How do I know all this, you say. Well today Skagway is part of a National Historical Park and we went to the Park Services offices where we watched a film chronicling the great Klondike Gold Rush and later we had a guided walk around the historic part of town with a US ranger who regaled us with the history and anecdotes of the glory days of Skagway. There were only six of us on the tour and the ranger did an excellent job. He was a bit of a ham actor, but in a very nice way and only at the end, when he thanked us for coming, did he tell us that this was the very first tour he had given here in Skagway, as he had recently transferred from the park service in Richmond, Virginia.
Now, at the top of the Inside Passage, were two small settlements. One was Dyea, where the Tlingit Indians controlled the 33 mile long Chilkoot trade route over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River. From here thousands of gold seekers toiled up the famous Golden Stairs, a climb of 1000 ft over 1/4 mile, not once but 20 to 40 times, shuttling on their backs, 50 pounds at a time, the ton of food ( a year's supply) and equipment required before the Northwest Mounted Police allowed entry into Canada. Skagway, the other port, grew from a population of 5 homesteaders to a tent city of 10,000 overnight. From Skagway, the White Pass route was the longer by ten miles but slightly less arduous and the summit was lower. One stampeder, who had made the journey over both passes, said, "It didn't matter which one you took, you'd wished you had taken the other."
Since Skagway was a better port it soon became the "Gateway to the Klondike", a bustling city with 80 to 100 saloons, one church, three breweries, many brothels and businesses supplying services to the miners. In a matter of months, the tent city gave way to wooden buildings and wooden sidewalks and it literally turned into a lawless frontier town as opportunists conceived schemes to part the miners from their money. The most infamous of these scoundrels was Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith who set up a telegraph scheme, offering to send messages from miners and even concocting replies supposedly received over his non existent telegraph service. After he was shot by a disgruntled man he had cheated and after a group of British investors began building a railroad over the White Pass, Skagway settled into a more normal existence. However, by the completion of the railway to the top of the pass in 1899, and finally to Whitehorse in 1900, the rush was over. The opening of the railway sounded the death knell for Dyea, which ultimately was abandoned. So few people made their fortunes in this mad enterprise but many people made this journey into the wilderness with hopes of a better future for themselves and their families. While they did not find gold many said they would do it all over again regardless.
The White Pass and Yukon Route railway operated as an integral part of the economy of Skagway, providing the means to bring goods, mainly minerals, in and out of the Yukon until 1982 when the route was suspended due to the closure of a large mine in the Yukon. However the summer tourist industry continued to grow and the railway was reopened in 1989 as a summer excursion route. Last time we came to Skagway we took this incredible three hour round trip train ride through the majestic mountainous countryside to the summit and back. It makes you appreciate what difficulties those stampeders had to overcome to make that journey at the end of the nineteenth century. A journey that 100,000 started but only 30,000 succeeded in making.
Join me tomorrow for the next episode in my cruise to Alaska.