clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Small Alaska town takes pride in its checkered past

Skagway provides sense of taking a trip back in time

SKAGWAY, Alaska — The charming and colorful storefronts of this little Alaska town draw oohs and ahhs from visitors on a daily basis all summer long. And with good reason.

Skagway not only has preserved many of its charming Gold Rush-era buildings, but it also works hard to provide a sense of stepping back in time. You can't help but feel a connection with the past while strolling the wooden boardwalks and learning of the hardy (and a few foolhardy) folks who passed through this once-wild boom town on their way to the Klondike in 1898.

Compared with the other standard stops along the Inside Passage, Skagway wins the cute-and-quaint title hands down. It's smaller than state capital Juneau, less commercial than Ketchikan, more picturesque than Haines.

The local residents I encountered are casual, friendly folks, proud of their little town. One store clerk I talked with on this trip had summered here for a couple of years and was finally ready to take the big step and become a year-round resident. She was a wee bit apprehensive of Alaska's winter cold but willing to give it a go "because it's so beautiful here."

And Skagway is beautiful: Snow-capped peaks loom directly behind the downtown shops; the trees are big and green; the air is clear.

With more and larger cruise ships visiting pretty much daily from May to September, there's no denying that tourism is big business, but this town of only about 700 residents seems to be accommodating the growing influx of here-for-only-a-day visitors with little change in style. It also has motels, bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds to encourage longer stays.

Back in 1989, the Skagway Street Car Co. consisted of one vintage limo driven by company owner Steve Hites wearing a touring-car cap and driving coat. Now this provider of city tours has blossomed into a whole fleet of old luxury cars in the same distinctive bright yellow.

Horse-drawn carriages, my choice for seeing the sights, still roll through the streets at a leisurely pace. With their costumed drivers spinning yarns about the old days, they feel so romantic and old-fashioned — but admittedly lose a little of their charm if the day is chilly or rainy.

Skagway, protected by its location at the top of the Lynn Canal, claims to offer better weather than other coastal towns, though it can get windy. Summer high temperatures are in the 50s and 60s, similar to other Inside Passage locales, though with less rain.

Historic Skagway, the well-preserved downtown section, is easily walked in an afternoon with time left over for shopping. It's only five blocks long by three blocks wide and begins about half a mile from the cruise ship dock.

One reason these picturesque buildings are in such good shape is that a portion of the historic area is managed by the National Park Service as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. That's helped assure faithful restoration and maintenance.

An appropriate first stop is the park service's visitors center at Broadway and Second Street, where you can pick up a map and a quick history lesson from the multimedia presentation.

You'll learn that this was the port where an estimated 100,000 fortune-seekers piled off steamships to begin their arduous, uphill trek to the gold fields of Canada's Yukon Territory. Some prospectors did find great wealth, a few thousand brought out some gold, but most of the stampeders met discouragement or even death.

Other towns may boast of their place in history, but Skagway positively savors its past and wants its guests to know and appreciate it. You can't help learning that turn-of-the-century Skagway was a brawling and lawless place, home to some 80 saloons.

And probably more than once you'll hear the tale of the notorious con man Jefferson "Soapy" Smith and how he met his end in a gunfight on a Skagway street. You can find his name, along with many others from the '98 (that's 1898) era, on tombstones in the Gold Rush Cemetery at the far end of town. The site is a bit overgrown and a few of the stones starting to crumble — but that just adds to the old-time atmosphere.

A can't-miss-it sight is the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on Broadway, whose exterior is faced with driftwood, supposedly more than 10,000 pieces of it. (I didn't take time to count!) It's a one-of-a-kind photo-op location. The two-story building houses the Skagway City Museum, which includes photos, documents and Gold Rush relics.

As you stroll through town, be sure to look up occasionally at the second floor. Here and there you'll spot a red light glowing or a mannequin dressed as a "painted lady" perched in a window — further indication that the town really is proud of even the less savory parts of its colorful past.

An entertaining way to get your history lesson is the rollicking "Days of '98" show at the Fraternal Order of Eagles hall, complete with music and chorus girls. The evening show includes mock gambling games.

Some visitors like to soak up their history at saloons like the Mascot and the Red Onion, which is known for its honky-tonk piano music. There's also southeast Alaska's first microbrewery, the Skagway Brewing Co., housed in the Golden North Hotel, a gold-domed Victorian that dates back to 1898. Furnished with antiques, the hotel is still operating and is even reputed to have a resident ghost.

Perhaps my favorite attraction here is the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow-gauge railroad, which takes tourists up the steep and winding canyon behind the town.

It was built in 1898-1900 to carry the gold-seekers through some of the most treacherous terrain on their way to the Yukon. Prior to the railroad, the prospectors climbed the Chilkoot Pass on foot, some with pack mules or horses, thousands of others carrying their gear on their own backs.

The scenery is spectacular as the little train chugs past tumbling waterfalls and delicate mountain flowers, over lacy-looking trestles, around tight curves and along the very edge of sheer granite cliffs. It climbs from sea level to 2,865 feet. Even in June, there was snow on the ground.

The windows are wide and clear, but passengers also are permitted to stand on the platforms at the ends of each car to shoot photos or just take in the clean air and glorious views.

Travelers' tip: When you board the train, try to take a seat on the left-hand side as that is where the best views are. But if all those seats are filled, don't despair. Once the train reaches the summit there will be a short rest period while the engines are moved to the other end — and passengers are instructed to flip the seat backs to face the opposite direction AND trade places with those across the aisle from them.

A variety of narrated train excursions is now offered, including one in which you ride the train up, then bicycle or take a van back down from the summit. I chose the round-trip train ride, which took about three hours and included complimentary sodas and a colorful brochure. Booked through my cruise ship, Celebrity Cruises' Galaxy, the train ride cost $89 per person.

Adventurous hikers desirous of experiencing the route of the prospectors can tackle the rugged Chilkoot Trail, 33 miles up to Lake Bennett in the Yukon. The three- to six-day trip retraces the actual route taken by the gold-seekers.

The trail is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and hikers must register with the park service before setting out. You can also pick up maps and information about the Canadian border crossing. Guidebooks caution that Canada charges hikers a fee, while the U.S. side only charges for advance reservations. They also caution that this hike is only for experienced and properly outfitted hikers.