After checking in to SGT Preston’s Lodge, I spent a couple of hours walking around the small town of Skagway, taking photos of the beautifully restored old Victorian buildings, many of which form part of the Klondike National Historic Park managed by the National Park Service. (another part of the park is in the Pioneer Square Historic District in Seattle, where the vast majority of gold seekers began their journey north to the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon)
One of the most fascinating historical restorations in Skagway was the “Mascot Saloon”, which was a very realistic re-creation of a typical bar scene from the gold rush days of 1898, complete with lifelike models and sound effects. It could easily “fool” passersby into thinking it was a real-life saloon. However, once inside it was very clear that the men standing at the bar, as well as the bartender, were not real. Throughout the saloon were lots of historical exhibits and old photos, as well as information about the saloon and its place in the colorful history of Skagway.
Later I visited the White Pass and Yukon Railroad depot to buy a ticket on the excursion train the next morning, but I found the doors were locked. As I walked around to the front of the building, I came upon two men talking, so I asked the older man if he worked for the railroad, to which he replied “I used to run the railroad, but now I’m the mayor of Skagway – is there any way I can help you?” He directed me to the depot entrance and introduced me to a very nice lady at the ticket window, who sold me a ticket for tomorrow’s train. I thought I would be one of a very few passengers on the train, but lo and behold, she said two large cruise ships were due in port tonight and had fully booked one of the trains. Apparently these two cruise ships were the last ones of the season, which explained the preponderance of signs posted around town announcing the closure of most businesses for the season on Thursday!
Next door, the National Park Service Visitor Center had a fantastic display of exhibits and information, including a film, about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush that put Skagway on the map. Over 100,000 people “stampeded” to the Klondike, and amazingly, over 30,000 of them actually made it all the way to Dawson City in the heart of the Yukon Territory.
After spending a couple of hours in the Visitor Center learning a great deal of fascinating history, I headed for the infamous “Red Onion Saloon”. (reputed to be Skagway’s favorite watering hole, then and now) However, I found that it didn’t open until 4pm, so I walked down to the dock to take a photo of the Alaska Ferry MV Malaspina as it left port for Sitka and points south to Bellingham. As I approached the dock, the smell of delicious food wafted past me, being prepared in a small restaurant called “Harbor House”. The lovely smells invited me into the restaurant and I discovered a neat little place with only 3 booths and a couple of tables, all of which had a beautiful view of the harbor.
Josh, the owner, welcomed me and highly recommended the fresh, local Rockfish in a tempura fry, served with a delicious pineapple-mango salsa, black bean chipotle sauce, and basmati rice. It was superb, and a most unexpected surprise for such a small, remote town! The warm, crusty sourdough bread and butter to start with was very tasty and went quite well with the cold pint of Alaskan IPA. As I savored dinner, I watched the MV Malaspina depart from the dock. Meanwhile, a young Italian couple at the next table were having some difficulty understanding Josh’s heavy Brooklyn accent, so I did my best to translate for them! After the fabulous dinner, I walked back to the Red Onion Saloon, and as I approached the historic old structure, a little girl in a bright pink dress said hello and walked in. Once inside, as I looked around the classic old bar, I was struck by the view of a long row of old “bedpans”, of every conceivable size and shape, nailed to the wall on one side of the room. On the opposite wall, above the ornate, old fashioned carved wooden bar, hung the painted portraits of Skagway’s most notorious “Ladies of the Night”! (the upper floor of the old bar was a brothel during the heydays of the gold rush) At first, as I sat down at the long bar, I was only one of three people in the whole place. Then suddenly, a very large group of young people invaded the bar, and soon I found myself surrounded and outnumbered. It was clear that they all knew the bar staff and the bar staff knew them. In no time, there was a lot of beer flowing and food being consumed. Then suddenly, a bell was rung and shots of Jameson Irish whiskey were poured for everyone in the bar, at which point, we were all told to stand up and “salute” our shot! One of the girls climbed on to a bar stool next to me and proceeded to take a photo of the group. I asked her what was the occasion and she replied “it’s the “Skagway Brewing Company” staff party. That explained the sign I had seen earlier on the front door of the brewery announcing it was “Closed for Staff Party”, which I had assumed was being held in the brewery. Ironically, the Red Onion Saloon did not have a single beer from the Skagway Brewing Company on tap. Meanwhile, old 60’s and 70’s tunes played on an old jukebox in the corner. Around 7:30pm, a local band by the name of “The Windy Valley Boys” began to play and soon, the old bar began to fill up with local families and small children. As I looked around the bar, it was hard to imagine what it might be like when two huge cruise ships dock in port tomorrow. The Windy Valley Boys played some great Irish and Cajun music, and it wasn’t long before people began dancing, especially the young kids. One cute little blond boy kept racing around between the tables while his young mother ran after him, trying in vain to catch him. And the whole time he was laughing and having lots of fun. Later in the evening, as the band took a break, I talked with their leader and bought a copy of their one and only CD titled “Alaskagway”. Before I left the saloon that night, I asked the tall blonde bartender what the place was like when cruise ships were in town. She told me that she and all the waitresses dressed up in tight corsets and 1890’s dance hall dresses! Then she showed me a copy of the saloon’s new 2014 calendar with classic “pin-up” photos of her and the waitresses – they were gorgeous girls, but like night and day from their “everyday” look!
