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Alaska Cruise Port Review
Alaska Ports of Call

Gold Rush City

by Alan Walker

Downtown Skagway

The Gold rush is still on in Skagway but with tourists prospecting for gold jewellery, rather than gold nuggets. Instead of 20,000 would-be miners passing through in a year as happened in 1898, there are now up to 10,000 tourists a day, and this is in a town that boasts a permanent population of only 800! Does this mean that Skagway is too over-crowded to enjoy it? No, there is plenty of room to move about and see the downtown sights, and there are a myriad of shore excursions to take outside the town.

Geography and History

Skagway sits at the top of the Inside Passage, just as far as you can go. It is an interesting cruise down the long narrow Lynn Canal to get to either Haines or Skagway, both framed by the rugged Coast Mountains. The name "Skagway" comes from the Tlingit word "Skagua" which means "Home of the North Wind". (Locals jokingly say you never breathe the same air twice.) Skagway is the epitome of Alaska, being the jumping off point for the prospectors on the long trek into Canada's Klondike when gold was discovered there in 1897. The Klondike area was still a huge distance from Alaska's shores, but the only access to the interior was either through the Chilkoot Pass at Dyea, or the White Pass at Skagway. You can see part of the White Pass prospectors' trail if you take the train or bus tour to the "Summit" - more about that later. Of the 40,000 men and women who went to search for gold in the Klondike from all over the world, it's estimated that only half of them actually ever went gold prospecting, with the other half remaining in towns like Skagway. It's also estimated that only 4,000 ever found any gold, and less than a hundred of these people ever became wealthy. Only about a dozen remained wealthy for life, one of them being Seattle's John Nordstrom, founder of the well-known department stores in the Pacific Northwest.

Soapy Smith

As might be expected with a town that grew up overnight, law and order were almost absent. One of the most notorious residents of Skagway at that time was "Soapy Smith". His gang controlled much of what happened in Skagway until Soapy, and a local vigilante, Frank Reid, had a shoot-out, and both died. You can still see the graves of both men in the Gold Rush Cemetery, located on a hillside outside of town. There is also a marker in Skagway where the famous shoot-out took place.

Downtown Skagway

Skagway retains much of its 1890's look, with false-fronted buildings, giving it the look of a western town. You can take a seven block walk along the wooden sidewalks of the main street of Broadway, or you can get a horse-drawn wagon or a buggy to transport you around.

Downtown Skagway is pretty much Skagway as a whole, almost like a big shopping mall, and easy to walk around. It's a short walk from where the cruise ships dock, and in fact Broadway goes right to the dock. As you leave the dock, you will see what first appears to be graffiti on the large rocks of the hillside, but if you look closely, you'll find that all of the graffiti is, in fact, painted souvenirs left by the crew of various cruise ships who have visited that dock over the years. Some go back to the 1970's, one being a sign for the "Spirit of London", an old P&O ship. It appears that the townspeople and the visiting captains agreed that the ships can leave a permanent souvenir behind in this fashion.

Visitor Centers

A short walk along Broadway to the corner of Second Avenue will get you to the Klondike Historical Park and Visitor Center, where you can get all kinds of literature, and advice on tours if you're planning to organize your own, and not use the ship's. Here you can also see the old White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Depot which is now owned by the National Park Service, and which offers a number of free programs during the summer, including a 30-minute film on the history of the Gold Rush. The new depot for the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is next door, and that's where you would catch the train to the Summit, if you don't take it directly from the ship dock. Another place to get good brochures is the Skagway Visitors Center on Fifth Avenue, just off Broadway.

More on "Soapy"

Jeff "Soapy" Smith's "Parlor" (saloon) may be seen at Broadway and Second, although it is not its original location. Among other things, Soapy was famous for selling $1.00 bars of soap, some of which were supposedly wrapped in $5.00 or $50.00 bills, but it seemed only his friends ever won a big bill. Another famous racket of Soapy's was his "telegraph office", where he charged $5.00 to send a telegram or to receive one. Somehow Soapy's business boomed, even though Skagway had no telegraph lines at the time! Ironically, Skagway commemorates the famous con man on July 8 each year, complete with champagne provided by Soapy's descendants (who still dispute his notorious reputation).

Red Onion SaloonSkagway's "Red Onion Saloon" (not to be confused with Juneau's "Red Dog Saloon") was built in 1898, and is located at the northwest corner of Second and Broadway. As well as being famous for still having its original 19-foot mahogany saloon bar, the Red Onion is also famous for having a brothel upstairs over the dance hall and saloon. The story is that behind the bar there were dolls representing the girls working upstairs, and when one was with a client, the doll reclined; otherwise it was upright if she wasn't busy. There are many other interesting places to visit in downtown Skagway, but I won't mention them all. The Arctic Brotherhood Hall on Broadway is unusual in having a facade made out of 20,000 driftwood sticks collected on the tidal flats. On the southwest corner of Third and Broadway, is the Golden North Hotel, said to be the oldest operating hotel in Alaska. In Room 24 of the hotel resides a famous ghost, "Mary". While Mary was waiting in the hotel for her fiance to return from the Klondike Gold Rush, he was killed in an avalanche on Chilkoot Pass. Mary refused to believe that he had died, and waited faithfully in her room, eventually dying of TB. According to locals, Mary still roams the halls in a long white gown, sometimes in a veil, and sometimes with her hair piled on her head.

Other Skagway Attractions

At Broadway and Sixth you'll find the historic "Eagles Hall", an 1897 building which now is the home of Skagway's "Days of 98" show, a theatrical production which has been running for almost 75 years. The show is a Gay 90's melodrama, featuring Soapy Smith and other events from Skagway's historic past. Show times are posted on the building. I regret that I didn't have time to go to the show myself, as I was busy walking behind my wife, carrying all her souvenir purchases (grin).

