Skagway – yes, I made it to my first Alaska stop! It was a white knuckled ride but low gear and the grade brake got me over the pass and down the 11% grade into this seaside Alaskan town known for its gold rush history.
“I must admit that I was as brutal as the rest but we were all mad – mad for gold, and we did things that we lived to regret.” – Jack Newman, packer on the White Pass Trail 1897
Historically, the Alaskan tent towns of Skagway and nearby Dyea were the jumping off points for the 600 mile trek to the Klondike gold fields. Skagway was located at the head of the White Pass Trail and Dyea was the start of the Chilkoot Trail.
The hardest on men was the Chilkoot Trail as the slope was so steep that pack animals could not be easily used on the steep slopes leading to the pass and the stampeders had to carry everything on their backs. The White Pass Trail was called the animal-killer as thousands of pack animals lost their lives on this trial many ending up at the bottom of Dead Horse Gulch.
“There ain’t no choice. One’s hell. The other’s damnation.” – Yukon Stampeder
In the winter of 1897 the miners who made it to Dawson City would nearly starve. The Canadian Mounties laid down the law. If you want in to Canada you must have enough food and supplies to survive a year, roughly 1,500 pounds of goods. This would mean numerous trips over that mountain packing those 1,500 pounds of food and supplies on your back. Once the would be gold seekers had packed their supplies over the pass to the lakes they had to build or purchase boats to float the remaining 560 miles downriver to Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Fields where the gold was rumored to be in limitless supply. Those hundreds of miles on the Yukon River included flowing waters punctuated by furious rapids and many perished on the journey.
“It is about the poorest trail I ever saw, and I have seen many in my life. It is a wild, reckless trail.” – John Muir
The Klondike gold rush ended about as suddenly as it started just a few years later and the remaining stampeders started for home, most having not fulfilled their dream of finding gold leaving behind two the declining former gold rush cites. “Dayei” is a Tlingit word meaning “to pack” and the town of Dyea all but disappeared forever leaving only memories and some long forgotten piles of rubble.
The construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in 1898 funneled those stampeders through Skagway and the much easier railroad route. The once booming town dropped to a population of less than half a dozen people by 1903, a mere five years later. Today the Dyea town site is a National Historic Landmark within Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
“Skagway” is from the Tlingit word “Shgagwei” which means “roughed up water” – a reference to the gusty north wind.
Because of the railroad the town of Skagway was able to survive in ways that Dyea could not. Today there are 20+ buildings remaining and being preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service as part of a National Historic District. Skagway has also come into its own as a tourist destination. Most days there are four cruise ships in port discharging each day up to 10,000 visitors to this tiny Alaskan town.
While visiting Skagway I joined some of the Loosey Goosey crew for an afternoon trail ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad that still shuttles folks up over the pass to Whitehorse in the Yukon. According to the bus driver “the railroad runs this town” – isn’t this true in many areas! The ride was incredibly beautiful and the narrator gave passengers a great overview of the area’s natural and cultural history.
As fate would have it I just so happened to be in town on one of the days that a good friend of the family Larry Gould was coming through on an Alaskan cruise. I was excited to spend the day with Larry in Skagway to catch up and pick his brain about photography. We headed in the jeep to the old Dyea townsite to see what we could find. It was eerie to see how fast the forest had taken back the town. Where thousands of gold seekers once overran the area now there was just dense forest and beautiful tidal flats. Only one “storefront” remained of the original town.
“You can drive out nature with a pitchfork but she keeps on coming back.” – Horace
Watching four Bald Eagles perching and flying over the tidal flats was quite inspirational. These birds of prey seemed to know exactly where the best spots to hunt while staying out of the way of the tourist busses and visitors.
Skagway’s most famous graveyard is the Gold Rush Cemetery so after exploring Dyea a stop there was on the list. Historic records indicate that the first burial occurred there in early 1898. With the exception of only two families the cemetery was no longer used after 1908. 133 gravesites have been located here but burial records exist for only sixty of these.
“The only place where you can find equality is in the cemetery.” – Evan Esar
Some of Skagway’s most famous characters including Jefferson “Soapy” Smith and the man who killed him frank Reid are buried here and just walking through the site reading the remaining headstones surrounds you in the history of the area.
The National Park Service does a great job of protecting and preserving the history of this historic site. There is a good museum and several historic buildings as well as frequently scheduled Ranger walks. I recommend heading to the visitor center to check out the displays and sign up for one of the town tours with a Ranger.
While the gold rush history is intriguing one can’t forget as you look around at the marvelous scenery that you are in Alaska. So a visit to Skagway would not be complete without a hike to immerse yourself in that last frontier.
“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” – John Muir
After consulting with the Ranger in the trail center I settled on the 8 mile Sturgill’s Landing hike. Climbing past waterfalls to Lower Dewey lake and continuing through a dense forest of spruce, hemlock and lodgepole pine to views of the Taiya Inlet. A light rain was falling for most of the hike but the forest canopy prevented most of it from hitting the ground. While there were a number of hikers around the first mile or so of the trail (especially on the return hike) after leaving Lower Dewey Lake there were only a few hearty souls braving the weather and the trail.
My second visit to Skagway it was great having more time to see the area but there always seems to be more things to do than days available. Contemplating staying another day but realizing that it was time to hit the road back into Canada and head north to mainland Alaska.