The next morning I was up early to catch the 8:15am train to White Pass summit, and as I turned the corner on the Broadway, I encountered hoards of people on the street, where the previous day I might have seen only 2 or 3 people! (it was a bit of a shock) Alongside the depot was a long train already filled with cruise ship passengers and ready to depart for Fraser, BC and a transfer by bus to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. A short time later, a smaller train of antique coaches pulled into the station for the 8:15am departure. As we boarded the train , we were greeted by two vivacious young ladies named Erin and Kylie, our tour guides. The journey would take us up to the White Pass summit at over 3,000 feet elevation in a short and steep 20 miles. The first half of the trip followed a narrow valley along the banks of the Skagway River, as the fog and clouds began to lift and the skies cleared. It wasn’t long before the route began the steep climb up the slope of the canyon, which gave us spectacular views of the other train as it climbed up the very steep, rocky mountain on the opposite side of the canyon over 1,000 feet above us. We could see several wooden bridges and trestles “clinging” to the rocky ledges – an amazing sight!
And hundreds of feet below us were the rails on which we had just come up earlier. As our train rounded the steep mountain, heading north again, we had spectacular views down the valley, all the way to ocean – the huge cruise ships looked like tiny white “boxes” on the edge of town! Soon the train approached the first tunnel, and then past an enormous, old wooden trestle bridge, long since abandoned and replaced with a steel girder bridge.
As we neared the summit of White Pass, the landscape abruptly changed from alpine forest into tundra, with low brush scattered among the rocky ground and alpine lakes. As I looked to the side of the rails I could see the remaining traces of the original and infamous “Trail of 98”, where thousands of “stampeders” spent weeks hauling heavy loads of supplies up the steep trail to White Pass. From there they had another 50 miles to go to the shores of Lake Bennett where they needed to build a boat or raft for the 300 mile journey down the Yukon River to the gold fields of Dawson City. As I gazed at the unforgiving, desolate, and remote landscape, I could not imagine how those stampeders had managed to even reach the summit in the dead of winter when the depth of snow could be over 20 feet, let alone survive the hazardous trip down the mighty Yukon River where dangerous rapids awaited them. The trek from Skagway to Dawson City, a distance of 450 miles, would have been a serious challenge for experienced explorers, let alone young office clerks and salesmen who left everything in 1898 to strike it rich in the Yukon! Even today, with our modern outdoor gear and technology, it still remains a challenge.
As the train crossed the Canadian border, there was a replica of a Northwest Mounted Police checkpoint where every stampeder had to show he had supplies for a year before being allowed to proceed. (it could take 15 – 20 trips up the 3,000 foot steep trail from Skagway to White Pass summit in order to transport the thousands of pounds of supplies required by the mounties) As the locomotives unhooked and moved to the rear of the train for the return journey to Skagway, there was an announcement by Kylie that this was Erin’s last trip of her first season, and as tradition goes, she would take the “plunge” into the freezing waters of Summit Lake on the edge of the tracks. Most of us were a bit skeptical, thinking it must be a “stunt” for the tourists. But then, as we all were poised with our cameras, she stepped off the train, with the conductor, and approached the water’s edge. And to our amazement, she dove into the icy lake! The whole train applauded and cheered as she quickly climbed back on shore. Then Kylie came on the PA system and announced that today was also her last day for her first season, so she would be taking the “plunge” in the afternoon! (we all wished her good luck)
As our train slowly made its way back to Skagway, descending the steep slopes, we could see the other train on the opposite side of the narrow valley, over a thousand feet below us – a spectacular sight. Back in Skagway, I walked over to a small outdoor café for a delicious lunch of fresh halibut and chips while sitting under brilliant, sunny skies. An elderly couple seated nearby struck up an interesting conversation about the experience on board their cruise ship versus my trip on the Alaska Ferry. Later in the afternoon I hiked along the old railroad line to the historic “Gold Rush Cemetery” on the north edge of town, and along the way I discovered an old, rusting steam locomotive sitting on a short spur – weeds growing up through the big drive wheels. As I walked up to it I could almost hear the history of the old iron horse echoing softly through the surrounding forest. I could only imagine its glory days as a part of the 1898 gold rush. Nearby was another silent resting place of gold rush history and some of the colorful characters who left their mark on Skagway.
