The Chilkoot Railroad &Transport Company (otherwise known as the CR&T Company) was the longest, most sophisticated and best known of the three aerial tramways that operated over the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike gold rush. The other tramway lines (the DKT Company and the AR&T Company) have already been discussed in earlier columns.
The CR&T line was conceived of in the summer of 1897. Major officials involved in the venture included Archie McLean Hawks (chief engineer), Hugh C. Wallace (president and construction superintendent), investor Britton Gray, and vice president G.B. Pierce. At first, the line’s directors proposed building a wagon road from Dyea to Sheep Camp and a tram line from Sheep Camp to Crater Lake. Later, it was proposed that the route from Dyea to Canyon City be upgraded to a horsedrawn tram road, and several brochures announced that the company was constructing a railroad up the Taiya River Valley. An extension of the tramway from Crater Lake to Lake Lindeman was also considered. Initial reports announced that the line would be completed as early as Jan. 1, 1898.
Financial considerations, however, forced the company to implement a slightly more modest tramway system than was first envisioned. The line, as built, began in Canyon City and stretched nine miles north to Stone Crib, near Crater Lake, on the Canadian side of the Chilkoot Pass. The mountainous terrain and heavy snowfall also slowed construction repeatedly. Although materials began to arrive in October 1897, construction crews were not able to begin work until Dec. 10, and the line was not completed until May 1898. The opening of the line was a two-stage process. The section between Canyon City and Sheep Camp was finished by the first week in May 1898. The Dyea Trail announced, perhaps over-optimistically, that the entire tramway system was completed by May 7. One witness, however, noted that the tram did not begin for a week afterward and another noted that the tram started operating on May 24, 1898.
When completed, the CR&T Company advertised an efficient, integrated transportation network stretching from Dyea to Lake Lindeman. Goods off‑loaded at Dyea were placed on the CR&T controlled Long Wharf and hauled up to the company’s large, two story warehouse located at the foot of Main Street in Dyea. Goods continued north to Canyon City over a wagon road that had been claimed by the company as a railroad right-of-way. The CR&T aerial tramway began at the first powerhouse at the north end of Canyon City. Tramway lines followed the east side of the canyon to Pleasant Camp, then crossed the river and proceeded up the west bank of the Taiya River to Sheep Camp. The CR&T operated a second powerhouse and transfer station at the southern end of Sheep Camp, five miles north of Canyon City. Here the first cable loop ended and the second one began.
The second cable loop largely paralleled the Chilkoot Trail north of Sheep Camp and crossed it in several places. The tram line swung high over the Scales; the longest single span in the world at the time it was built (some 2,200 feet from one tower to the next); then continued past the summit to its terminus, one half mile north of the border. The CR&T Company used the patented double-rope or Bleichert aerial tramway system. The Bleichert system was manufactured by the Trenton Iron Works of Trenton, New Jersey. The CR&T line contracted with pack train operators and Alaska Native packers to haul goods the remaining 10 miles from Stone Crib to Lake Lindeman.
The CR&T tramway operated intermittently for approximately 14 months. Shortly after it opened, the White Pass &Yukon Route began constructing its railroad over the adjacent White Pass. Stampeder traffic over the Chilkoot Trail soon dwindled to a trickle. Freight rates over the tramway line, however, were competitive with those offered by the railroad. As a consequence, tramway business was good. Severe weather during the winter of 1898‑1899, however, made it necessary for engineers to strengthen key parts of the system. New tension stations, stronger existing stations, and an entirely new line of tramway towers near the Scales, were built at that time.
In late June 1899, an observer found the tramway line in operation and laden with Yukon bound freight. But just a week later the railroad tracks were opened to Lake Bennett and the tramway was doomed. The rival White Pass &Yukon Route purchased the tramway and all operations stopped. In January 1900, salvage operations began. Beginning at Stone Crib and working south, crews dismantled and removed engines, wire rope, buckets and other reusable machinery. By the end of April all that remained were the wooden tramway towers, tension stations, and a few abandoned buildings. The remains of those items are still seen on the Chilkoot today although all have collapsed.
During the past 20 years, park archeologists have been able to document most of the CR&T line in great detail. They have recorded a smokestack, all that remains of the first powerhouse in Canyon City, a concrete foundation along with a mound of common and fire bricks at the second powerhouse in Sheep Camp, the remains of at least two of the CR&T Company’s tension stations, many tramway artifacts, and of course, the collapsed tramway towers. They have also discovered that from Canyon City to at least Sheep Camp the company constructed their towers entirely of wood using local trees and milled lumber. North of Sheep Camp and particularly above tree line the CR&T Company began constructing towers with a central metal pole and a single top cross-bar that gives the towers a T-shaped profile. In 1899 the CR&T Company reconfigured their line to a higher elevation. This re-engineered line started at their Long Hill tension station. They abandoned their initial tram line and dismantled many if not all of the original metal pole towers in the Long Hill to Summit area and constructed new towers entirely of wood.