White Pass Yukon RailwayAs mentioned earlier, only two routes existed from tidewater to Yukon's Klondike. If you managed to get over one of the two mountain passes carrying your required ton of supplies (which meant you might have to make as many as 35 round trips to carry it all over the mountain), you still had to walk another 40 miles to the Yukon River, where you would have to built a boat or raft to travel the further 550 miles to the Klondike River. To avoid the agony of trekking over one of the two passes, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad Company was organized, and construction started on a railway over the White Pass on May 28, 1898, and less than nine months later, the railroad was completed to the summit of the White Pass. Just over two years later, the railroad had been completed all the way to the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon. This fast completion was to no avail, as the gold rush was over by the time the railroad was finished.

Although closed for many years, the train line has now been reopened, and it is one of the most favorite shore excursions to do in Skagway. It's a comfortable ride, even though it is a narrow gauge railway (the rails are only 3 feet apart instead of the usual 4' 8-1/2"), but this meant that the railroad engineers only needed a 10 foot wide roadbed instead of the normal 15 feet. It also meant that the trains could use a smaller turning radius, which was essential to negotiate the tight curves of the White Pass. Modern diesel engines now pull the train to the Summit, but an old steam engine is often used to pull the railroad cars the first few miles, to re-create an authentic atmosphere. On your way up and back on the 40 mile trip, you can see part of the original Gold Rush Trail, lots of beautiful waterfalls, Black Cross Rock (a monument to the railway workers who were killed during construction), Dead Horse Gulch (where 3,000 pack animals died from neglect and overloading) and the tallest cantilever bridge in the world when it was constructed in 1901. At the White Pass Summit, you're at an elevation of almost 3,000 feet, at the U.S./Canadian border. In the Gold Rush days, Mounted Police only allowed prospectors to pass this point who had a ton of supplies, supposedly enough to survive in the harsh north for a year.

There is a narrator on board the train, and snacks and souvenirs are sold (although very slowly). While I enjoyed the round-trip train excursion, I have heard others say it is better to go one-way on the train, and return by bus as you get better photo opportunities. You can also take a longer trip into the Yukon itself, but if you do that, you will have little time to enjoy touring around Skagway itself. Although the main train station is in town, the train line actually extends to the terminal where the cruise ship docks, so you only have to walk a few feet to board the train.

White Pass Train

When we were there on the Galaxy, there were two trains - one was fully booked for Galaxy passengers, and the other was used for Mercury passengers, and then picked up other people in the train station. While you could no doubt save some dollars by booking your own train excursion at the station, you will be one of the last on the train, and less likely to get a good seat. The 3 hour round-trip on the railway cost us $89.00 each.

Other Skagway Tours

The details below relate to the specific tours offered by Celebrity in Alaska in 1998, but the prices and itineraries are likely to be similar to those offered by other cruise lines.

As you might expect, there is a basic tour of Skagway itself which I don't believe is necessary to take at a cost of $39.00 per person. You can take a bus tour to the top of the Summit and go gold panning for $42.00 although as I have indicated, I think the train trip is more fun because it is the original railroad line. Another city tour can be done using vintage street cars, but again not worth the money in my view. As mentioned earlier, you can do a combination rail and bus tour which takes approximately 5 hours, and costs $134.00 per adult.

As with other Alaska ports, you can do helicopter and float plane trips to the glaciers. One helicopter trip takes you over the Chilkoot Trail, and you land on a glacier and visit there for half an hour. The cost was $175.00 per person. You could take a longer helicopter ride with two glacier landings, for $225.00 per person. Float plane trips are a little cheaper, and you could do a "Glacier Country Flightseeing" excursion for 1-1/4 hours, at a cost of $140.00 per person. A combination float plane and river raft trip, taking about 5 hours, could be had for $240.00 per person. Your plane lands in nearby Haines, and then you are taken on a 45 minute drive up the Chilkat Valley to the eagle preserve, where you board your raft. On the more active side, you can take a bus to the top of the Summit, and then ride all the way back on a bicycle. Cost was $35.00 per person. A combination bike ride and river rafting trip on the Taiya River could be taken for $110.00 per person. Other tours included kayaking, hiking and a salmon cook out/gold panning demonstration.

Final Notes

You could clearly have a busy day in Skagway, with just one excursion and touring downtown. The Skagway residents are a fun group, and certainly make you feel welcome. Here is a little story to show you how different the people of Skagway can be from the big city people. In 1982, the first McDonald's opened in Juneau, about 95 miles by air to the south. You can't get to Juneau by road, so the residents of Skagway, not wanting to miss out on the excitement of the first McDonald's, arranged for two medivac planes to pick up an $800 order of Big Macs and fries from the big city. Although there was a wind chill factor of 40 below zero, 200 people waited at the airport runway for the return of the "Big Mac Medivacs", and the planes rolled down the runway with a police escort. The school band played "Old McDonald had a Farm", after overcoming some freeze-up problems with their instruments. Wearing hospital greens, the pilots hustled the food into the terminal for distribution. It was not recorded how the fries survived their journey.


Julianne Chase's Inside Passage Walking Tours is the best book I have found about Skagway (and also Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau). The book is published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle, phone (206) 467-4300. The book, which is a handy 4 x 8-1/2 inch size which will fit in a back pocket or large purse, has excellent color picture, fun anecdotes, and detailed walking tour guides.

I hope you enjoy Skagway as much as I did!

Photos provided by Alan Walker


Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Alan Walker" as your search phrase.

Alan is also a member of the Cruise Staff of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum. Alan loves email, and can be reached at: AGWalker@compuserve.com.

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