Skagway rocked by second landslide in under 2 weeks

This photo shows the rockslide area neighboring a Skagway cruise ship dock. (Courtesy Andrew Cremata)

Early Tuesday morning, a rockslide crashed into Skagway’s largest cruise ship dock. It was the second slide event in less than two weeks and caused a pair of cruise ships to divert to other ports. Some Skagway residents are calling on the city and the private company that owns the dock to take action.

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Retired fisherman Craig McCormick was sleeping in his charter boat in the Skagway harbor when a sound woke him up at about 3 a.m. Tuesday.

“I could hear, kind of feel the slide above the railroad dock coming down,” McCormick said. “And I kind of rolled over and it came down again at 5:30ish.”

A steep cliff prone to slides neighbors the boat harbor and Skagway’s biggest cruise ship dock.

“The one later in the morning sounded kind of like a waterfall,” McCormick said.

More than an inch of rain fell in Skagway the day before the Sept. 5 rockfall. This slide follows one on Aug. 26. As a safety precaution, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad shut down the dock.

White Pass is Skagway’s largest tour company and it owns the railroad dock. White Pass official Tyler Rose said the Sept. 5 slide was bigger than the one in August.

“Obviously [we’re] thankful no one was injured,” Rose said. “We’re assessing the area of the damage.”

Rose said the damage this time was a bit more extensive. A railing was damaged, along with a water main.

After the August slide, White Pass had a geotechnical engineer assess the site. Rose told KHNS that the dock was deemed safe to continue accepting ships the next day.

Rose declined to provide more information about the August engineer report or what the assessment entails.

This time around, the city of Skagway will be conducting its own evaluation.

“It’s something we need to look at in more detail,” Skagway Borough Manager Scott Hahn said.

Hahn said he decided late last week to hire a geotechnical engineer to assess the area for the city. Initially, he was going to wait for direction from the assembly. But Hahn said he decided to go ahead and contract with PND Engineers instead of waiting for the next assembly meeting. This second slide just happened to take place the same day the engineer was due to arrive in town.

“We need to assess the risk to the dock and the public on the whole hillside,” Hahn said. “So I’m just gonna wait and see what our engineers come up with and go with our best estimates.”

Even though White Pass owns the railroad dock, Hahn says the cliff where the slides keep occurring is city land. As for why White Pass is the entity that responds to and assesses the slides, Hahn says he doesn’t know how that process was established.

“I don’t know if it’s our liability or their liability,” Hahn said. “But I’m looking at that issue as well.”

The assembly is set to talk about the rockslides at its meeting this Thursday.

This most recent slide happened at an inconvenient time for Skagway’s tourism industry. The town had no dock space available after the railroad dock was closed. So, two ships were diverted to other ports. The Celebrity Solstice sailed to Icy Strait and the Star Princess went to Haines.

“Our tour started like now, so they cancelled them,” Star Princess passenger Jerry Seals said. He was one of dozens lined up Tuesday morning to try to make it to Skagway on a fast ferry shuttle. “We had an excursion in Skagway, gold mining, dog sledding, and that’s all been cancelled.”

But the economic toll of the ship diversion isn’t the main thing worrying some Skagway residents. Many spoke out on Facebook Tuesday. They called on White Pass and the city to take action before a slide harms more than the cruise ship schedule.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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