Travel Classics home Travel Stories Library Travel Classics Writers Conferences Travel Classics Media Newsletter Contact Travel Classics
 

New Gold Rush In Old Skagway
A Formerly Sleepy Alaskan Outpost Now A Major Cruise Ship Port of Call
by Charles N. Barnard

The Sweet Tooth Saloon on the main street of Skagway, Alaska, is not a saloon at all, but the place to get breakfast at 6 a.m. At that hour each day in summer, the 767-population town wakes up to the scent of doughnuts frying, the racket of helicopters warming up for sightseeing flights, the clip-clop of carriage horses — and the overwhelming presence of several huge vessels which have maneuvered silently into place at town piers near the end of Broadway: Crystal Symphony . . .Regal Princess . . .Galaxy . . .Tropicale . . . .

Several thousand passengers aboard these ships will come into town within another hour or two.

Today's storm is gathering.

Skagway. Or Skagua. Or Sch-kawai. The name may mean "place of the north wind" in an Indian language. Or it may mean "rough water." Or it may mean "end of the salt sea." Nobody knows. I like the sound of the word anyway. Skag—way! It is a salutation. A happy shout.

I came here years ago and looked around for a few hours and liked what I saw. Skagway was not like the other rain-soaked towns along the popular cruise-ship route, the Inside Passage: Wrangle, Ketchikan, Juneau. For one thing, it was the end-of-the-line port, the northernmost settlement on that hundred-mile-long fjord misleadingly called the Lynn Canal. Here I found a town with a rowdy gold rush history, shops selling jewelry ornamented with gold nuggets, a working steam railroad, horse-drawn carriages driven by pretty women in 1890's costumes — an innocent mixture, it seemed, of real and fake — I could not tell how much of each. I should come back here some time, I thought, and stay as long as it might take to understand this place.

So here I am again — for as long as I wish to stay this time. "But that's unheard of!" a Skagway friend says jovially. "Anyone who spends more than a couple of days in this town becomes a citizen. A few more days and you're eligible to run for mayor!"

Twenty-seven giant white cruise ships of 14 companies paid 371 port calls at Skagway last summer, some coming and going as often as 23 times. Many are big as city blocks, floating Hyatts and Hiltons packed with thousands of tourists — a summer total now over 400,000 and greater every year. They tie up early each morning, release their passengers for a few hours of shore excursions and shopping, then take them all back on board and sail away by evening (no ship ever stays in port overnight; its place at the dock is irrevocably reserved for another ship tomorrow).

So it is the same scene in Skagway the next day, and the next, and the day after. May to September. Week after week. "If that's Veendam, this must be Thursday." This is summer on Alaska's Inside Passage. It is a gold rush. Something that Skagway knows all about.

"Gold always seems to happen to us, doesn't it?" my friend says. "Why us?"

In the Sweet Tooth, I say good morning to Skagway people I met for the first time only yesterday or the day before. They already know I am not a tourist or I wouldn't be here at this hour — nor would I be here two days in a row. They remember my name ("You're the writer"). My waitress asks if I want the bran flakes and an English muffin again this morning. Yeah, thanks Ellen, the same will be fine, I say.

A century ago, Skagway was the port of entry to the Klondike, one of the maddest stampedes for gold the world has ever known. Mad and sad and shameful and futile it was. There was no gold in Skagway, all knew that; the gold was up in the Yukon, hundreds of miles north — but thousands came stampeding through here starting in the summer of 1897. The ships arrived in the morning then, too, but they left empty — as soon as they could unload: men, women, horses, tents, machinery, provisions, freight.

Also crime, disease, cruelty, greed, despair. In only a few months, the population of Skagway went from exactly two white men, a father and son, to . . .who knows? Ten thousand, some say, maybe twenty; a brawling, boisterous town of transients, a community of strangers, one of the most lawless places anyone had ever known. A hell on earth, it was called.

