December 7, 2023 in Alaska

The Gateway to the Klondike: How Skagway Became Alaska’s Frontier Town

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Early history and native peoples

The area surrounding present-day Skagway has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The local Chilkat Tlingit tribe used the area as a seasonal fishing camp and trading post long before European explorers arrived.

The Chilkat Tlingits had a thriving society centered around fishing for salmon and other seafood. During spring and summer months, they set up seasonal camps at the mouth of the Taiya River in Dyea and along Taiya Inlet. This allowed them to fish for salmon swimming upstream to spawn. They also traded extensively with other Tlingit clans as well as the inland Tagish and Tutchone people.

The native name for the area was Skagua, meaning “windy place”, likely referring to the fierce winds blowing through Taiya Inlet. The Tlingits used the inlet and river as major trading routes to exchange salmon, seal oil and other goods. Skagua was strategically located at the boundary between the coastal Tlingit clan and interior Athabaskan tribe territories.

The abundant natural resources allowed the Chilkat Tlingit people to establish permanent settlements at Klukwan and Haines. Archaeological evidence indicates native activity around Skagua dates back at least 6,000 years. The indigenous culture remained mostly undisturbed until European explorers sailed into the area in the late 18th century.

European exploration

The area surrounding present-day Skagway was first visited by European explorers in the late 18th century. In 1778, British explorer James Cook sailed through the area as part of his third voyage while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. Though Cook did not make landfall, his reports of a great river flowing into the Pacific inspired further expeditions to the region.

In 1791, Spanish explorer Jacinto Caamaño anchored in the Taiya Inlet. Caamaño named the inlet “Puerto de Revillagigedo” after the Viceroy of Mexico at the time. The next year, British Captain George Vancouver also explored the inlet, which his crew later renamed “Skagua Indians” after a local tribe they encountered.

While Cook, Caamaño, and Vancouver scouted the coast by ship, the first recorded landing by Europeans in the Skagway area was made in 1887 by William Moore and William Scales. The pair were looking to establish a trading post for furs in the region and traveled overland from Bennett Lake. Though their initial attempts failed due to harsh winters, the expedition demonstrated that an interior route connected the Taiya Inlet to interior British Columbia and Yukon via mountain passes. This helped pave the way for Skagway’s future role as a gateway to the Klondike gold fields.

Gold rush era

Skagway became a boomtown almost overnight with the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1896. By 1898, the population had exploded to over 10,000 residents, mostly prospectors on their way to the Yukon in search of gold.

The White Pass trail from Skagway to Yukon’s interior became congested with stampeders and their supplies. Entrepreneurs set up shops, restaurants, hotels, and transportation services to capitalize on the flood of prospectors. Fights, prostitution and liquor were rampant as the town took on a wild and lawless reputation.

Con men also flocked to Skagway, tricking the unsuspecting stampeders out of their money before they began the difficult 500-mile trek to the Klondike gold fields. The most notorious con man was Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, who swindled and cheated prospectors out of an estimated $2.5 million over three years. After Smith was killed in a shootout on the Juneau Wharf in 1898, the lawlessness began to subside in Skagway.

Even after the gold rush ended, Skagway remained an important gateway for prospectors headed to the Yukon. It also became a key supply point and transshipment center, with goods arriving by sea and then transferred to pack animals to cross the passes into Canada’s interior. This helped solidify Skagway’s status as a critical transportation hub.

Transportation hub

Skagway quickly became an important transportation hub during the Klondike Gold Rush. Prospectors from around the world flooded into Skagway as their gateway to the goldfields in Canada’s Klondike region. The nearest deep water port to the goldfields, Skagway was ideally positioned to become the most direct route for stampeders headed north.

Recognizing the demand for transportation, developers and entrepreneurs raced to build infrastructure to support the influx of prospectors. The most ambitious project was the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow-gauge railroad linking Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon. Built in just 26 months between 1898-1900, the railroad provided a critical overland route to aid stampeders traveling north and transport supplies into the goldfields. Once derided as an impossible task through the rugged coastal mountains, the completion of the railroad was considered an engineering marvel of its time.

At the height of the gold rush stampede between 1897-1898, the railroad carried thousands of prospectors as paying customers and tons of provisions toward the Klondike. Even after the end of the gold rush, the White Pass railroad continued operating as an important trade link between Alaska and Yukon. Later it transported troops and supplies to Alaska during World War II as part of the war effort. Today, the railroad remains in operation as a passenger service carrying tourists on scenic rides reliving the gold rush era.

World War II

With the onset of World War II, the strategic importance of Alaska increased greatly. Skagway’s location as the northernmost ice-free port in the state made it an ideal location for transporting equipment and supplies for the war effort.

In 1942, the United States Army substantially upgraded Skagway’s airport with long concrete runways as part of the Northwest Staging Route. The airport served as an important stopover for transport and fighter planes being flown to the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program. At its peak, over 8,000 American and Canadian service members were stationed in Skagway.

The army built wharves in Skagway and tank farms to store fuel transported from refineries in California and British Columbia. Materials brought through Skagway supplied major airbases across Alaska including Annette Island, Yakutat and Adak. This route became known as the Northwest Staging Route and played a vital role in the Allied efforts to assist the Soviet Union.

In addition to the upgraded airport infrastructure, the military built housing, hospitals, and other facilities to serve the increased personnel stationed in Skagway during the war. This influx of federal spending and jobs provided an economic boost to the town.

After the war, the military presence declined, but the airport continued operation as a key transportation hub for northern access to Alaska. The infrastructure investments made during World War II established Skagway as a strategically important port and laid the foundations for the town’s later tourism boom.