A short trail weaved its way among the old graves to Lower Reid Falls, named in honor of Frank Reid who shot and killed the notorious gang leader “Soapy Smith”. Soapy was killed outright, but unfortunately, Frank died 12 agonizing days later from a gunshot in the groin. As I looked at Frank’s headstone, I recalled that earlier in the day, aboard the train, the way Kylie had put it, Frank lost his golden nuggets! The falls were gorgeous, dropping over 300 feet in a very steep, narrow, rocky gorge. As I left the cemetery, I saw a small grave that marked the site of a baby who was born on July 21, 1899 and died July 22, 1899. I couldn’t help feeling rather sad at that moment, even though it happened over 100 years ago. Just then, a large group of tourists arrived in a classic old antique National Park Service tour bus. On my way back to town I spotted the remains of another old steam locomotive, but there was an unusual aspect about it. Of the six large drive wheels, the two in the middle were smooth, without the usual “flange” to keep the wheels on the rails. Not far away was the “Gold Rush Brewery”, which unfortunately was closed for the season, but I had an opportunity to take photos of an old gold dredge that was left at the last place where the gold had finally run out many decades ago. In a way, it marked the spot like that of a headstone on a grave. Eventually I reached downtown and stopped at the Skagway Brewing Company for a cold pint of their “Chilkoot Trail IPA”. At first there was only a handful of people in the bar, but soon the cruise ships invaded the place, and among the crowd were a significant number of Aussies who added a lot fun and cheer! Later in the evening, I walked down to the cruise ship dock and took photos of the two enormous ships as the alpenglow of the sunset reflected beautifully on the rugged mountains rising thousands of feet above them. (“Zuiderdam” of the Holland-America Line and “Sapphire Princess” of Princess Cruise Lines) As I looked north up Main Street, a steady stream of people were headed toward the ships, as they would soon be departing for Glacier Bay. And soon the town would be deserted once again!
As the sun slowly set and stars began to appear, I looked for a place to have dinner. Suddenly I spotted a tiny restaurant by the name “The Curry Bowl”, on a small side street. As I entered the little place, I quickly realized that I was the only customer. The restaurant had a limited menu, but my favorite Indian dish was on it – Chicken Tikka Masala! As I enjoyed the spicy food, several Bollywood musicals played on the TV in the corner. A short time later, an elderly Indian couple came in, and immediately the owner and his wife greeted them as old friends. Then they all began a lively conversation in Hindi. (that’s when I knew this was an authentic Indian restaurant – the last thing I had expected to find in Skagway, Alaska!) By the time I finished dinner, night had fallen and the streets were virtually deserted. I walked over to the Skagway Brewing Company once more, and it was packed with locals celebrating the end of the tourist season. Luckily there was one empty seat at the bar, and the bartender recognized me from the previous night. He suggested that I try the specialty of the house, a cold pint of “Spruce Tip Blonde Ale”. It definitely had a most unusual taste – that of spruce, fir, and pine trees! It was an interesting tasting experience, but I preferred the Chilkoot Trail IPA. As the evening progressed, it became a wild celebration, with several rounds for the whole bar. I managed to make my exit before midnight and walked back to SGT Preston’s Lodge, along the dark, silent streets, as a light rain began to fall.
Early the next morning, under wet, cloudy skies, I walked over to the Avis Car Rental office and picked up a new Ford Explorer that would take me to Anchorage. But before leaving Skagway, I drove to the nearby Dyea National Historical Site and the start of the famous Chilkoot Trail. The town of Dyea sprang up almost overnight at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, when it became a port for unloading supplies being shipped from Seattle and San Francisco. It was also a point of departure for prospectors seeking their fortune in the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon. Dyea was the nearest port to the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail, an old native route over the mountains to the interior, that rapidly became a major route for gold seekers on their 500 mile journey. The Chilkoot Trail rises steeply over 3000 feet to Chilkoot Pass and the Canadian border. In the winter of 1898, men spent weeks hauling heavy loads on their backs up and over the pass to a staging area on the shore of Lake Bennett. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police required each man to have a minimum of 2000 pounds (1 ton) of supplies at the border before they were allowed to proceed to the lake. The most famous image of the Klondike Gold Rush remains a photograph of the Chilkoot Trail where hundreds of men with heavy packs on their back, were lined up, one behind the other on the steep snow covered slope up to the pass. (the image also became imprinted on the Alaska state license plate for many years)
By the summer of 1899, the trail was eclipsed by the opening of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Skagway, a much shorter and more efficient route. Today the Chilkoot Trail is a popular hiking adventure during the summer months, and a fascinating historical journey back in time.
From the old townsite of Dyea, I began the long drive up the steep Klondike Highway to White Pass summit, on my way to Whitehorse. Along the way were spectacular views of Skagway far below, and upon reaching the summit, the views of the rugged Coast Mountains in British Columbia were equally spectacular. Then it was on to the Canadian border crossing and into the Yukon Territory. (stay tuned for part 3)