It’s hard to imagine a railway, anywhere in the world, that was shorter than the one that ran between Graham Inlet on Taku Arm and Atlin Lake. It was just two and half miles long, and it was called the Taku Tram. When it was built in 1898 by John Irving’s Canadian Pacific Navigation Company, the single rail-car was pulled by horses. Irving operated two small steamers, the Gleaner on Taku arm and the Scotia on Atlin Lake, during the height of the Atlin gold rush.
In July of 1900 John Irving purchased a locomotive, called the Duchess, to replace the horse. Today, the Duchess can be seen in Carcross. The small steam locomotive has an interesting history just like the little rail line it served. It was built in 1878 for use on Vancouver Island as a coal mine locomotive.
In 1900, Irving bought the little engine and shipped it up the Inside Passage and freighted it by White Pass train to Carcross, finally sending it by barge to Taku Landing. In June 1900, the White Pass bought the John Irving Navigation Company and the Duchess took its first commercial two and a half mile run in July 1900. Passengers paid a fare of two dollars to ride on a 48-passenger car. The tramway also had flatbed rail cars used for freight during the Atlin gold rush.
In 1917, the little Taku arm railway picked up freight and passengers from the S.S. Tutshi, which began operating on Tagish Lake out of Carcross, and delivered goods to the M.V. Tarahne operating across Atlin Lake. The Duchess didn’t have much power and had trouble with the seven-percent grade on the short run. Passengers were often asked to get off and push. The Taku Tram locomotive could not even turn around on its short track so it backed up on its westbound run.
It operated on the tramline from 1900 to 1920 and then was shipped to Carcross and used to burn garbage from 1920 to 1931 when it was finally put on display. In 1931, another little engine – number 52 – was moved from Skagway for use on the Taku Tram until it was retired from service in 1936. So the next time you are in Carcross visit the little Duchess and reflect on her important role in Yukon transportation history.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin