Downtown Skagway

Historic Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush

Stories about the Klondike Gold Rush are the reason that people remember Skagway. Skagway was a boomtown run by gangsters that was wild almost beyond belief. The gangsters owned the law. Skagway was the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Mascot and Skaguay News Depot
The Mascot and Skaguay News Depot. Skaguay was the first spelling of Skagway when the new arrivals didn’t go along with Mooresville named by Billy Moore.

Before the Klondike Gold Rush, Skagway didn’t exist. William Moore (known as Billy Moore ) was the only resident. He claimed 160 acres as a homestead. He built a log cabin and sawmill. His homestead was the perfect location for building a dock on the bay. Billy knew that Skagway could be a gateway to Alaska and Canada because previously he explored White Pass which crossed from the coast eastward towards the interior of Canada and Alaska.

Canada or Russia?

Skagway was part of a territory dispute between Russia and Canada. Both Russia and Canada claimed it as their own. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 the dispute about the border transferred to a dispute between Canada and the United States. I cover some of this interesting story in this article. Why Russia sold Alaska to the United States

Skagway Downtown
Skagway Downtown

It wasn’t until 1903 that the boundary between Alaska and Canada was settled. This was after the Klondike Gold Rush so when Billy Moore homesteaded Skagway he wasn’t certain that Skagway was in the United States. During the gold rush, the prospectors didn’t care.

Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush

How did prospectors get to the Klondike Gold Rush? Most prospectors took a leaky, smoke-bellowing steamship from Tacoma to Skagway or Dyea, to get to the Klondike Gold Rush. After gold was discovered on Klondike Creek, near Dawson City, along the Yukon River, hopeful prospectors rushed to the goldfields. Several refer to this gold rush as a stampede.

Skagway Brewing Company
Skagway Brewing Company

During the Klondike Gold Rush, both Skagway and Dyea turned into boomtowns even though neither were anywhere near the goldfields.

Why Skagway

Billy Moore was a steamship captain and explorer. He picked Skagway as an ideal place to establish a route to inland Canada and Alaska. Moore established the town and named it Mooresville. Except for Moore, the town was empty. Mooresville before the gold rush consisted of a log cabin, a sawmill, and part of a dock.

Chilikoot Lake near Haines
Chilkoot Lake near Haines

Moore was petitioning both the United States and Canada for money to build a route over White Pass into Canada well before the discovery of gold near the Yukon River. Both Canada and the United States ignored him.

It rains alot in Skagway.
It rains alot in Skagway.

When gold was found in the Yukon, Skagway was one of the primary routes into Canada over the White Pass and the goldfields. There was no road across White Pass. The gold prospectors had to walk. Even horses couldn’t make the whole trip. It was too narrow for a horse to cross the boulder fields on the pass.

White Pass Railroad locomotive and snow blower
White Pass Railroad locomotive and snow blower

Gold prospectors flooded into Skagway intending to cross White Pass and quickly get to the gold fields. The gold strike on Klondike Creek turned Moore’s dream into a reality and a nightmare. Skagway went from being a farm to a gold rush boomtown in only a few weeks.

White Pass

White Pass was locally known as the Dead Horse Trail because of the number of dead horses found along it. The gold prospectors loaded up the horses and then when they died along the trail. Well, you get the idea.

White Pass north of Skagway
White Pass north of Skagway

Rain and snow in the fall of 1897 made the White Pass trail impassable stranding 5,000 hopeful prospectors in Skagway. The distance from Skagway to Lake Bennett was about 20 miles as a crow flies. Canada required each prospector to bring a year’s worth of food. The trail was so difficult it took most prospectors about 90 days to get to Lake Bennett with their gear. Starting at Lake Bennett, they could float their gear across the lake and a couple of other lakes and get to Whitehorse on the Yukon River. Most hopeful prospectors never got near the gold fields.

Dyea

The Tlingits are one of the tribes of native people who lived in the coastal regions of Alaska before Russia arrived and claimed Alaska for the Czar. Like most native people in the New World, they suffered greatly from the diseases that the new immigrants brought with them from Europe. These diseases killed far more people than any other cause.