The tempo of contemporary Skagway picks up between 8 and 9 in the morning. Near the piers, city-tour salespeople position to intercept passengers walking into town from the ships ("snagging," it's called): "Where-you-folks-from?". The choppers start to lift off on early flights. Young people in Gay Nineties costumes and armed with rolls of paper towels are polishing windows on a fleet of odd-looking yellow busses lined up waiting for customers. Carriage horses whinny and neigh impatiently, eager to get trotting on sightseeing rides. The whole machinery of a tourist town seems to awaken — shops open their doors, National Park rangers hurry to their posts, narrow-gauge trains are switched onto spur tracks that reach out onto the ship piers, hack drivers brush down their horses and polish the brasses.

The show is about to begin!

I thought I would walk up to the Gold Rush Cemetery at the north end of town, beyond the White Pass and Yukon Railroad's maintenance yards, along the course of the Skagway river, its icy, rushing water all milky with glacial flour. Skagway is surrounded by mountains, a valley town, about a mile from end to end and half a mile wide. The streets form a grid, the way they were laid out in 1897 when the gold stampede swept through. I pass the supermarket, the fire station, many small homes invariably surrounded with flower gardens.

At the cemetery, a sign says 133 graves of the pioneers have been counted, but only about 60 are identified. Most visitors are interested in only one, anyway, which is the grave of Soapy Smith, one of America's really great rascals. Skagway once had a lot of those, but Soapy is without question the town's most infamous historical character, a crook and confidence man whose crimes have now been absorbed into the legend-fabric of the community with a touch of pride. Soapy, ultimately shot dead by vigilantes in 1898, had daring and originality. When I arrived at his grave, I was not surprised to see several small bouquets of wilted flowers leaning against his headboard.

A train whistle is a mournful and defiant old cry, and the hissing and belching of live steam is the music of another time. These lovely atonal sounds can be heard at Skagway almost every day. Old 73, a working Iron Horse, produces a plume of white vapor and repeated whistle shrieks as it passes through a dark spruce forest on its way to "the summit." Hauling tourists. It is not a theme park ride, but a scheduled departure on a real railroad: smell of oil and smoke, deep breathing of big pistons, the rising tempo of chuffs and chugs. Twelve wooden coaches are coupled on behind the locomotive; 500 passengers per train, three trains per day, 200,000 cruise ship customers per year at $75 per ticket, all traveling the 20-mile gold rush trail from the town to the White Pass and back through spectacular mountain scenery.

If it hadn't been for the construction of the railroad, Skagway might not exist today. It might just be some broken glass and rotting stumps sticking out of the ground. That's all that is left of Dyea. Never heard of Dyea ("die-ee"), you say? That makes my point. Dyea was another gold rush town only a few miles away, as big as Skagway once, a twin city, now disappeared.

Dyea had no railroad.

Skagway today is a false-fronted, board-sidewalk, frontier town Americans might recognize from western movies. It looks like a stage set — which it is and it isn't. It is part of an officially-designated National Park and the men and women of that Service do their usual earnest job of guiding and interpreting — as well as restoring and maintaining historic structures in town.

I see no FedEx trucks in Skagway, no UPS, no McDonalds, no sidewalk ATM machines, no airlines, no cell phone calls during lunch, no automobile showrooms. (If they're here, they're tucked away.) I never even saw a police officer, although there was one police car parked in front of town hall.

Oh yes, there are some street characters, guys dressed like Davy Crockett, maybe, a hatchet on their belt and a 'coon's tail hanging off their hat. And one day I thought I saw Mark Twain in his white suit. But these are private exhibitionists, not commercial shills. Not even the chic-looking female sales clerks from the new, up-market jewelry stores attract much attention. They seem dressed for New York's Fifth Avenue, not Skagway. Local people think these "summer ladies" must have been imported from Seattle or somewhere "to talk diamond-and-emerald talk."

