Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata calls the most visible boulder above the rockslide path the “Death Rock of Doom.” It’s about the size of a small house, and it teeters above Skagway’s busiest cruise ship dock.
After leading the town of 1,000 people through the pandemic, he has a dark sense of humor about the latest threat to Skagway tourism. The town depends on a million visitors coming every year — it’s practically the only industry in town.
“What people think is the Death Rock Of Doom is just a tiny, tiny fraction of what’s looming up here,” Cremata said. “It’s not just a rock, it’s a mountainside.”
He pushed through some hemlocks on the ridge above town to survey the collection of loose boulders that hang far above the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad dock. Down there, in a typical season, half a million tourists meet their tour guides or board buses and trains. City-hired geologists say there could be a catastrophic slide here with little to no warning.
“The side of this mountain will come down,” Cremata said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
There have been four serious rockslides on the dock since June. Boulders have punched a hole right through the concrete and rebar, so you can see the water below. Others damaged a cruise ship docked there. Residents say cruisers and local children selling newspapers were in the impact zone just minutes before the rocks came down.
Now, some ships are skipping Skagway and taking their business to Sitka or Hoonah. And instead of four ships, the city can accommodate only three at a time.
It’s easy math. The closed dock is one that can take the biggest ships. That means a loss of almost a quarter of the traffic — or about 100,000 passengers for the rest of the season.
The town is scrambling to fix the problem and salvage its economy.
The view from where Cremata stands on top of the slide path is stunning. A glacier-carved fjord reflects a jagged crown of mountains to the south. To the north are the town’s brightly painted, Gold-Rush era buildings. The port is studded with three huge cruise ships. Everything looks tiny below — people are just specks on the dock. A few small rocks tinkle down the slide.
“Look at all the loose rock up here. Look at that one. That one right there destroys the dock,” Cremata said, pointing at smaller boulders. “That one punches a giant hole in it.”
He gestures at the town’s fuel tanks and the helicopter pad and says he’s worried that if enough rock came off the mountain, a massive slide could take out everything. He says the city needs to do something about the slide so it can get back to the full load of cruise ships its economy depends on. And that needs to happen fast.
“We’re going to have to mitigate that rockslide. It’s gonna be very expensive. But come next April, we need to be able to put four ships here and make sure that our business owners have the best chance they can have of making as much money as possible as the cruise industry rebounds,” he said.
The city could build a new dock, but officials say that would cost even more than a plan to reshape the mountain — a possible solution with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars.
The loss of ships has been partly voluntary — after the latest geotechnical report was released, the city assembly asked the railroad company that runs the dock to close one berth. The decision was unanimous, even though the assembly knew what it would do to the economy.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place. I mean, there was no winning,” said assembly member Rebecca Hylton.
She said her phone blew up with calls and texts after the municipality posted the geotechnical report online. The landscape hadn’t changed, but the town’s understanding of the risk had.
The direct financial impact is to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, which is privately owned but leases land from the city. The scenic train ride up the historic Klondike Gold Rush route is the biggest attraction in town. It draws the cruise tourists that fuel the town’s economy.
“We’re just coming off of years of a pandemic. And our economy has been in dire straits, because we are completely reliant on the cruise ships coming in,” Hylton said. “It reaches every aspect, from the population of our school to the municipal employees that rely on the sales tax money that runs our government here.”
Hylton said a major or lethal rockslide could destroy the town’s tourism prospects long-term. That possibility would be worse, in her opinion, than the economic hit the town is taking now.
Safety and the bottom line
Billi Jo Clem owns Smart Bus and Klondike Tours, which has suffered since the dock closed.
“It has been financially devastating for us,” she said.
Her buses used to wait right at the dock for passengers to get off the ships. That’s not happening now, since the remaining cruise ships are sending people ashore on small boats.
Clem said tourists struggle to find her buses as they get rerouted around the slide area. She estimates that the changes have cut her earnings in half, and she’s had to lay off four drivers.
“We just didn’t have any financial means of keeping them on if we don’t have the tours and we don’t have the people from the ships,” she said. “We just can’t afford to keep them, and we’ve cut everybody else’s hours down.”
Business owners further downtown are feeling the pinch, too. Tina Cyr owns and operates an art gallery several blocks from the railroad dock.
“We’re happy to be open, we’ve got business and it feels good to be ringing up the register. But really, our sales are way down,” Cyr said, surrounded by bright watercolors, silver baubles and carved bone.
She estimates sales are down by more than a third. She says it takes longer for visitors to get down to her shop, and they leave earlier because they have to stand in line to get on a small boat back to the cruise ship.
“We’ve never been where people are tendering and taking the small boats. And so that just sucks up a lot of time for people,” she said.
It’s about a half mile walk from the dock below the rockslide to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad station. Throngs of tourists wait to board one of the trains that run hourly up the winding rail to the White Pass summit.
The railroad — now a joint venture including Ketchikan’s Survey Point Holdings and the Carnival Corporation — has been the town’s largest employer for nearly 125 years. The company says the city’s geotechnical survey overstates the imminent risk of a rockslide.
“It’s been an ongoing issue for a lot of years,” said Tyler Rose, executive director of human resources and strategic planning for the railroad.
Rose said White Pass identified a slide risk as early as the 1990s and started monitoring the area in earnest after a 2017 earthquake let loose two rockslides. The company repurposed shipping containers as a protective tunnel for cruise ship passengers to walk through and put up barriers to catch falling rocks.
That appeared to solve the problem, until the rockslides this June. The ensuing geological report said that this new, smaller slide zone was likely a one-off, but it put a new spotlight on the much larger historic slide area that’s right next to it, aimed at the same dock.
“For us, it’s not a heightened concern, because we’ve always taken it very seriously,” Rose said.
The railroad also contracts with geologists, and they released a memo in response to the city geologists’ report. It said that their research has been more extensive than the review the city’s consultants gave the area, and that the “risk of catastrophic failure of the rockslide is not elevated compared to previous years of monitoring.” It also said the instrumentation on the mountain would forewarn the railroad of any movement indicating a rockslide was imminent.
Rose had hoped to reopen the dock this season. It’s clear now, after several more slides came without warning, that that’s not going to happen. July rockfall smashed holes through the railroad’s protective walkway, so now cruisers take small boats into the harbor.
“We want to work closely with the municipality to both solve this problem and seek funding wherever we can, because it will be a financially challenging proposition for both of us,” Rose said.
How to move a mountain
Before managing the city of Skagway, Brad Ryan was manager and facilities director in Haines. In 2020, landslides there killed two people, destroyed homes and devastated that community. He said what happened in Haines is a strong reminder of the consequences of natural disasters.
“You’re talking about a road that had a few people, you know, 30 people living on it, versus half a million people walk down that dock in a year,” he said.
He says there will be time and space to figure out a long term plan after the tourist traffic clears out this fall.
“That’s a very expedited timeline, considering this project is in the tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “And so we’re lobbying for funds, but we’re also pushing the engineers that we’re working with to get this done. And then we’ll just have to figure out how to fund it.”
They don’t have the money yet, but Ryan said the plan would be to fly heavy machinery up to the top of the mountain by helicopter and start taking pieces of it down “five yards at a time.” The goal is to decrease the steepness of the mountainside so rocks don’t tumble off. A team of design contractors will be in Skagway next week to see how — or if — it can be done.
“I don’t think there’s any choice. We have to mitigate that rock and figure out what we’re going to do to save the infrastructure below it,” Ryan said.
The plan sounds fanciful, and it might not even be enough to secure the dock. But the 2023 season is just a winter away, and Skagway’s future depends on a safe, open port.