The aerial tramways of the Chilkoot Trail were never intended to carry passengers. Tramway workers would occasionally “ride the high wire” in order to get to their next place of work but ordinary stampeders never got a chance to take the tramway except for Mrs. Martha A. Kelsey. On Jan. 31, 1898 she wrote a letter to her friend describing her thrilling ride across the Chilkoot Pass in an aerial tramway bucket. Based on her description, the line must have been the CR&T line. The letter was later printed in the Times-Gazette of Redwood City, California on March 5, 1898:
“My dear Eliza – Here I am on the border of the land of hope, but, oh, what an experience I have passed through in coming over Chilkoot pass. I was swung in midair from point to point over rock chasms and almost tossed from peak to peak.
For, you see, I was the first woman to be carried over the new aerial tramway. At first I thought it would be so nice when the kind hearted managers of the line proposed to carry me over the pass instead of my having to walk over it with my husband and the other men of the party. It would only take an hour or two in this way, instead of the one or two days of the hardest kind of climbing. So they tucked me into a little box, only 2 feet wide and 3 feet long and about 2 feet deep. It was made only for carrying freight, they said, so they tied and strapped and bound me in as they would a load of groceries, and I wondered why they were so careful about it, for I told them I would not jump out. But they just laughed and told me to hang on and not be afraid. Then they hoisted me up on to something like an overhead trolley wire. The cables attached to the box I was in started with a creaking, grinding sound. Straight up the mountain side and into the dark canyon I went as if I were a bird. Higher and higher up from the ground the cables carried me, and I was afraid to look down, so kept my eyes fixed on the heights above and beyond.
All at once, directly in front of me, loomed a great, black cliff, and I was dashed straight at it. I closed my eyes and shrieked as I never did before in my life, when, lo, the cliff was gone! I had been whirled just around its edge, and then I felt an awful sensation, for I was suspended over a great chasm, hundreds of feet above a glacial torrent, and it appeared to be a mile from one side of the canyon to another, where the spiderlike cable lines were suspended from towers. It seemed to me I hung for hours over the yawning chasm, but they told me afterward it could not have been more than a minute and a half, for the span, as they call it, at that point is only 1,600 feet. But mathematics don’t count in such a situation. You just have a horrible, sickening fear of such terrible heights and distances in midair.
The rest of the way was straight up the rocky pass, covered with snow and never melting glacial ice. The air was bitterly cold as it came in a perfect gale down between the mountain walls, and it seemed as if the North Pole must be right ahead of me.
Then came the intense relief as the summit of the pass was reached. The threatening walls of rock flattened out into a hilly plain, and the car slowed up. It was the end of the line, and a group of rough but kind hearted men cheered me as the car was lowered to the ground and I was unstrapped and taken out. They told me how brave I was to take the first trip of any woman. In fact, they said that no man had before this been over the whole line at one time. I had crossed the dreadful Chilkoot pass in an hour and a half, while the poor miners struggle for days and weeks along its awful course. I tremble to think of Frank, my dear husband, and his companions, who are at this moment somewhere in that maze of frowning rock walls and snow gorges, but I pray heaven that they arrive here … safely.”
Mrs. Kelsey’s wrote her letter at Lake Lindeman, Alaska. She mentioned that it would be transported back over the aerial tramway and would be “one of the quickest letters ever sent out of this far off, lonesome country.” The letter was postmarked Dyea, Feb. 1, 1898. As far as is known, Mrs. Kelsey was the first and only passenger on any of the tramway lines operating over the Chilkoot Pass but given the early date of the letter and the fact that the CR&T line didn’t open until May 1898, this account may be fictional or somewhat exaggerated.
• This article was researched and written by Frank Norris, former seasonal Historian at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway and added to and edited by Karl Gurcke. It was part of a larger Historical Structure Report on the Chilkoot Trail, completed in 1986 but never published. Portions of that report, complete with references can be furnished by request at no cost if you email Gurcke at firstname.lastname@example.org. For the current condition of artifacts on the Chilkoot Trail, he has relied on Eve Griffin and Andy Higgs, both former seasonal Archeologists for the National Park Service and my own observations. He is grateful to Martha A. Kelsey, who had the forethought to write about her experiences (true or not), the Redwood City Times-Gazette, who published the account and Neal Fahy, of Daily City, California, who found and kindly donated the newspaper article to the park.