But many of the resident population also become summer-stock performers on this peaceful stage. Gently, gently they pan for tourist gold during 100 to 150 days a year, the "summer season." The Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates this "gold" may be worth as much as $50 million. That's about $65,000 per citizen.

Everybody in town knows everybody else, of course — but from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, all are too busy to say more than a quick hello to each other. That part of the 14-hour summer days belongs to a force greater than nature itself: 40 or 50 tourists for every resident. Some days maybe 100.

Sun Princess . . .Executive Explorer . . .Horizon . . .Rhapsody . . . .

Cruise ships! Hate 'em . . .and bless 'em.

The gold stampede was over in less than two years. The first winter was the worst, when thousands tried to make it over White Pass and into the Yukon on foot and with pack animals. Three thousand horses died and were left to rot on the trail. The WP&Y railroad reached the summit of the pass in 1899, but by then most of the placer mining claims had been staked on the rich, gold-bearing creeks around Dawson and reality had set in for late-comers. The boom was bust.

Visitors who take the WP&Y train to the summit today are still able to see "The Trail of '98," a distinct narrow footpath, rocky and mossy-green in places now, a poignant tracing of history.

It is often said that of the hundred thousand who set out for the Klondike, only 30,000 made it to the gold fields, only 15,000 ever looked for gold, only 4,000 found any — and only a handful became rich. But a few found something else along the way — and decided to call Skagway home. In 1900, it became the first incorporated town in Alaska . . .albeit with a population by then of only 3,000 and headed lower. But by then, too, it had its own narrow gauge railway . . .and a good port . . .and a cemetery . . .and many churches (most of them empty and abandoned) . . .and a history that surely could not be matched for drama and color.

It was this story that would bring the big white ships and a new gold rush to its harbor a century later.

Crown Majesty . . .Statendam . . .Hanseatic . . .Sky Princess . . . .

Of course, there is a museum. It is in a historic building on Broadway. The contents are a mosaic of the town and its times, I thought. (Oh, to assemble all of this wonderful old stuff into some artful arrangement of "found objects" and win a prestigious sculpture prize with it!) Iron stoves, trunks, lanterns, toilets, luggage, life preservers, steamship brochures, sleds, newspaper headlines, a stuffed bear, school desks, carpenter's tools, wash tubs, corsets, whiskey bottles, barbers' razors, tobacco products, a gold-weighing scale, cash registers, a roulette wheel, slot machines, a spittoon, World War II mess kits, kitchen utensils, Indian baskets — and a big sign inscribed by "Chief George II . . .friend of the white man."

Skagway isn't a big hotel town. Most of its day-tripping guests already have fancy cabins on their cruise ships, after all, but a few travelers come here by other routes and from other places. There are almost 400 rooms in town, many of them in bed & breakfast establishments, some of which are both historic and quaint. I stayed in the Skagway Inn, a rambling, 100-year-old structure on main-stem Broadway. It had been a brothel in gold rush days — evidence of which it faithfully preserves. (Prostitution was such an industry in gold rush Skagway that its sanctioned districts had to be officially relocated and enlarged several times.) Each of the 12 rooms in the Skagway Inn still bears the name of the lady-of-the-evening whose particular bed-space it was. My quarters were those of "Grace," may she now rest at last. Her name was printed over the door to my room and on my key.

A former mayor of Skagway, Ms. Sioux Plummer, operates the Inn. Could we have a talk some time, ma'am? Why, of course!

The Golden North Hotel, up the street, claims to be the oldest continuously operated hotel in Alaska — and who would argue? Its most prominent architectural feature is a golden dome put in place to help illiterate sourdoughs find their way back to their quarters from the saloons — even if they could not read the name of the hotel. Annexed to the street level saloon, I found the Skagway Brewing Company, "serving a superior article of beer."

