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Skagway Alaska Ghost town

Skagway is a remarkable town. 

What would Skagway be without Soapy?  Of course there are many stories about Skagway including those about Jefferson Randolph Smith. He was better known from his days in Colorado as Soapy Smith. His time in Skagway was short but his actions were probably best described by this quote from Mont Hawthorne.

“ I’d seen Soapy around town. He was kind of a nice mannered, clean-looking fellow. He never went around talking and bragging and shoving folks. He moved quiet and soft like, but he was always figgering out how things was best for Soapy every minute.”

Soapy had many cons but one of Soapy's best cons involved his personally owned and operated “telegraph office." A stampeder would arrive in Skagway and be greeted by men who offered to send telegrams to their families. The going rate for this service was about $5. Most people never thought about looking behind the telegraph office. If they had they would have realized that the wires ended just outside the building. They also never thought to ask, “Where does the line go?” Not many telegraph offices in that territory at that time.

 

Some Skagway history

Before 1887 Skagway was known as Skagua by the native Tlingit. Skagua meant windy place and the area was used by Chilkoots and Chilkats for hunting and fishing. They had settled in the quieter areas of Smuggler's Cove, Nahku Bay and Dyea, head of the Chilkoot trail. These centuries old Indian trading routes becoming popular with early prospectors heading into the Yukon.

In June of 1887, Skookum Jim, a Tlingit packer from Dyea and Tagish, lead Capt. William Moore, a member of Canada's Ogilvie survey party, over a new pass up the Skaqua river valley. The pass later became White Pass. In October, Moore returned with his son, Bernard. They lay claim to 160 acres in the valley floor and begin work on a cabin and dock. They call the place Mooresville.

Northwest Mounted Police patrol landed in 1894-95 in Skagway and Dyea on way to Yukon to establish Canadian presence in area. First group of prospectors hike Moore's crude trail over White Pass.

On Aug. 17 of 1896 -, gold was discovered by Skookum Jim, George W. Carmack and Dawson Charlie on Rabbit Creek, later called Bonanza, a tributary of the Klondike River, 600 miles from Skagway.

Now Moore saw the opportunity and he opened his trail on July 14, 1897. This happened just two weeks before steamships Excelsior and Portland arrive in San Francisco and Seattle with famed "Ton of Gold", setting off Klondike Gold Rush. On July 29, 1897, when the mail steamer Queen landed these first anxious would-be millionaires on the beach, Skagua.

The Moores are overrun due to Frank Reid, the man who eventually shot Soapy. Mooresville was re-platted by survey as Skaguay. Later that fall, a post office, and the first church (Union), and newspaper (Skaguay News) are established. Many pack animals perish on crude White Pass, which was dubbed "Dead Horse Trail." George Brackett built a toll road to White Pass City, a tent city 15 miles up the valley. Canadian Mounties begin to guard the passes, although their government is claiming territory including Skagua, where they briefly establish a post.

In just less than two years, in 1898, Skagua had grown to as many as 10,000 gold seekers and fortune hunters. Some were merchants, con men, soiled doves, hunters, and traders along with the honest hard working men and woman. The Chamber of commerce and a volunteer fire department were organized. Construction begins in May on White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad with tracks that run on Broadway. In June a school came to Skagua in Union Church.

During 1898 the criminal element led by Soapy Smith reigned until he was shot and killed by an angry mob led by Frank Reid. This occurred on July 8, four days after he stood on the podium with Gov. John Brady at Skagway's first Independence Day celebration. U.S. Army, stationed in Dyea, restored order. Reid died from his wound and was given a hero's funeral at the town cemetery. The spelling changed to Skagway by the post office and most businesses reluctantly follow. Townspeople are called Skagwayans.

By July of 1899 the railroad was completed to Lake Bennett thus ended much of the use of the two trails, the White Pass and Chilkoot Pass. At this time the building continued in Skagway with the erection of the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, McCabe College and Capt. Moore builds his own showplace home. In May of 1900 the census indicated only a little over 3,000 residents.

On Sept. 14 1902, in an attempted to rob the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch on Fifth, a man blew himself up by accident. The cash and gold dust was scattered along with his remains. As always the stampeders were creative and cleaned up the place including the street to recover the gold dust. The man was never identified. Dentist L.S. Keller ended up with skull.

 

Some historical notes you may be interested in reading.

In the 1880’s, the U.S. Navy and Army patrols establish federal presence in the area.

On June 28, 1899 Skagway became the first incorporated city in Alaska on a vote of eligible property owners. It beat Juneau by a day.

