Any of the millions of passengers who have ridden the White Pass and Yukon Route – “the scenic railway of the world” – in the 117 years since its completion, would immediately recognize it as a marvellous technological achievement.
Indeed, the White Pass and Yukon Route is recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as an International Civil Engineering Landmark, on a par with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge.
What the vast majority of those passengers will not have realized, however, is that the mastermind behind the railway’s creation was the son of poor Irish immigrants living in Ontario’s Ottawa River valley.
That he ran away from the family farm at 14 to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
That over the years he learned every job on the construction line, and at only 25, was the principal contractor on a major railway in Washington state.
That he was on the pier in Seattle when the steamer Portland docked and touched off the greatest gold rush in history.
That he was only 33 when he agreed to build an “impossible” iron road across the White Pass into the Yukon to serve that gold rush.
That despite countless obstacles – large and small – presented by man and Mother Nature, he drove the last spike at Caribou Crossing only two years, two months and two days after laying the first track on Broadway in Skagway.
And that before his 46th birthday, he died as a result of a shipwreck in the Inside Passage, bringing supplies to another railway project along Alaska’s Copper River.
The story of Michael J. Heney is intrinsically theatrical: a larger-than-life hero, achievements against the odds, beating the bad guys, tragic death.
And so, more than a year ago, Yukon composer Matthew Lien and I determined to bring that story to life in a grand piece of musical theatre.
It’s called Stonecliff, after the small village of Heney’s birth – and also after the major obstacle he faced in building the railway. It will premiere at the Yukon Arts Centre on Nov. 17 for four performances only, as well as touring to Anchorage, Skagway and Dawson City.
Creating Heney’s story for the stage was a hugely complicated endeavour. He became known to his men as the “Irish Prince” – his heritage was very important to him – so the score is played on traditional Irish folk instruments, but incorporating the ragtime and “tin pan alley” styles so intrinsic to the time and place of the White Pass and Yukon Route’s construction.
Matthew Lien’s songs for the play incorporate a wide diversity of styles. There is a lively Irish folk dance to open the show, a driving railway workers’ theme, an original rag, a comic song for the Klondikers as they disembark (drunk with glory and maybe some other things) on the Seattle pier, a piercing Celtic lament for a lost foreman along the line, and a haunting ballad for Heney as he contemplates his future.
Some of the lyrics are sung in Gaelic or in Tlingit (from Skagway to Carcross, the railway traverses traditional Tlingit territory), so experts in those languages were brought on board for translation and to coach the actors in pronunciation.
The first act of the play traces Michael Heney’s rise as a “renaissance man of the rails” from the moment he first heard the whistle of a steam locomotive, to that fateful night of April 21, 1898, in Skagway’s St. James Hotel, when he quite by chance met the representatives of Close Brothers, a group from London, England, who had come to build a railway, but couldn’t figure out how.
Heney shows them the way.
The second act is all about the construction, and where Heney went from there.
Heney’s life story includes some historic milestones. For example, the driving of the last spike on the CPR in 1885 and the shootout on Skagway’s Juneau wharf in July of 1898. This was a pivotal moment; mobster Soapy Smith was killed, thus removing a major obstacle to the WPYR project (Heney’s own head engineer, John Hislop, was soon elected Skagway’s first legitimate mayor).
As playwright, I needed to include those key moments, but also select some personal ones for Heney himself, turning points that were essential to developing the inspirational leader that he became.
Early in Act I, for example, Heney is on his first CPR survey crew along B.C.’s Fraser River, when he gets a chance to watch the legendary John Stevens in action, dealing with an angry employee (Stevens, an American, was the CPR’s chief surveyor, and later became chief engineer on the Panama Canal).
And Heney was famous for not allowing alcohol on the construction line; how did he come to that radical decision? I had to imagine it, and I do so in a scene which is closely adapted from a play by Shakespeare…
Writing a play is often about deciding which fascinating characters to include, and which to leave out. As it is, Stonecliff has more than 40 speaking roles, played by only 10 actors – who change personas as often as they do costumes.
Writing a historical play also requires hours of research, making sure, for example, that the details of railway construction in the dialogue and lyrics are true to the period, and to that particular project, and finding a balance between enough railway lingo to make the show interesting and authentic, but not so much as to lose the audience.
Theatrical success also lies in finding the right collaborators to make the costumes and props, to create the dances which will keep the stage alive, and to design the projections that will create convincing environments for the actors to work in.
Musical theatre is the art form with the broadest variety of artists combining their creative visions, making it both extremely challenging, and very satisfying when it comes together.
In a couple of weeks in these pages, we’ll look at some of the people who’ve come together to create Stonecliff.
The Yukon Arts Centre presents Stonecliff on Friday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m.