The gift shops and jewelers along Broadway all have the Convention and Visitors Bureau list of cruise-ship arrivals for the entire summer; there is no guesswork about it, right down to the hours of arrival and departure. Store managers know which ships are due into port tomorrow and tomorrow — and how mucho dollars an Alaska cruise on each ship costs. Seabourne Legend coming in on June 20? Wow, get out the Windex and be ready! Such up-market arrivals can mean up-market business — which means putting on more sales help, displaying the big-nugget pieces in jewelry showcases, staying open for as long as SS Big Bucks is in port.

Had lunch with the Mayor. I thought she might be full of stories of civic achievements and prosperity, but over crusty focaccias at a homey pizzeria, I found the lady had an unexpected and thoughtful perspective on her Skagway. Where was the old town going, anyway, she grieved. Was there an end in sight to all of this . . .er . . .growth? Who are these franchise operators (who got their start in the cruise-ship world of the Caribbean) and are now selling emeralds and diamonds and Swiss watches here? Is that what Skagway wants?

Hmm.

And did I know that Skagway has no doctor — and the cruise ship medical staffs will not treat passengers who may fall ill or be injured while ashore? You had a heart attack after lunch, pal? (The mayor gets animated just talking about it.) They won't take you back on board SS Big Bucks! No, sir, Skagway has to helicopter you to the hospital in Juneau, an hour away. And who pays for that?

Hmm.

I stopped in at a National Park office one morning to ask about bears. I had thought about doing some hiking on the 1898 trails — but I had also heard stories about black bears and grizzlies around here. The Ranger I spoke to looked like he might be of Indian ancestry, which increased my respect for his advice. First he handed me a brochure with the headline, YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY. It displayed a drawing of a menacing-looking critter. Then we talked for a few minutes. "Yes, we got bears . . .but don't ever try to run away from one of 'em," he said. "And if you're camping, put all the food away — including your toothpaste. Bears love toothpaste! They think it's candy!"

I didn't go hiking after all. I decided to take the train.

The four helicopters that take tourists on rides of various duration to see the White and Chilkoot Passes and the surrounding glaciers are another way to get a look at both history and scenery. On a good-weather day, when the right cruise ships are in port, the Convention and Visitors Bureau calculates the choppers may take in $87,000. Expensive, but it is one way to avoid the bears.

Visitors stand in front of all sorts of things to have their photos made in Skagway, I notice: yellow busses, steam locomotives, stuffed bears, totem poles, cemetery headstones, horse carriages, helicopters, concrete polar bears, flower gardens, prostitutes' cribs, log cabins, people in costume, sled dogs, National Park rangers — even in front of the zip code numbers displayed on the Post Office wall — (99840).

Mabel G. Smith's Café on Fifth Street, just off Broadway, is a place to meet — between, say, 8 and 9 a.m. — almost anyone who is important in town. That's where I ran into Jeff Brady, editor of the Skagway News, the oldest and only newspaper in town. The 85-cent, biweekly paper has no paid employees, Jeff says, but he is deservedly proud of one thing: in a community of less than 800 population, the paper has a circulation of 1,000. "This is accounted for not by the quality of our journalism," Jeff says, "but by the fact that I mail 500 copies a week to 'overseas subscribers,' people who love Skagway so much they have to keep up with whatever is going on."

In the gold rush years, two towns were established at the mouths of two valleys that both led, ultimately, to the Yukon River. Skagway's valley went up to the White Pass. Dyea's valley, only a few miles away, led to the Chilkoot Pass.

"Whichever you choose," said Sourdough wisdom, "you'll wish you took the other."

National Park rangers take visitors on walking tours around what's left of Dyea, which is essentially nothing — but it is a nothing that can be made fascinating by a good guide. For me, this was Peter Lucchetti, in his Smoky the Bear hat. Dyea may actually have been a bigger town than Skagway at times in 1897 and 1898 because the Chilkoot Pass was considered by some to be an easier route than the White Pass — that is, until Skagway's railroad changed everything.

