Michael James Heney, the son of an Irish immigrant who farmed in the upper Ottawa Valley, was not cut out to be a farmer. A good thing for the Yukon. Otherwise, the White Pass and Yukon Railway would likely never have been built. Heney was born on October 24, 1864, near Stonecliffe, Ontario. Just fourteen years later, the winsome Irish lad ran away from home to work on the construction camps of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
His first job was as a mule skinner. Gradually, he worked his way up to that of a surveyor and spent the next three years heading westward as the CPR pushed its way through the rugged mountains of British Columbia. The lessons learned during these formidable years would serve the "Irish Prince" well in the coming decades, as he forged railroads where no one dared to go. When the Klondike gold rush arrived, Heney was ready.
The idea for the railroad to the goldfields was born in the early 1898 at a chance meeting between two men. One, Sir Thomas Tancrede, represented the Close Brothers, a group of high-powered British financiers. The other was Michael Heney. Both had come to Skagway with the idea of building a railroad through the mountains. By the time the two met, Tancrede had already concluded that a railroad was not feasible in this rugged of landscape. Heney disagreed.
"Give me enough dynamite and snoose", he bragged, "and I'll build a railroad to Hell!"
Heney's talk was not all Irish blarney. He had toured the jagged cliffs and sheer drops of the dreaded White Pass for days before his meeting with Tancrede. His eye as an experienced railroad builder had convinced him that a railroad could be built. But he was under no illusion that the task would be anything but monumental.
After a night of bad whiskey and plain talk in Skagway's St. James Hotel saloon, the "Irish Prince" convinced Tancrede too, and the White Pass and Yukon Railroad Company was organized in April 1898.
However, the White Pass was not alone in the rush to build a transportation system to the Klondike. George Brackett, a former engineer on the Northern Pacific Railroad, was one of the first to try to conquer the White Pass route. In 1897, he organized the Skagway and Yukon Transportation and Improvement Company, and built a wagon road. In June 1898, Brackett began charging tolls for the use of his eight-mile trail, but many stampeders refused to pay and Brackett, who was having trouble raising money, finally sold his legal right-of-way to the White Pass for $50,000, a far cry from the $185,000 of his own money he'd already invested.
His right of way was key to the plans of the White Pass railway and with its purchase, the first major obstacle to train travel was overcome. There would be others...many others. On May 28, 1898, with Michael Heney in charge, the construction of a narrow gauge railroad began.
Problems began, too. Hiring men to do the job was, perhaps, Heney's most difficult task. He needed thousands of workers, but few prospectors had the time or inclination to work for wages with all that gold just waiting to be scooped up in the Klondike. Initially, the construction crews tackled the job with miners' picks and shovels until more sophisticated equipment arrived. The workers faced an awesome sight. In the twenty-one miles to the summit of the White Pass, the roadbed climbed three thousand feet and had to be blasted out of solid rock. Gravel for the roadbed had to be hauled up the stone-faced mountains from the bottom of the Skagway River many miles away.
Heney used hundreds of horses but, unlike poor beasts driven by stampeders, his animals received excellent care. Heney knew the merit of horses: "The test of a horse's value is how much oats you can get into him and how much work you can get out of him."
If the landscape weren't enough of a burden, Heney had to contend with Soapy Smith and his gang of thugs. Smith could smell money and had his men set up gambling tents near the construction sites. Heney politely told Smith that his activities were not conducive to the operation of the White Pass and threatened to blow up his tents if he persisted. After Soapy was shot and killed by Frank Reid in a civic revolt against lawless mayhem, the gang dispersed and outlaws no longer made the Heney list of top-ten problems.
In August 1898, word of a gold strike in nearby Atlin, British Columbia reached the construction camps. More than half the workers downed their tools and raced off to the new diggin's, most with the railway's shovels and picks. In November, a strike against wage cuts paralyzed work on the line. It took all the skill Heney had to keep the workforce on the job.
The winter winds of 1899 were a curse. Men had to be roped together on the rock-strewn side hills, and swung in the gales like dead leaves of autumn. However, under Heney's hard work-ethic, construction continued. The railway attained the summit of White Pass on February 20, 1899. After that, they raced at lightening speed to reach the shores of Lake Bennett on July 6, 1899. The first train from Skagway to Lake Bennett arrived on July 6, 1899.
Freight could now be sent by train to Lake Bennett, put on lake steamers to Caribou Crossing on the north end of the lake, and then hauled to Whitehorse on wagons or by rail as the roadbed construction progressed. Meanwhile, crews started working south from Whitehorse in the summer of 1899. The railroad connected Carcross and Whitehorse in June 1900, and the entire line was completed on July 29, 1900, with a golden spike celebration at Carcross.
A real golden spike was used as celebrating company officials attempted to drive it in. But without success. Most of the company bosses, including Heney, had spent the morning in a make-shift tent consecrating the amazing event. Booze flowed freely, eyesight was dimmed, and the poor golden spike took quite a beating. It ended up a twisted piece of gold metal.
Heney ended up a wealthy man. For the next few years, he wandered around the world. He could afford travel, high society and fancy clubs.
But he was primarily a railroad man and, in 1909, when he read about a Guggenheim plan to build a railway from Valdez to a rich new copper deposit in the rugged Alaskan interior, he presented the railway backers with a plan. However, Heney told them that Valdez was the wrong location for the route to begin.
They did not listen. When the Guggenheims eventually discovered that Heney was right, they paid him $250,000 to use his registered right-of-way and hired him to build the 131-mile Copper Railway. It was one of the most difficult construction projects ever undertaken in Alaska. The line crossed two glaciers and was even further from supplies than Skagway. But Heney got the job done and, along the way, founded the city of Cordova, Alaska.
At the pinnacle of his railway-building career in August of 1909, Heney left Cordova to take care of some unfinished business in Seattle. His ship, the steamer "Ohio" hit an uncharted rock, on the northern coast of British Columbia, and sank.
Heney led the rescue operations, saving many passengers and horses. As the result of spending too much time in the frigid water, he developed pulmonary tuberculosis, from which he never recovered. The following year, on October 4th, 1910, he died in San Francisco. He was forty-six years old.
Today, a glacier, a mountain, and range of mountains in Alaska bear Heney's name.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: George Brackett