1987, Books, Non-Fiction

The White Pass: Gateway to the Klondike

This is a readable and well-researched history of the building of the White Pass & Yukon Railway. As far as I know, this is Minter’s only book and it’s clearly a passion project. But it’s also the work of a non-professional. As such, it’s better than it should be but it’s also not necessarily a definitive treatment.

Minter excels as telling the stories of the railway’s principals and at research. It feels like Minter spent years trying to get the story right. He tells it in an engaging way, and with as much detail as you can expect. He relies quite a bit on primary sources and it’s a good first history of the subject. I feel like have a good grasp of Graves, Hawkins, Heney, Hislop and some of the others, in addition to the story of the railway construction itself.

But there are a number of flaws, both in the overall concept and in execution.

Minter barely acknowledges the indigenous people in the area. Well, he acknowledges them but they are others and are barely in the story. Surely there was more to discover there. He also is very much on the side of the constructors of the railway, viewing the strike and other potential strikes as a problem to overcome. I have no idea whether or not the Railway was actually quite good to its workers but Minter takes it as a given and doesn’t really try to convince you. Also, Minter is interested solely in the construction. He is not interested in the bigger picture or the deeper story. For example, one paper in Skagway is totally against the Railway and the rest are for it. Minter takes this as a given and doesn’t seem to have wondered why. A better history might have inquired more about the local politics. (Like, are most papers in the pocket of Big Railway or is that other paper in the pocket of Big Tramway?)

Minter sometimes changes his focus. He diverts to tell the story of Smith. Maybe because it actually affected the Railway employees but that section feels like part of a greater history, which would include Skagway politics. Minter does a decent job but he reverts back to the story of the railway.

If it sounds like I didn’t like the book, it shouldn’t. But Minter was, as far as I know, a first time author, concerned exclusively with telling the story of this incredible construction feat, and so there are things left out. A better book might have told the story of the construction as part of a greater story about gold in Alaska, or the growth of Skagway and/or Whitehorse.

Still, it’s readable, it’s well-researched and you can feel Minter’s passion for the subject (as well as worship of Heney) throughout. It’s certainly a far more interesting book than I imagined when I picked it up (or when my grandparents gave it to me 26 years ago).

7/10

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