Scott and Tami in Dyea
Scott and Tami in Dyea

A few Tlingits lived near Skagway in a small village named Dyea. The valley near Dyea leads also to a route to inland Canada and Alaska over the Chilkoot Pass. This valley is very long and nearly at sea level. The valley is gradually gaining elevation. This is because previously the valley was compressed under the weight of the glacier. The glacier that carved the valley receded long ago. In 1900 docks in Dyea led to the bay. Now the location of the docks in the Dyea Valley is on dry land more than a mile from the coastline.

Yukon Mountains near Haines Junction
Yukon Mountains near Haines Junction

Currently, Dyea is a ghost town. The roads are still there in a forest but almost nothing else is standing.

Chilkoot Pass

White Pass was difficult but the Chilkoot Trail across Chilkoot Pass from Dyea was at least as hard and probably even harder. Starting in Dyea, the Chilkoot trail led to Lake Lindeman, which led to Lake Bennett. Even though the Chilkoot Trail was nearly impossible to climb (especially because each prospector had to carry a thousand pounds of supplies) more than 20,000 prospectors made the trip, some paying Tlingits as porters.

Looking toward Chilkoot Pass from Dyea
Looking toward Chilkoot Pass from Dyea

In the spring the Tlingits refused to make the trip up the Chilkoot Trail for fear of avalanches. Many hopeful prospectors ignored the warnings and died in the avalanches.

Gravestone in Dyea
Gravestone in Dyea

Soapy Smith

Soapy Smith was a criminal gang leader. Soapy Smith is the primary reason the stories about Skagway are so interesting. Soapy Smith and his gang of con artists were the backbone of Frontier Skagway’s crime spree and fame.

White Pass Steam Engine
White Pass Steam Engine

Soapy Smith arrived in Skagway quickly after the gold discovery. He left Colorado after learning that he was going to get arrested for running confidence scams. Soapy got his nickname by running a scam involving selling soap that occasionally had money hidden inside the wrapper. Using trickery, he ensured that only his gang members got the bars of soap containing the money and that the hopeful purchasers only got soap. Smith was buying soap at a penny per bar in 1890. Smith was selling his soap (with a chance to get rich) for a dollar per bar based on the scam. Smith got rich quickly. Purchasers got soap.

Dezadeash Lake
Dezadeash Lake

Quickly Soapy Smith set up his confidence scams in Skagway to swindle prospectors out of their money before they ever got to the gold fields. In Skagway, Soapy Smith is famous for setting up a fake telegraph office even though no telegraph wires ever left town. Prospectors would “send” messages only to be responded to by some of Smith’s gang members. Of course, the prospectors needed to wire home money to prevent some emergency. The entire operation was set up to scam prospectors out of their money. The scam worked famously.

Destruction Bay
Destruction Bay

Eventually, Smith scammed the wrong miner out of his gold and this resulted in an old-fashioned western shootout at close range. The story twists and turns but the shootout was between Smith and a guard named Frank Reid. Both Smith and Ried died due to wounds during the shootout.

Billy Moore

The entire town of Skagway was built on Billy Moore’s property. This is what he wanted and envisioned. The only problem was no one building the boomtown cared that Billy Moore owned the property. In essence, the entire town was his. “Was” is the operative word.

Arriving in Skagway
Arriving in Skagway

Skagway was Billly’s but it was full of squatters who built everything. Instead, of Moore the town belonged to the squatters and especially Soapy Smith and his gangsters. Smith controlled the entire town and ran it as his private gangland paradise. It wasn’t until after Soapy Smith was killed in a gunfight that the other town folks (fine upstanding citizen-squatters) made the town somewhat (in gold rush boomtown terms) respectable. Eventually, Billy Moore sued the squatters and won some compensation for his lost homestead.

Our return back to Alaska

We departed Alaska so that we could go to Alaska. If you want to drive to Alaska it means that you are going to drive through Canada to Alaska. If you start from Alaska and want to go to southern Alaska you are going to drive through Canada so that you can get to southern Alaska. It is just the way it is. Our next three stops in Alaska can only be visited by driving through Canada (or by boat or plane).

Highway pull out along Canada Highway 3.
Highway pullout along Canada Highway 3.

The first of our three stops in Canada, on our way back to Alaska, was at Discovery Yukon Lodgings and I really think that this is a mandatory stop. I covered this stop in one of my last posts. Here is a link to the story Discovery Yukon Lodgings

Antlers on the roof at Discover Yukon Lodgings.
Antlers on the roof at Discover Yukon Lodgings.

