Getting to Skagway
While we were in Alaska, we wanted to visit the Gold Rush city of Skagway, a place we had visited on our first trip to Alaska eons ago. One can get there by water or air. We took a short (45 minute), very scenic flight in a 6-seat plane from Juneau. We flew along the Inland Waterway that threaded between and alongside mountains and past several glaciers to get there. We landed at the Skagway airport which is a short 10 minute walk to town.
Skagway is a small, 1,000-person town that consists of approximately 25% renovated/reconstructed historic buildings and 75% Hollywood recreations of what a Gold Rush town is supposed to look like.
We visited the town just prior to when the restart of post-Covid huge cruise ships. These ships deliver about one million visitors per year during the four-month cruise season. But without these crowds, few of the tourist shops were yet open, and the Scenic Rail tour of the White Pass and Yukon had not yet begun operating. Even the National Park Service had cut back its services. They had suspended the showing of its introductory film, their town walking tours, and had closed one of its buildings. But we also didn’t have to fight hordes of other tourists.
Although we were disappointed that we were not able to take the rail tour or the Park Service walking tour, we were already quite familiar with the history of the Klondike Gold Rush and Skagway. The Visitor Center galleries provided a lot of information and the knowledgeable rangers were more than happy (and without the crush of visitors they had plenty of time) to address questions. And one of its building tours was still operating.
The Town That the Gold Rush Built
The National Park runs the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. It contains over 20 gold rush boomtown buildings, many of which are in Skagway’s Historic District. Its Klondike Gold Rush Visitor’s Center is located in the renovated terminal of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. The visitor center provides a very good overview of the Gold Rush and the growth of Skagway.
The story of the gold rush begins with the discovery of gold in the summer of 1896 when tens of thousands of often ill-funded, ill-prepared stampeders came to try to find a fortune. The center explored the travails they encountered in the rugged and dangerous 500 mile trip to the Dawson City goldfields, the difficulty of mining in the harsh environment, and the deaths and disappointments of the vast majority of those who attempted the journey.
Among the center’s highlights are:
- Skuokum Jim Mason and George Carmack’s almost accidental discovery of gold in Canada’s Yukon Territory while on a fishing trip. The news circulated around the world. Tens of thousands of stampeders from more than 40 countries flocked to try to find a quick exit from a depression that left many families without jobs, food or hope.
- The flood of stampeders imposed hardships on the native Alaskans. They took their land, brought disease, drove away their game, and so forth. However, natives adapted by using their skills and knowledge of the region to profit from the rush.
- How the prudent Canadian required that each stampeder have the provisions required to survive the expedition. This required each person to have almost 2,000 pounds of supplies and equipment. As a result, stampeders had to make 20 to 40 trips up and down the pass to the Yukon River to get to the goldfields. This transformed the 33-mile trail to the lakes into a very difficult trek of up to 1,300 miles! Many lives were lost in the process.
- The five primary routes to the goldfields and the challenges and hardships faced by those who attempted each. The hybrid land/river routes through the towns of Dyea (near Skagway) and Skagway became the most popular routes.
- The unique challenges and dangers of each route. Stampeders faced survival challenges from heat, bugs, and torrential downpours of summer and the blizzards and -50-degree weather of winter. They had to buy or most likely build their own boats and then traverse the Yukon River’s rapids. And then they faced the difficulties of mining in a perpetually frozen land. By the time that most stampeders even reached the goldfields, most of the good claims had already been filed.
- Despite providing the shorter, generally less difficult (except for the notorious Golden Stairs” a quarter of a mile section in which one had to climb 1,000 tortuous, vertical feet), less dangerous route, Dyea became a ghost town. Skagway, with its deeper port, grew from a tiny tent town in 1896 to the largest and richest city in Alaska. By 1898, it had 8,000 people, boardwalk sidewalks, electric lights, and telephones.
- How Skagway grew rapidly and chaotically. Its 80 saloons, dozens of gambling parlors, dance halls, and bordellos often resulted in violence.
- Enter the legendary Jefferson (aka “Soapy”) Smith who was both a Samaritan, the grand marshal of the city’s first July 4th celebration, and owned a saloon. This notorious (and admitted) conman led a gang that cheated, bilked, and stole the life savings of hundreds of stampeders before being killed in a gunfight.
- The challenges of building the White Pass and Yukon Railroad eliminated the most difficult part of the journey to Dawson City. The railroad, whose tracks ran down the middle of the main street, helped ensure the survival of Skagway despite not being able to open until the gold rush was all but over.
- How the vision of men like Captain William Moore, the irrepressible showmanship of Martin Itjen, and the role of the railroad in carrying cargo and tourists from the coast into the Yukon helped to secure Skagway’s long-term survival as a tourist destination.
- How the city transformed from a lawless, lascivious, crime-ridden mining town with ramshackle buildings and prostitution “cribs” into a pleasant, livable, law-abiding family town with active civic organizations and modern Victorian buildings in a period of five years (from 1897 to 1902).
In sum, Skagway is an artificial, rather tacky tourist town with few good restaurants or hotels. It is packed when cruise ships land in the morning but empty after tourists reboard their ships in the afternoon. Even so, it has so much history that the National Park Service has so well preserved and explains that it is a very worthwhile destination–especially if you can avoid the seasonal cruise ship crush.
- Olivia’s is located in a former bordello which is now the Historic Skagway Hotel. We also stayed at this hotel, whose rooms are named after prostitutes and furnished in the gold rush time period. We had a very reasonably-priced meal consisting of very good cream of halibut soup, salad, a bottle of 2020 Hahn Pinot Noir from a very limited, low-markup wine list, and two of the three puff-pastry-encased entrees for the evening. While the elk puff with mushroom sauce was pretty good (except for the tough meat), the very dry, halibut puff with a minuscule amount of halibut was helped by Joyce’s decision to spoon some of the halibut soup onto it. The chef, however, was somewhat redeemed by a breakfast of custardy French toast with raspberry compote.
- Skagway Fish Company is a short walk from the main part of town and is along the water. We had a lunch of somewhat salty king crab legs, salad, and Alaskan Beer Company Amber.