Container Archeology

Last week I found myself in Skagway on a cruise ship stop and hopped a ride on the White Pass & Yukon railroad. This railroad was a vital connection between the Pacific and the Yukon River gold fields. It starts in Skagway, the most northeast corner of the Alaskan Inside Passage, goes through the White Pass and then makes it to Whitehorse, Canada where it connects to the Yukon River system.

Today the White Pass and Yukon is a tourist railroad that provides a beautiful narrow gauge railroad ride through White Pass and has some of the steepest railroad grades and dramatic mountain rail engineering in the world, but, besides that, it was also a major player in the development of intermodal transportation.

The railroad was built hoping that it would support the Yukon gold rush of 1898, but by the time the railroad was finished in 1900, its commercial purpose was much diminished and it barely stayed in business until World War II. In World War II it became a vital transportation link for the supply of Alaska and the construction of the Trans-Alaskan highway.

After World War II the railroad might have returned to its former sleepy ways except that it became one, if not the first, test beds of intermodal transportation.

In 1956, WH&Y railroad provided intermodal container service between Vancouver and the Yukon. WH&Y designed the containers (which initially were quite small, but soon settled on an 8 by 8 by 25 foot design) and designed and sourced the container carrying and transfer equipment, including intermodal cranes, rail cars and cellular container ships. A total of three WH&Y container ships were built and they ran a regular service between Vancouver and Skagway.

This freight service had specific challenges that made containerized freight service attractive and it provided a higher level of intermodal integration before Malcolm MacLean’s service between Port Elizabeth and the US Gulf. MacLean’s initial vision was US truck, to US ship, to US truck. The WP&Y already had taken it one step further since their service was truck, to ship, to train, to truck and did it internationally and included various levels of temperature control for the containers.

Still it is a classic case of being first out of the gate does not mean you will win the race. WH&Y provided this service until 1982 and then the freight service was unceremoniously terminated. Why did it fail? There must have been many reasons, but by that time Sea-Land had also switched from their unique containers (35 footers) to ISO containers (20 and 40 footers) and WH&Y might have been the victim of their own investment in non compatible equipment and simply ran out of cash to convert.

The victor generally gets to write history, and very little history of the WP&Y container service remains and is generally overshadowed by Malcolm MacLean’s vision and good fortune in making his play during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, where containerization really began to shine on the big stage.

On the tourist train run to the White Pass, on a lonely siding, I saw a container on a flat bed and, just barely readable, it said “White Pass” on its side. When I returned to Skagway I hiked back up the line to take a few pictures.

Undoubtedly the Sea-Land fittings and container designs were more elegant, and later ISO innovations once again increased the efficiency of containerization past the initial WP&Y attempt, but in 1956 all the pieces were there, and possibly these pictures are showing the last pieces that are left.