Skagway’s busiest cruise ship dock at risk of catastrophic rockslide, study says

A mass of rocks on mountain slope with a cruise ship docked below.
A view of the largest rock mass geotechnical engineers say will fall eventually, “Such failure will be catastrophic in nature with significant risks to life and property.” (Photo by Mike Swasey/KHNS)

A new report compiled by geotechnical engineers shows that Skagway’s busiest cruise ship dock is at significant risk for rockslides impacting the dock, moored ships, cruise ship passengers and workers.

Of one slide area, the report warns of “significant risk associated with complete failure” with catastrophic results, including “risks to life and property.” The study’s authors go on to say that the slope’s movement is speeding up, suggesting that “the failure event is approaching.”

At its latest meeting, the borough assembly asked the dock’s owners, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, to stop using the portion of the dock in the active slide area. But the next day, municipal officials agreed to instead rearrange passenger foot traffic to try to reduce the risk.

KHNS’ Mike Swasey spoke with Skagway Assemblyperson Reba Hylton about the report and the new pedestrian traffic flow agreement.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Mike Swasey: Assemblyperson Reba Hylton thanks for joining us. Let’s jump right into the big news coming from the rock slide area right above Skagway’s busiest cruise ship dock, the railroad dock. The municipality brought in scientists to study the slide area. They released a report this week. What did that report say?

Rebe Hylton: Here’s one quote that got everyone’s attention. “It is our opinion that the slope conditions observed during our site visit display significant hazards to people and structures below the slope.” That’s scary, right? I used to work down there. I have friends that work down there. I have a family member that works down there.

A steep cliffside of fractured, brown rocks high above the water.
The view of the rock mass from the north shows the scale of size. The movement of these rocks has accelerated from 1″ – 1.5″ per year to 2.5″ per year. (Mike Swasey photo)

Mike Swasey: I work down there four or five days a week. And I look up at that giant rock that’s perched and has been moving at a couple of inches a year now ready to come down at any time. And I think, what’s my best escape route? That’s what I think when I’m down there. It’s incredibly frightening.

Reba Hylton: Absolutely. And when they first started monitoring this, you know, it was moving at the tune of one and one-and-a-half inches a year. And now this new report released said it’s moving to two-and-a-half inches per year. So historically, we don’t have more data than a few years old, unfortunately. But I mean, you hear those facts, and it’s pretty frightening.

Mike Swasey: Now White Pass is claiming that the rocks that could cause damage on the railroad dock are coming from municipal land. So they’re municipal property. How did the assembly respond to that?

Reba Hylton: Whew, man, it was hard. It was a four-hour meeting. This was the hot topic. Basically, everyone is liable. We all know what’s going on down there, and we are putting not only ourselves at risk, but we’re putting all of our guests that come into this port that are docked on that side in risk. And it’s unacceptable.

Mike Swasey: And so then the Assembly said, well, let’s ask White Pass to stop using the area next to the biggest slide. And then tender people from the aft position. You had a meeting with municipal officials and with White Pass on Friday morning. What sort of agreement did you come up with?

A vertical jumble of gray boulders
Boulder arrangement north of the northernmost slide area. (Photo by Mike Swasey/KHNS)

Reba Hylton: What we did is we looked where there’s most of the congestion, with people congregating in the most dangerous spots down there. That’s right below the rock slide where failure is going to happen at some point. So we’ve come up with a plan together to basically rearrange the flow of traffic down there. And it’s going to be hard for people to wrap their heads around it. It’s late in the season, but we have to make changes because we know the risk now. It’s on paper, and it’s eye-opening, and we had to do something about it.

Mike Swasey: And what are the changes going to look like?

Reba Hylton: The security area where people get back onto the ship will be moved further south. The whole area where the coffee shop is and where the shore excursion booths are, that will be moved — not the caboose itself, I believe the caboose will be closed down. M&M (tour sales) will be closed down. That circular turnaround will not be available to anyone but SMARTbus, but even SMARTbus will be loading further north — just north of the restrooms down there.

Mike Swasey: And when do these new developments go into effect?

Reba Hylton: Immediately.

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