Although the mines have long since closed, the Gold-Rush flavor of Alaska’s early days are still present in Skagway. You can almost hear the cries of “gold in the Yukon” echoing as you wander along the streets that are lined with wooden boardwalks and restored buildings, appearing much as they did 100 years ago. It’s doubtful today that you will succumb to gold rush fever, but if there’s any place that could provoke the thrill of prospecting it’d have to be Skagway!
If you allow the frontier spirit to overtake you for an adventurous moment its worth trekking out into the Yukon Following the White Pass Trail. This can be accomplished either along Rail or by bus. I opted for the land version as this allowed me more stops along the way to take in the scenery and imagine what it may have been like for the nearly 100,000 prospectors that attempted this journey from 1896 to 1899. These stampeders entered Alaska through Skagway then crossed the steep and dangerous White Pass in an attempt to reach the gold rich Canadian Yukon. For the lucky prospectors that made it through the mountains, an even more rigorous test awaited them; a 600-mile trek across the Yukon’s frozen tundra to the Klondike gold fields. To add burden to their journey, officials in Canada required each prospector to carry 1 ton (2,000 lbs) of food and gear with them when entering Canada, to ensure they would not starve during the harsh winter. Many failed attempting to make such a treacherous journey, but for those who did the reward was great. It was documented that over $50 Million in gold was excavated from the Yukon in only 4 years.
But where there’s gold there’s greed, and Skagway was no different. Many stories linger in the barrooms and brothels that line these streets today. So much that Skagway’s most notorious citizen is a Criminal and Villain, Jefferson Randolph Smith (AKA Soapy Smith). He acquired his nickname from conning towns throughout the West into buying his lucky soap at $5 a piece in hopes that a few were wrapped with $100 bills. It was in 1897 when he found himself in the rugged frontier town of Skagway where his craft had peaked. A town with little regard for laws he had built himself a gang of over 300 men. But the local frontiersmen grew angry with Soapy’s antics as they tried to establish a more upstanding community. On July 8, 1898, he confronted a crowd rising in opposition along the docks, and specifically a surveyor named Frank Reid. The two exchanged harsh words and eventually bullets killing Soapy on the spot. He and many of his outlaw friends’ graves can now be found just outside the city limits in the Gold Rush Cemetery.
If you’re staying within the city limits you’ll easily be overcame with excitement of yesteryear complete with saloons and barroom pianos. The two most iconic establishments are the Red Onion Saloon and the Artic Brotherhood Hall. The Red Onion Saloon was the classiest dance hall and saloon in town. A weary miner could wander into the Red Onion for a taste of “liquid courage” and a dance or two with a beautiful lady. When the time came to cure his thirst for some love and affection he could choose a lady and one of the ten elaborately decorated ‘crib’s’ upstairs. Conveniently, or not, located only two doors down is the most photographed building in all of Alaska, the Artic Brotherhood Hall. This was a fraternal hall hosting the local chapter of the Brotherhood which first meet here in 1899. What makes the hall so spectacular is its facade. Lodge members foraged the shores of the Bay of Skagway to collect 8,883 driftwood sticks that they then nailed to the front of the Hall. The A.B. Hall of 1899 has been said to be the most beautiful example of Rustic Architecture. There’s no doubt that the gold rush boomtown past lives on in Skagway!