Yukon mining industry sees opportunity in Port of Skagway

The Disney Wonder cruise ship docks near the ship loader at Skagway’s ore terminal. (Photo by Henry Leasia, KHNS - Haines)
The Disney Wonder cruise ship docks near the ship loader at Skagway’s ore terminal. (Photo by Henry Leasia, KHNS – Haines)

As Skagway’s long standing waterfront lease with tourist attraction White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad draws to a close, the municipality plans to diversify its port traffic.  Yukon mining interests are paying close attention.

Skagway municipal officials are in talks with the Yukon mineral industry about a long term relationship between the port city and Canada’s interior mine operations.

“Skagway is an essential part of the Yukon’s mining industry,” said Jonas Smith, the co-project manager for the Yukon Producer’s group—an industry group for mining and mineral exploration companies.

“Skagway is a considerably shorter sailing from Asian markets than other Western North American ports. So, it’s very strategic and useful for accessing those international markets.”

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Skagway’s port has been dominated by tourism interests in the last few decades, but this blossoming commercial relationship is in line with Skagway’s less recent history. Skagway was founded as the railhead for Yukon mines. The tiny Alaska port town was a gateway to the Klondike—and a gateway to the rest of the world for the Yukon.

Smith said there’s considerable mineral development moving towards actual producing mines in the Yukon. He said most of the mine projects are five to ten years out, but building the relationship is important now. The municipality is poised to regain control over its waterfront when its lease with White Pass ends in 2023.

“We saw this as a key time to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, make sure that we were speaking to everyone involved and let them know our perspectives and our projected needs for the port, so that could be considered as this begins to take shape and the moves towards the Municipality of Skagway taking over control in 2023,” Smith said.

Smith said that as more mining projects come online in the coming decade, ore shipping could open up year round jobs for Skagway residents.

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said year round work that’s not tied to the tourist industry is especially attractive in light of the pandemic, as he and the municipal assembly work to manage a summer without tourism.

“I see that as a really promising way to diversify our portfolio moving forward which, obviously, we’re seeing more and more as a necessity because if tourism is impacted like it is during COVID, having something to fall back on if this ever happens again, it’s paramount,” Cremata said.

Assembly member Orion Hansen and Mayor Cremata attended the Mineral Roundup convention— an annual regional mining conference—in January to learn more about industrial possibilities for the port.

Then the Yukon Producer’s Group gave a presentation to the community at an assembly meeting in June. Smith joins Skagway’s Port Commission meetings via Zoom.

Cremata says that the municipality plans to dedicate a portion of the port solely to commercial users, to eliminate conflict between cruise ships and industry. He wants to get feedback from future partners now.

“We want to know, when it comes time to build out that part of the port, what types of modern equipment will be used, what we want to include in that design, so that when we build it out, we have a facility that it prepares us for the next 30 to 50 years of doing commerce with our partners in the Yukon,” he said.

When the waterfront lease expires in 2023, the municipality plans to control its deepwater port for the first time in over half a century. Last fall, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad lawyers staked claim to the waterfront, but backed off after the municipal attorney rejected its bid to renew the lease. A recent letter from White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad President Bob Berto expressed willingness to cede the Tidelands to the municipality.