White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad has been a prominent fixture in Skagway for more than a century. Today, tourists from around the world come to the small Southeast town to ride the Gold Rush-era train through a mountain pass and into the Yukon. A new musical tells the story of the building of the railroad in the late 1800s, and the man responsible.
“Clearly the challenge of putting that railway through these mountains, it stuns everything, I think that goes on that train, to wonder ‘how in the world did they get this done,’” says Matthew Lien. He composed the music for Stonecliff – a production that looks at just that, how in the world the railroad was built, creating a route to interior Yukon.
Thousands of people were involved in the construction of the railroad. But this musical focuses on one: Michael Heney, an Ontario man born to Irish immigrants, who made his way to Skagway during the gold rush.
“I think really what appeals to me is not how spectacular of a man he was, but how he was just a regular man who did spectacular things,” says actor Billy Lake, who portrays Heney in the musical.
“Whenever anything stood in his way, and obstacles came into his way, he blew it up or found a way to get around it,” says Lake.
Canadian playwright Conrad Boyce wrote the production. Boyce is home in Ontario’s Ottowa Valley right now. That’s also the area Heney was from – he was from Stonecliff.
“Stone cliffs were also the major obstacle that he had to overcome in order to build the railway,” says Boyce. “The mountains were the formidable obstacle.”
Boyce says Heney was the driving force behind the building of the railroad. He says without him, it might not have been built.
“It probably would not have happened at all, period,” says Boyce. “There were many people that had contemplated building a railway. Initially across the Chilkoot, until that proved impossible. And then through the White Pass, but they couldn’t find a way to build it.”
For Lien, composing the show’s music sometimes required a certain balance. Like in the song Tons of Gold.
“It was a matter of creating the energy, the passion, the humor, the folly – you know two people falling over themselves, what all was going on,” says Lien. “Trying to both be period clear, that when people listened they’d know right away that was from the Klondike era. But to have it also be fresh in some way.”
Lien and Boyce have personal memories of the region where the railroad was built. Boyce used to live in the Yukon, and so did Lien.
“I used to do this pilgrimage from San Diego in the summer,” says Lien. “Take the ferry up the inside passage and over the Haines Pass to dad’s home at Dezadeash.”
They’ve both ridden the railroad themselves. Lien says there’s one piece of history that has always affected him.
“There’s a point where you go along and there’s a huge slab of granite on the down mountain slope,” says Lien. “And it is known that there are some of the workers under that slab of rock that were never able to be excavated. They died during the blasting and their bodies have been left there as what was deemed to be actually a fitting monument. Better than probably any gravestone that could have been created.”
He says that’s a particularly solemn moment in the train ride. One that makes him consider the challenge of building the railway.
“And you think about the hardship and the challenge that people faced,” says Lien. “And the tragedies that people endured and certainly the head of this project, Michael Heney, what he must have endured emotionally to accomplish this incredible task through such a rugged wilderness but also to shoulder the loss of life. That must have been really something.”
Looking back, Lien says a lot of things had to come together for the project to happen as it did in 1898.
“To actually contemplate the personalities that had to have come together at just the right time and place in order for it to happen,” says Lien. “That railway very easily could not have happened. The fact that it exists today is the result of some fateful intersections of some different people’s lives here in Skagway.”
Boyce says he’s excited for the Skagway production.
“Because Skagway is a principal character in the play,” says Boyce. “The railway starts there and Heney was such an important part of what Skagway was and vice versa.”
The musical recounts the feat of building a railroad during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, a railroad that remains an important part of Skagway and the Yukon today.
The Skagway performance is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Skagway School.