Our second stop in Canada was near Destruction Bay, at the Congdon Creek Campground and the third stop was at Dezadeash Lakes. The distance from Tok Alaska to Haines Alaska is 438 miles, most of it is in Canada, and all of it is remote. I know, so far I haven’t mentioned Haines, but I will get to it soon.

How we got to Skagway

On our way to Skagway, we didn’t cross Chilkoot Pass. This trail across the icefield has been closed for about a hundred years. We also didn’t cross White Pass even though there is a road leading up to Lake Bennett. We didn’t use the road to Skagway instead we floated our RV from Haines to Skagway.

Tami starting down the boarding ramp
Tami starting down the boarding ramp

By taking the ferry from Haines to Skagway this means that we bypassed Whitehorse on our return trip through Canada. We have floated our RV before but this time it was very different. Here is a story about the first time we floated our RV. Our RV floats

After exiting the ferry in Skagway
After exiting the ferry in Skagway

This time Tami had to go it alone; I drove the car. To get the RV on the ferry, one of us had to drive the RV down the ramp onto the ferry make a right turn towards the bow of the ship, and then back the RV up about fifty yards to the parking spot. That was Tami. I did the same maneuver in the car.

Our first view of Skagway
Our first view of Skagway

While she was doing this I couldn’t even watch. Tami is way better at driving in tight spaces than I am. She almost always parks the RV at every campground. I stand outside giving directions. While going on the ferry, I sat in the car and watched from a long distance. At a campground, Tami can park the RV in spots not wasting an inch in any direction. I don’t have this skill. Without Tami, I would not be driving a 40-foot-long RV.

About Haines

At Haines Junction, we took Canada Highway 3 south to Dezadeash Lake and spent the two nights, and then drove to Haines. While Haines Junction and Dezadeash Lakes are in Canada. Haines is in Alaska. I decided to omit the stories about Haines mostly because Soapy Smith set up his gangster empire in Skagway which I found more interesting. We spent a full week in Haines and enjoyed the town when it wasn’t raining.

Bears eating salmon on the Chilikoot River.
Bears eating salmon on the Chilkoot River.

About Skagway today

During the Yukon Gold Rush, Skagway was run by gangsters. Today, Skagway, at least in the summer, is run by cruise ships. I am guessing that the cruise lines own many of the shops in Skagway that promptly close as soon as the last cruise ship departs for warmer climates in the fall. The cruise ships may even own the White Pass Railroad. At a minimum, tourists from the cruise ships pay for everything in town.

White Pass Train Crossing next to the cruise ship in Skagway
White Pass Train Crossing next to the cruise ship in Skagway

Camping in Skagway

Unlike our stay in Haines near downtown, in Skagway, we stayed downtown. Our campsite was next to the train stop (tourist train up White Pass) and between the shops and the cruise ship docks. Watching the passengers leave the ship to go shopping was like watching a daily parade.

Our campsiite in Skagway
Our campsiite in Skagway

When we left Skagway, we drove north up White Pass and it was stunning even though we didn’t have the best weather. When we return to Skagway, I would like to take the train up White Pass. Maybe they let you into Canada, without a border crossing, as long as you don’t get off the train. The most beautiful part of White Pass is on the Canadian side of the border. I think the train goes all the way to Whitehorse. Perhaps it is a combination of train and tour bus.

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Links

National Park Service Klondike Gold Rush

Jack London’s novel Call of the Wild about the Klondike Gold Rush

Soapy Smith Killed in Skagway Alaska

Discover Yukon Lodgings

Alaska Marine Highway

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4 thoughts on “Historic Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush”

  1. Very Interesting! Thanks for sharing. We visited Skagway on our cruise. I got off the ship and was surprised to see an RV Park there. Got pictures of that big train they cleared the snow off the tracks with and the rock mountain behind it with some symbols on it. By the way, we had the best crab legs not far from that train from a food truck. We loved our visit there. Would like to take the train ride sometime. Alaska is not cheap from a cruise ship.

    1. Alaska is not cheap regardless of how you visit. Same for Hawaii and San Diego. I would still like to take that train ride on a sunny day. We had frequent rain and constant clouds when we visited Skagway.

  2. Mary and I found Skagway to be one of the highlights of our trip. Our bucket list includes going back in winter to take the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks. We would leave our 5th Wheel at home on this trip.

  3. Pingback: The Cassiar Highway is the wildest part of Canada - FoxRVTravel

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