the transaction would put three docks and four cruise ship berths under a single cruise ship line.

The port also ships concentrate from Yukon’s only hardrock mining operation, the Minto copper-gold-silver mine held by Capstone Mining TSX:CS but subject to a purchase agreement with Pembridge Resources plc. Proponents of some would-be mines in B.C.’s Golden Triangle contemplate shipment through Skagway.

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