Tourism and national park

Skagway became a popular tourist destination as early as the 1920s, when the first cruise ships started arriving in the summer months. Its history from the gold rush era and historic downtown provided ample attractions for visitors. However, tourism started booming in the 1970s after Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was established.

The national park consists of restored buildings and land from Skagway’s gold rush past. Founded in 1976, it allows visitors to step back in time and explore the historic district. Park rangers offer guided walking tours describing life during the gold rush. The park is centered around Broadway Street, with highlights including the restored railroad depot and Moore home and cabin.

Along with the national park, Skagway also benefited from the increase in Alaska cruises starting in the late 1900s. Its port accommodates cruise ships throughout the summer, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors each season. As both independent travelers and cruise passengers flocked to Skagway, it cemented itself as a major tourist destination. Visitors can experience sites related to the gold rush, ride on the historic train, enjoy hiking and outdoor activities, and shop and dine downtown. Tourism remains vital to Skagway’s economy and identity today.

Modern Skagway

Skagway today continues to rely heavily on tourism as its major industry, just as it did during the gold rush era over a hundred years ago. It has become one of Alaska’s most popular cruise ship destinations, with nearly one million cruise passengers visiting during the summer months each year. As the northern terminus of the popular Alaska Marine Highway ferry, Skagway is also a starting point for many independent tourists traveling through Alaska and up to the Yukon.

The town comes alive during tourism season, with Broadway Street filled with curio shops, jewelry stores, and old-time photo studios catering to visitors. Popular activities include riding the historic White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, visiting gold rush-era buildings like the Red Onion Saloon, and taking bus tours up to the Yukon capital of Whitehorse. For many tourists, Skagway serves as a doorway to the majestic wilderness of mountains, glaciers, and northern rivers.

While strongly dependent on tourism, Skagway still retains its small-town charm as a community of under 1,000 year-round residents. The isolated location keeps the year-round population small, yet residents take pride in their gold rush history and close-knit community. With tourism driving the economy, the future of Skagway will undoubtedly continue to pay homage to its wild and adventurous past.

Historic architecture

Skagway has one of the largest collections of Gold Rush-era buildings in Alaska. As one of the main gateways to the Klondike Gold Rush from 1897-1898, Skagway experience rapid growth as stampeders poured into town on their way to the gold fields. Within just a few months, Skagway’s population ballooned to over 10,000. Almost overnight, a lawless tent city popped up with wooden buildings, saloons, hotels, and shops lining its dusty streets.

After the end of the Gold Rush, Skagway’s population declined sharply but many of the original Gold Rush-era buildings remained standing. Due to this, present-day Skagway has inherited an incredibly well-preserved downtown district showcasing original architecture from the late 19th century. Walking down Broadway Street feels like stepping back in time to Skagway’s earliest boomtown days. The buildings have been exceptionally well maintained or carefully restored to look as they did over a hundred years ago.

Historic highlights include the iconic Red Onion Saloon, one of Alaska’s oldest bars that still maintains its 19th century charm and décor. The old Lynch & Kennedy Dry Goods Store, now Skagway’s visitor center, was one of the very first frame buildings constructed during the Gold Rush. While most of Skagway’s architecture can be classified as vernacular, the impressive Arctic Brotherhood Hall is styled after a Norwegian hall with an exterior completely covered in 8,000 driftwood sticks. With such a high concentration of original Gold Rush structures still intact, the entire downtown of Skagway was designated as a National Historic District in 1978. Visiting Skagway today allows you to immerse yourself in Alaska’s gold mining history while strolling streets that have changed little since prospectors rushed north over a century ago.

Natural Environment

Skagway is surrounded by some of the most stunning natural landscapes in Alaska. The city lies at the northern end of the Inside Passage, nestled at the base of mountains that are part of the St. Elias Mountain Range. Visitors arriving by cruise ship sail past snow-capped peaks and breathtaking glaciers before docking in Skagway.

The majestic glacier-carved mountains and abundant wildlife create picture-perfect scenery. Popular excursions from Skagway include helicopter tours to view glaciers up-close or hiking trails through alpine meadows filled with wildflowers in the summer. The Chilkoot Trail that leads from Skagway into British Columbia provides spectacular alpine scenery as it winds past towering waterfalls, icy rivers, and old-growth forests.

Wildlife thrives in the diverse ecosystems around Skagway, which range from rugged alpine tundra to dense coastal rainforests. Grizzly bears, mountain goats, moose, bald eagles, and other animals roam the surrounding wilderness and can often be spotted along hiking trails or while on boat tours of the fjords. Protecting these pristine natural areas while providing sustainable access for visitors to experience their beauty remains an important priority for Skagway today.

Notable residents

Skagway has been home to some colorful characters over the years. As a bustling gold rush town in the late 1800s, it attracted its fair share of larger-than-life personalities chasing their fortune in the Klondike. Famous residents from this era include con man and crime boss Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, who operated criminal enterprises in Skagway before being killed in a dramatic shootout in 1898.

The adventurous spirit embodied by the gold rush pioneers continued through the 20th century. Margorie Harris, known as the “Sweetheart of the Klondike,” was a vaudeville star who moved to Skagway in the 1930s and lived there until she died at the age of 100 in 1963. She entertained generations of Skagway residents with her singing and storytelling about the gold rush days.

More recent notable Skagway residents include singer Jewel Kilcher, who lived in Skagway as a teenager in the 1980s and was inspired by the landscape and heritage of the area. Dog musher Lance Mackey, winner of four straight Yukon Quest races in the 2000s, also calls Skagway home. The wild beauty of the land continues to breed resilient, spirited people carrying on Skagway’s storied past into the present day.




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