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From red-lights to respectable: 100 years of Skagway

In 1897 the Klondike Gold Rush was just beginning. People were flocking to the tiny port of Skagway in the Alaska Panhandle. Every day thousands of intrepid stampeders would tumble off steamships en route to the Dawson gold fields. In this day and age, it’s tourists of all nationalities, including ourselves, who disembark in hordes from the cruise ships.
Taiya Inlet, Skagway, Alaska
Last September, we spent a couple of days in Skagway. It sits at the head of the Taiya Inlet at the northern end of the Inside Passage. Over the past 100 years, it has transformed itself from a former boomtown where impropriety ruled to a successful tourist attraction where respectability is the norm. This rural community is almost completely encircled by craggy snow-capped mountain peaks. The town centre covers not much more than seven blocks but a ton of history is concertinaed into this corner of Alaska. In its heyday Skagway was reputed to be the “roughest place in the world”. Today, owing to its generally dry sunny climate it has been christened the “Garden of Alaska”.

Cemetery, Skagway, AlaskaOn our first morning, we visited the Gold Rush Cemetery which is set on a wooded hillside overlooking Skagway. The grave markers are scattered haphazardly. Most have remained untended for many years. It is here that the schemer, Jefferson R. Smith, aka “Soapy”, was buried in disgrace just beyond the cemetery boundary. As the story goes, Soapy masterminded any number of schemes to defraud the gullible townsfolk. One of his pet projects was to sell bars of soap packaged in blue paper for just several dollars. The crux of the scam was to persuade customers that each package could contain a $10, $20 or even a $50 bill! Deservedly he met an untimely end. In a shoot-out Soapy was killed by a gunshot to the heart. Today the townspeople are mostly law-abiding citizens. In fact, we never saw a policeman during the whole of our stay.

In the afternoon we joined the “Ghosts and Goodtime Girls” walking tour of the downtown area. Each member of our group was required to don a lacy black and red garter. Then we all had to master a sexy sashay. This was an hilarious exercise with each person having their own unique style.

StellaA young actress (Stella Virgin) acted as our guide-about-town. She was beguilingly attired as a “streetwalker” (a low level prostitute). Her long red dress featuring a ruffled black lace collar and décolleté neckline, black parasol and elegant purse were reminiscent of a fashionable outfit of the Victorian era. With her cheeky smile and saucy wink, she portrayed the perfect image of a fallen woman. And beneath this stylish get-up, she proudly displayed some colourfully striped socks … one of the distinguishing features of “goodtime girls” of the era. Either horizontal or vertical stripes were equally acceptable. What a surprise … I wore wear plain socks for the rest of our stay!

With Stella in the lead, we strolled along the wooden boardwalks, down narrow back alleyways and past churches and turn-of-the-century clapboard buildings. Many of these structures have been repainted, often in their original colours … red, royal blue, bright yellow, pale green and orange, sometimes with contrasting trim. Each is unique in its style of architecture. A distinguishing façade enhances some of the historic buildings. The Arctic Brotherhood Hall built around 1890 and now the Visitor Centre is particularly noteworthy. Its unusual frontage is decorated with over 8,000 strips of driftwood, all which were collected locally. I wonder how long this took to complete.

Broadway, the town’s main street, has been paved but little else in the heart of Skagway has changed over the past century. Its residents now strive to maintain it that way. In those heady gold rush days people spilled out of rowdy dance halls along the road. There were raucous saloons and, of course, the inevitable bordellos. Today Broadway is host to many stores selling tourist mementos, T shirts, art, antiques and jewellery as well as bars, cafes, restaurants and even, inevitably, a Starbucks coffee shop.
Skagway, Alaska
Stella provided us with some fascinating historical tidbits of this once lawless town. At the Red Onion Saloon, food and drink is still provided to its many customers. The second floor was once a thriving brothel. Now it is a museum. Up the stairs we climbed where we viewed an array of antiques as well as the rooms where the girls turned their tricks. Here Diamond Lil, the brothel’s “madame”, used to charge $1,000 per night for her services. And that was in the 1890s. We were fascinated to learn that this amount had to be prepaid. In addition, Lil required written evidence of a clean bill of health, a bank statement and a recommendation! She employed an ingenious system at the bar whereby 10 dolls with likenesses to the 10 prostitutes upstairs were displayed. When a “soiled dove” was busy, the doll would be laid down on its back. Each room had a money hole which was connected by a copper pipe to the bar. Consequently, when payment came clattering down the pipe, the barman knew the girl was available again! Our tour ended with a welcome glass of bubbly sparkling champagne.

271114Red Onion Saloon (3)Ghosts, we learned, are still present in Skagway. The Red Onion has at least one resident phantom whose spirit continues to haunt the establishment. Apparently some years ago a former chef was pushed down the stairs and never returned to prepare another meal. Thankfully, none of us suffered such a fate.

During our walk, we strolled past a lone stone chimney, now much overgrown by long grass and dense shrubbery. This is all that remains of the infamous Pullen House Hotel. In its glory days, it was a very plush establishment. The proprietress offered entertainment which included rather tall tales about the stampeders and certain townsfolk. Interestingly, no locals were allowed to attend. It is rumoured that the tinkle of Mrs. Pullen’s laughter can even now be heard on some evenings. Local dog walkers swear that this eerie phenomenon is perfectly true.

In the evening we discovered Olivia’s restaurant at the historic Skagway Inn. It is certainly the place to dine. Alaska King Crab is the specialty and tastes absolutely delicious. The inn was built in 1897 and started out in life as a 10-room house of disrepute. Today the hotel’s rooms are named for the “ladies” who made a living in Paradise Alley, the town’s Red Light District.

The following day we escaped from the hustle and bustle of downtown and enjoyed a short easy hike. Our footsteps took us along a wide unpaved trail through the forest. A side trail brought us to Yakutania Point. We sat on the rocks for a while enjoying the peace and tranquility. Refreshed, we continued along a narrow gently undulating trail to Smuggler’s Cove. Some people were just leaving so we had this beautiful area to ourselves. We relaxed on the beach in the sunshine and gazed at the calm waters of the inlet and the stunning mountain scenery.
Smuggler's Cove, Skagway, Alaska
Leaving the “Gateway to the Klondike”, we boarded the narrow-gauge train at the White Pass and Yukon Route depot in Skagway to continue our Alaskan journey. We could only marvel at the will and determination of the intrepid men and women who joined the Klondike Gold Rush in their search for gold. For us the magic of this bygone era is in its folklore and the stories of those enterprising people who endured unimaginable hardships and then made their home (and sometimes their fortune) in Skagway, Alaska, so many years ago.

Pictures courtesy of David Grimble.

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