6/13/19 Westmark Hotel, Skagway, Alaska
It is very difficult to separate the Klondike Gold-Rush National Historical Park (my bucket list item) from the town of Skagway, Alaska. The town is a small little pocket of less than 1200 people (slightly smaller than our home town of Questa). It has, however, a much larger historical significance and, as a result, the National Park Service has initiated efforts to preserve, and display, some twenty buildings within the town boundaries as part of a park to recognize Skagway’s heritage. Skagway and Dyea are the two American towns most associated with the 1897-99 Klondike gold rush. And, today, the major reason Skagway continues to survive is because of tourists who arrive here, primarily on cruise ships, to absorb some of this history and enjoy the stunning beauty of its location.
Here is the history as best I can recreate it from a day in the park and some additional reading. The word ‘Skagway’ derives from a Tlingit reference to the white caps on the bay resulting from the strong winter winds that come down the glacial valley. The natives established camps at the mouth of the Skagway river thousands of years ago and hunted in these valleys for centuries.
Recorded history begins with William Moore who worked on the Canadian U.S. boundary survey team which cuts across the high coastal mountains just a few miles inland from this bay. In his work, he was one of the first to traverse the White Pass, a difficult, snow-covered, alpine pass basically separating the two countries. Based on his explorations, he believed it was just a matter of time before someone would discover gold in these mountains and, although he wasn’t the prospecting type, he figured there would be money to be made from providing for prospectors as they moved to and from the gold fields over the White Pass. So he established a claim at the mouth of the river and built a log building or two to secure his claim.
He had to wait nine years before the claim paid off. Gold was discovered on the Yukon River, in Canada near Dawson in 1896. Now Skagway isn’t exactly close to Dawson – once you get over White Pass, you still have five hundred miles or so of travel to get to Dawson. But it was closer than some of the alternatives. Some folks took steamers all the way around into the Bering Sea and then spent a year or more traveling up the Yukon river to get there. Many folks thought it was easier to go over the mountain pass and so came to this part of the country.
The stampede was on, but curiously, the boom started a bay over at Dyea (you can hike between the two bays now in an hour along the shoreline). From Dyea, someone had pioneered a shorter, but much steeper Chilicoot Trail. In the end, though, they would say that ‘you had a choice, hell or damnation!.’ Although Moore tried to protect his claim in Skagway, in the end he was overrun by the sheer volume of stampeders.
Whichever pass you took, the difficulties were insurmountable. Winds sometimes exceeded 100 mph, horses died falling off the cliffs, and the Canadians, anxious to make sure new arrivals would not become the responsibility of the state, required that each immigrant carry with them enough supplies to last a year – or one ton of food and equipment per person. (Since horses couldn’t make it all the way over the pass, it meant each stampeder had to make between 30 and 40 trips back and forth in order to bring all their stuff over. Only then were they allowed to build or buy a boat to carry them to Dawson.)
After a year or two of this, businessmen got the bright idea of building a railroad over the easier pass, White Pass. And they did that. It made the passage into Canada remarkably easy, even with the one ton of supplies.
But it was finished a year after the boom busted. The Klondike gold was essentially gone within three years. An estimated 100,000 souls attempted the stampede over the two passes. It is not known how many people died attempting the passage, but estimates run into the thousands. And, in the end, only 100 people actually made any real money off the Klondike gold. The whole incident is another example in the long history of people trying to get rich quick, with many paying the ultimate price.
For three years or so, Skagway was the classic gold rush town and the source of many fables and stories. The town was essentially lawless and was run by con men and criminals. One of them, Soapy Smith, made his living feeding off the gullible stampeders. He operated a telegraph office and charged $5 to send a telegram ‘anywhere in the world’ even though there were no telegraph lines coming into Skagway until a decade or more later. He employed an army estimated at over a hundred to run his various cons and extort legitimate businesses. In the end, he died of gunshot wounds sustained when another citizen tried to ‘clean up the town’.
Prostitution may well have reached its finest expression in Skagway. Although a few women made it over the pass, many more made their fortunes in a more classic manner, selling their services in small shacks, known as ‘cribs’ and sporting a sign saying ‘House Of Negotiable Affections’. Others worked in saloons downstairs with brothels on the floors above. I’m reading a book I found here, ‘The Good Time Girls’, developing the history of Skagway’s oldest profession.
Walking through the streets of Skagway, except for the thousands of cruise ship tourists that you elbow through, is a step back into this historic chapter. The National Park Service has restored some twenty unique buildings scattered throughout the town. Many of them are self-guided opportunities where all you have to do is walk though them and read the signs. A couple of the museums require advance, but free, tickets for a ranger-led experience. We easily spent the better part of a day just walking around the town, stopping at Park Service buildings, intermixed with local businesses and plenty of local restaurant options. As we have seen in several National Historic Parks, the federal investment into developing the park here is one of the key reasons that Skagway is now a tourist boom town. How curious that Alaskans hate the federal government so much when they are among the biggest beneficiaries.
When the hustle and bustle of the tourist life becomes too much, there are several walking tours available right from town. We took one of them out to Yakutania Point and Smuggler’s Cove. Especially after crossing over the rocks into Smugglers cove, you can’t tell you just left several thousand people and four large ships and a railroad train. The cove was soothingly quiet and the views of the snow covered mountains rising starkly out of the bay was stunning.
We ended our Skagway visit with a trip to Olivia’s, a popular bistro offering local foods. You can get crab legs there as well as halibut and salmon in many different ways. Joan had the halibut and thought it was a little tough and needed a bit more robust sauce. I had the caribou medallions wrapped in bacon with a Gorgonzola sauce. I’ve never had caribou before and have to say it is one of the most unique meats I’ve ever tasted, tender and very rich. Although the waiter said it would be a bit gamey, I didn’t taste that. If this is representative of Alaskan food, it promises to be an exquisite trip.
We are packed and ready to move on to our third location in the panhandle. Stay tuned.