Travel · Trip review

Skagway – A Gold Rush History

Alright Dashin’ Ash community, I’m probably going to sound like a bit of a Debbie downer here. That’s not who I am, I don’t usually like to act that way, but the town of Skagway, Alaska just rubbed me the wrong way. It could have been that my expectations were too high. I wanted to walk amongst the historic buildings, ride along the historic White Pass Yukon Railway, and completely immerse myself in gold rush history. Everywhere in Alaska seems to have been affected by the 1898 gold rush, but Skagway most predominantly so, and I wanted to be a part of that!

Unfortunately, similar to most cruise ports, the focus in Skagway seems to have shifted to selling jewelry to tourists. I, especially living and working in the tourism industry in Orlando, understand how tourism affects an area. As a tourist however, I wish so many of us wouldn’t spend our days traveling by shopping for outrageous things, and instead visiting sites, taking pictures, and getting to know locals. Not getting to know their diamond selections. Every port we had been to had a taste of this malarkey, but it was the most dense in Skagway.

That being said, there were some very amazing things about Skagway. The first is that, having heard that people were searching for gold in the Klondike region, Captain William Moore set up a homestead to prepare for the rush of people that might be heading his way. He waited eleven years with his son, anticipating the success they’d have as people headed as far north as they could by ship, and building a sawmill and blazing the trail that later became White Pass. Their patience would have been worth it, as the majority of the 100,000 Stampeders did go through Skagway, officially putting it on the map. Unfortunately these Stampeders almost entirely ignored Moore’s claim to the land, even forcing him to move his house!

There were two major ways to get to the Klondike gold fields, and both were tremendously difficult. The first was the “all Canadian” route, which took you North through Canada, and then curved around into Alaska. Most of the Stampeders who took this route didn’t even make it in time to collect gold. The rush was over after two years, and this route, although advertised to be the quickest path, was filled with untraveled terrain and took nearly two years just to get through. The more successful route was via ship to Skagway, and then climbing either the “Golden Stairs,” the nickname for the Chilkoot Trail, a steep but shorter climb or the White Pass, the longer but less steep pass where pack animals could be used.

The majority of the people took the White Pass, and this then led to the creation of the White Pass Yukon Railway, started in 1897, and finished in 1900, after the gold rush had ended. Fortunately, this railroad was used to carry other ores out of the Klondike regions, so when the mad rush for gold was over the train still had a purpose. Which bring us to present day where I took my seat and rode the train alongside of the path those determined men and women took 120 years earlier. The White Pass is still visible in most places, so you really feel like you’re riding next to history. The bridges and tunnels the train passes through are marvels for their time, and the man who narrarated our trip was informative and entertaining. All of that being said, I don’t think I would ever go out of my way to take this trip again.

Once we passed into British Columbia, we met up with our guide who then drove us down the mountain we had spent all morning traveling to the peak of. This was, in my opinion, the best part of our excursion. I hate myself for this, but I forgot the gentelman’s name who was our driver, but he made gold rush history the most interesting history in the world. Most of what I’ve included here is from memory, just repeating what he told us (and looking up names and dates just to be sure, clearly my memory can’t be relied upon all the time.)

Our next, and last, scheduled stop was at Alaska 360, where I fell prey to the most ultimate of Alaskan tourist traps: panning for gold. If you’ve never done this before, I still maintain that you have to try it. Even if it’s only to appreciate what those early miners went through. (Hint: a lot of really cold hands and frustration.) As I walked away, my stomach way more full than my gold canister, as lunch was great! I felt silly about the whole thing (except lunch. Food is never a joke,) but also armed with knowledge. And sometimes that’s worth engaging in a ridiculous activity.

Before long I was back in downtown Skagway. One really cool thing was that the townspeople decided to make the city more business minded. To do that, most of the major businesses were moved closer to the rail station. They did this by putting them on logs and rolling them to their new locations. The infamous Red Onion Saloon, brothel (currently brothel museum) and bar (currently still a bar,) was put on the block backwards. To rectify that problem, the constructors cut the front of the building off, brought it around to the street side, and made the back of the building the new front. That is another really neat part of Skagway, you feel like you’re walking through the original town, as long as you can ignore the cars rolling through.

Other interesting buildings include the building covered in driftwood, and the bank, the only bank to make money from a robbery. The Arctic Brotherhood Hall was built in 1899, and the men who built it collected well over eight thousand driftwood pieces to make the facade. As far as the bank, you can read the whole story here, however the short story is still interesting. A robber came in threatening the bank with dynamite in exchange for money, the robber accidentally shot the dynamite with his gun, and blew up the entire bank. The people of Skagway doused the flames, and gathered the debris in buckets. Most of them having experience with gold mining, the sluice boxes were set up, and the gold panning began. When they had finished all the bank’s gold was accounted for, and then some, making it quite a profitable heist.

As I said earlier, the historical aspects tend to get lost amongst the jewelry stores, and incessant shoppers, so in an attempt to get away from all of that I headed to the Gold Rush Cemetery. This was hands down, the best thing I did in Skagway. Taking a walk to the outside of town and across the train tracks you’ll find this little cemetery nestled into the edge of the forest. While walking there we weren’t even entirely sure if we were permitted to visit, as the only time I had ever heard or read about it was as we drove past it on the train and the narrator casually pointed out that it existed. As we got closer though we ran into a couple who were on their way back. That’s when we learned, not only is there a cool cemetery, but there is also an amazing waterfall.

To get there, you have to go through the cemetery first, seeing the final resting places of Frank Reid and Soapy Smith, members of the most notorious duel in Skagway. Soapy Smith was a con artist, running nearly every con in the book all across the United States. His final town was Skagway, where he collected crooked politicians, gang members, and cops to his side. On his final night some of Soapy’s men “won” over two thousand dollars worth of gold from a man using a rigged game. The vigilante team in town tried to make Soapy give the gold back, but he refused. There was a huge crowd amassing, and they were quite irate at Soapy’s actions. Frank Reid was tasked with guarding the Juneau Wharf, and when Soapy got there they both had it out, and they both were shot. Soapy was killed instantly, and Reid died twelve days later, but is forever remembered as the man who “gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”

After you pass through the gold rush cemetery, there’s a tiny sign pointing you on to Reid’s Falls. After a short walk, that path opens up, to give you a view of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen cascading down in front of you. It was this combination of history and an incredible display of nature that allowed us to walk back to the ship feeling like the day had been a success. I wish more people knew about these hidden gems, they’re definitely not to be missed.

Did you find any other hidden gems in Skagway making it worth your time? Let me know in the comments, maybe you can persuade me to give this little town a second try.

2 thoughts on “Skagway – A Gold Rush History

  1. If your cruise starts or ends in Seattle and you have time to explore a bit there is a free gold rush museum there with info about the gold rush in Skagway. Seattle is where the boat landed with the announcement of the gold in Alaska, and where the hopeful gold rushers set out from, unaware that locals in Alaska already had all the most productive claims. One of the more interesting things there is a wheel you can spin that gives the percentages of how many got rich (not many) and how many of those stayed rich to the end of their days (even less). You spin it to see if you can land on the tiny sliver of those that struck it rich, but the more interesting aspect is how few that really was.

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