So Dyea died. Oh, there are maps of what it was like, and countless old photographs — the Ranger guides will show you these — but Dyea is only a flat expanse of grass and scrub today. Here and there the stumps of old piers stick out of the ground or other fragments of history materialize — a door frame, a stove lid, window glass turning violet with age.

"Careful! Don't step on that," says Peter. "Yesterday's junk is today's artifacts."

In 1897, Skagway is said to have had 70 saloons. The best-known watering hole in town today is the Red Onion, in an unrestored building of Gold Rush vintage on Broadway, only two blocks from the harbor. These premises, too, were once a house of prostitution, a fact now illustrated by several appropriately attired mannequins posing among red lamplights at the second-story windows.

The decor of the noisy, raunchy, street-level saloon consists of many bedpans on one wall and other, more fragile glass bedpans kept within a display case. Also snowshoes, bearskins, harpoons and moose antlers. Live jazz is provided almost every afternoon, the musicians being "borrowed" from whatever cruise ships may be in port that day.

Star Princess . . .Legend of the Seas . . .Windward . . .Noordam . . . .

"What can I do for you, darlin'?" I am asked by a friendly lady behind the bar. I name my brew and ask about the music. The barmaid explains that the groups of four or five get no money for a few hours work — "but all the beer they can drink."

For those who can't get enough of the Soapy Smith story, there is a nightly theatrical performance called The Days of '98 Show. This farce in three acts purports to be taken directly from the historical record. The role of Soapy has been played almost without interruption for the last 25 years by one Jim Richards, occasionally understudied by others including the aforementioned Jeff Brady, editor of the Skagway News.

I had the distinction one morning of having coffee with both of these "Soapies," a rare coincidence, I thought. Richards designates himself as Soapy #2 (the real Soapy being #1), while Brady is thought to be #7. Like some other Skagway residents who have prospered, Richards leaves town in winter and heads for his house in Hawaii.

One morning, over coffee in Mabel Smith's, I ask about real estate — is there ever any property for sale here? Are there any brokers? The answers seem to come reluctantly from residents to an outsider. "No, there's hardly ever anything for sale . . .(pause) . . .no land ever actually comes on the market, not hardly . . .(pause) . . .there's really no market, not the way you mean . . .(pause) . . .or when something really is for sale, it's handled privately, you know . . .in a coffee shop maybe . . .like right here at Mabel's . . .that way . . .(pause) . . .no, there's no public disclosure of transactions, but . . .(long pause) . . .was there anything in particular you were interested in, mister?"

Well, I said, just out of curiosity, what would an empty 50-by-100 building lot be worth . . .I mean, just out of curiosity?

"Oh, well . . .one lot, you say? (Pause.) A building lot? An empty lot? Well, maybe thirty thousand."

And a business lot? On Broadway, maybe?

"Broadway! Well, now, that would be expensive. A place to have a business, you mean? (Pause.) Right here in downtown? Oh, my. Maybe as much as a hundred thousand? Cash would make a difference, of course."

I wanted to stay until September, right up to the 29th, when Horizon, the last cruise ship of the year, would depart and the curtain would come down.

What happens then? I asked.

My Skagway friend, a year-rounder, says, "Well, you'll see the shopkeepers out boarding up their windows even before that last ship leaves. Broadway shuts down. It's kinda depressing. We've been trying to get merchants to end the boarding-up custom. It started when the railroad used to run down the middle of the street throwing soot and cinders, but it isn't necessary any more. It would be much nicer for those of us who stay behind if the stores would just leave their windows uncovered — and even decorate them just a bit, maybe with some Christmas lights?"

Of course, I thought, it's only four months until the big white ships start arriving again — and Broadway reopens!

New Amsterdam . . .Crown Majesty . . .Horizon . . .Windward . . . .

HOME   LIBRARY   WRITERS CONFERENCES   ABOUT TRAVEL CLASSICS   CONTACT US

©2000-2017 TravelClassics.com; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca