Ship sail

Skagway’s busiest cruise pier at risk of catastrophic landslide, study finds

A view of the largest rock mass according to geotechnical engineers will eventually fall: “Such a failure will be catastrophic in nature with significant risk to life and property. (Photo by Mike Swasey/KHNS)

A new report compiled by geotechnical engineers shows Skagway’s busiest cruise pier is at significant risk of landslides affecting the pier, moored ships, cruise ship passengers and workers.

From a sliding area, the report warns of “significant risk associated with complete failure” with catastrophic results, including “risk to life and property”. The study authors go on to say that the slope movement is accelerating, suggesting that “the rupture event is approaching”.

At its last meeting, the borough assembly asked the owners of the wharf, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, to stop using the part of the wharf in the active slip zone. But the next day, city officials agreed to reorganize passenger foot traffic instead in an attempt to reduce the risk.

KHNS’ Mike Swasey spoke to Skagway Assembly Member Reba Hylton about the report and the new pedestrian traffic agreement.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mike Swasey: Assembly Member Reba Hylton thanks you for joining us. Let’s jump right into the big news coming from the landslide area just above Skagway’s busiest cruise pier, the Railroad Pier. The municipality brought in scientists to study the landslide area. They released a report this week. What did this report say?

Rebe Hylton: Here is a quote that caught everyone’s attention. “We are of the opinion that the slope conditions observed during our site visit pose significant risks to people and structures below the slope.” It’s scary, isn’t it? I used to work there. I have friends who work there. I have a family member who works there.

The view of the rock massif from the north shows the size scale. The movement of these rocks accelerated from 1″ – 1.5″ per year to 2.5″ per year. (photo Mike Swasey)

Mike Swasey: I work there four or five days a week. And I look up at this giant boulder that’s perched and moving a few inches a year now ready to fall any moment. And I think, what’s my best escape? That’s what I think when I’m there. It’s incredibly scary.

Reba Hylton: Absolutely. And when they started monitoring it, you know, it was moving at the rate of an inch and a half a year. And now this newly released report says it’s growing at two and a half inches per year. So historically we don’t have more data than a few years, unfortunately. But I mean, you hear these facts, and it’s pretty scary.

Mike Swasey: Now White Pass is claiming the rocks that could cause damage to the railroad platform come from municipal land. They therefore belong to the municipality. How did the congregation respond to that?

Reba Hylton: Phew, man, that was hard. It was a four hour meeting. It was the hot topic. In principle, everyone is responsible. We all know what’s going on there, and not only are we putting ourselves at risk, but we’re putting at risk all of our guests who come into that port and are moored on that side. And that is unacceptable.

Mike Swasey: And then the Assembly said, well, ask White Pass to stop using the area next to the biggest slide. And then the tender people from the rear position. You had a meeting with elected municipal officials and with White Pass on Friday morning. What kind of deal did you make?

Arrangement of rocks north of the northernmost landslide area. (Photo by Mike Swasey/KHNS)

Reba Hylton: What we did was we looked for where there was the most congestion, with people congregating in the most dangerous places there. It’s just below the rockslide where the failure is going to happen at some point. So we came up with a plan together to rearrange the flow of traffic there. And it’s going to be difficult for people to find their way around. 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 telling, and we had to do something about it.

Mike Swasey: And what will the changes look like?

Reba Hylton: The safe zone where people get back on the ship will be moved further south. The entire area where the cafe is and where the shore excursion kiosks are located will be moved – not the caboose itself, I believe the caboose will be closed. M&Ms (dirty towers) will be closed. This circular turnaround will only be available for SMARTbus, but even SMARTbus will load further north – just north of the toilets there.

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

Reba Hylton: Immediately.