The Copper Belt Spur Line ran 18 kilometres from a junction from the main Whist Pass & Yukon Route line at MacRae to Pueblo Mine on the Fish Lake Road. The first 11 kilometres were built to the Big Chief and Grafter mines in 1907/08. Work stopped for 16 months when the price of copper declined but the line was completed to the Pueblo Mine in August 1910. Ore trains operated periodically, depending on ore prices, until mid-1918.
Ore from the early Whitehorse copper mines was transported to the main WP&YR railway line on the Copper Belt Spur Line. The line ended at the Pueblo Mine: a planned extension of 2.4 kilometres to the War Eagle Mine was never built.
By 1927 the roadbed was washed out in places and culverts and trestles were in disrepair. Rails and bridge timbers were salvaged by the United States Army, during the construction of the Alaska Highway, and the materials were used to expand railway sidings at Cowley, MacRae, Wigan, Utah and Whitehorse. Copper mining resumed in the late 1950s and a little more than 11 kilometres of the railway roadbed was upgraded to a mining haul road. The Trans Canada now Trail follows part of the original Copper Belt Spur Line.
Copper and the White Pass & Yukon Route
In July 1899, White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) was unsure that finishing the rail line past Bennett Lake was economically feasible. One deciding factor for continuing was the discovery of a copper deposit near Whitehorse with exploration under way on the Last Chance, Rabbit-foot, Pueblo, Arctic Chief and War Eagle claims.
Between 1902 and 1909, thirty-six wagon roads were constructed in the Copper Belt area but WP&YR rates to the southern smelter were very high. In 1902 the Grafter mine shipped 10 Imperial tons and earned $29 per ton but the shipping expenses were almost $30 per ton.
The situation changed in 1906 when copper prices rose. By November 1907, nearly 4,000 Imperial tons had been shipped out and WP&YR started to build a spur line with the expectation that Copper King, Grafter, Arctic Chief, War Eagle, Pueblo and Valerie mines planned to work all winter.
In 1911, the Board of Railway Commissioners ordered WP&YR to lower their rates and a 10% cut was introduced. Between 1901 and 1917, freight tonnage on the WP&YR averaged 29,000 metric tons annually. Between 1911 and 1917, the bulk of this tonnage was ore from the Whitehorse copper mines.v
Constructing the Copper Belt Spur Line
In August 1907, a White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) surveyor and Superintendent V. I. Hahn examined a possible route to the Whitehorse copper mines. Construction of the Copper Belt spur line began in October and workers laid two sections of rail bed that fall. Owners of the Grafter mine built a 7-mile wagon/sleigh road and a siding at the main WP&YR line near Ear Lake. This road was used by the WP&YR construction crews during the spur line construction and a portion of the route became the McLean Lake Road.
By July 1908, 500 men had completed nearly ten kilometres of rail bed and seven trestle bridges, named for their location. Bridges S.1A, S.1B and S.1C were all within a mile (1.6 km) of the junction with the main line at MacRae. Bridges S.2A to S.6A were in the second to sixth mile from MacRae. Trestle abutment remains are still visible for bridges S.1A, S.1B, S.1C and S.3A. The largest bridge was crescent shaped and spanned 163 metres over a dry gully. Construction of the main spur line was halted just north of the Best Chance Mine when mining activity declined in the district.
In March 1910, the Pueblo Mine was reorganized with plans to go into full production. WP&YR re-started construction on the spur line and the first shipment of ore was taken by rail from the Pueblo claim in August 1910.
Copper ore shipments over the spur line continued intermittently until mid-1918.
The Whitehorse Copper Belt
Limestone, lying under Whitehorse and exposed on Canyon Mountain, was deposited here over 200 million years ago and, over time, was covered by 10 kilometres of sediment. About 110 million years ago, magma rose up from below the earth’s crust carrying dissolved minerals that reacted with the limestone to form deposits of copper ore. Erosion of the overlying rocks made the deposits accessible to the nearly 20 mines that operated in the Whitehorse Copper Belt during the early 1900s.
Prospectors heading for the Klondike Goldfields discovered the copper in 1897. Jack McIntyre staked the first claim, Copper King, in July 1898 and a few other claims were also staked that summer. McIntyre and his partner William Grainger sent the first ore to the smelter in 1900 and miners at Pueblo claim sent out an ore sample from what would prove to be the richest and most productive of the early mines.
Pueblo used the spur line sporadically between 1910 and 1917. Grafter Mine shipped ore by the spur line from 1915 to 1917. Valerie was the last mine to ship ore over the spur line, from mid-1917 to mid-1918. The Copper King shipped out about the same tonnage as the Valerie although it was a higher grade. All of the Copper King’s ore was shipped to the main WP&YR line by horse and wagon, or sleigh.
New technology and exploration techniques led to a second period of mining activity between 1967 and 1982. A haul road was constructed in 1970 to link the largest copper deposits and the ore was trucked to a railway loading facility on the Alaska Highway.