1901-02 - McCabe College closed and the building was sold to federal government for a courthouse. The Moore townsite claim is finally settled with Moore's getting 60 acres of the original 160 acres and compensation. Harriet Pullen leased and then purchased Moore's stately home and opened a hotel called Pullen House. We often overlook the women involved in the gold rush with the exception of perhaps a soiled Dove or two. I included this link to a story of Ma Pullen as an example of just one of the many wonderful women that were true entrepreneurs and pioneers helping to establish this great country we call the United States of America.  http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/gold/pullen.html#pullen

International Boundary dispute between Canada and The United States is finally settled in 1903. They established the borders by using the tops of mountain passes.

Before a drivers license was required Bobby Sheldon, who was 14, built the first automobile in Alaska for the 1905 Fourth of July parade. He later drove the first car to run tours over Alaska's first highway between Valdez and Fairbanks. The original Skagway car ended up in the University of Alaska museum.

During the period from 1908 to 1910 numerous buildings are relocated to Broadway from other parts of the city to develop a centralized business district around the rail line. Buildings like the Red Onion Saloon and the Golden North Hotel, owned by the Dedman family were moved. The family later will took over E.A. Hegg's photo shop.

Oh those women of Alaska – In the years of 1915 to 1917 The Alaska Women's Temperance Union met in Skagway and wrote "Alaska Bone Dry Act”. The Legislature later adopted it ahead of the national prohibition movement. The first combination taxi, hack and coal delivery truck was operated by Martin Itjen. This eventually became the Skaguay Street Car Co. Itjen also acquired Soapy Smiths Parlor for a museum; one of his artifacts is the bank robber's skull which he acquired from Dr. Keller. A new bank opened in 1916, the Bank of Alaska, and grew to pioneer branch banking and the largest bank in Alaska. A pet cemetery is established by George Rapuzzi, where his dog loved to chase rabbits.

Thanks to the Alaska Women’s Temperance Union the Saloons closed in 1918. The second disaster occurred on Oct. 23rd  when the SS Princess Sophia headed out of Skagway loaded with 343 people. During a blinding snowstorm that evening the ship struck Vanderbilt Reef near Juneau. The Captain gambled on tide lifting ship off reef. Unfortunately that never happened. The weather was too rough for a rescue by smaller boats and the ship broke apart and all aboard perished. Among them are many of the Yukon's leading citizens. One was Walter Harper, a member of the first expedition to ascend Mt. McKinley, who was on his honeymoon.

In 1921 the Skagway Women's Club formed and established the Skagway Library and the first airplane landed on beach.

July 1923 President Warren G. Harding visited and he was the final inductee into the Arctic Brotherhood. A nearby peak is named Mt. Harding for the president who would die shortly after his return from Alaska.

1924-30 - Beginning of first tourism boom heralded by visible promoters Itjen and Pullen, along with WP&YR, which convinces ships to stay 36 hours so visitors may ride the train and take a Yukon lake steamer trip from Carcross to beautiful Ben-My-Chree.  Girl of my heart was the Manx translation for this town. As a fund-raiser for the hockey club, townspeople hold a variety show for tourists at the White Pass Athletic Club. It will become known as the Days of “98” Show (that is 1898)

St. Pius X Mission was established in Skagway in 1931 by Father G. Edgar Gallant. He operated the school for Native children from all over Alaska for almost 30 years.

Skagway was invaded by 3,000 U.S. Army troops in 1942 and suddenly Quonset huts and H buildings appeared. The army took over the railroad for a major supply route to build the Alcan Highway. When the Skagway River crested two years in a row the Army troops helped in building up the dikes to save the town. After troops leave Skagway, U.S. Health Service opened a tuberculosis sanitarium in the army hospital across the river. Nurses come from Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria, B.C. It operated until 1947.

After fighting for years public support was building on both sides of border to complete the road across the old White Pass to connect Skagway to Carcross. Neither Canada nor the US wanted to complete their portion of road. The Canadians built a new bridge in Carcross and extend the road to B.C.-Yukon border in 1971 with activity at Venus Mine. In February, 1972 Canadians agree to building remaining 33.6 miles to Alaska border, and Alaska agree to construct their 9.4 miles. It was named the South Klondike Highway. In 1978 the Klondike Highway was punched through to the border in September. John Edwards and Bob Bissell were the first to cross, with aid of winches. More locals follow until the rough road closed for the winter. In the spring of 1979 the Klondike Highway officially opened.

During 1980 and 1981 Skagway becomes base for Disney's "Never Cry Wolf" crew filming on White Pass. Author Ken Kesey worked on the project and later sets novel "Sailor Song" in fictional Alaska town invaded by movie crew.

The start of the tourism trade that flourishes today began in the early 1980’s with an increase of more than 100 cruise ships docking at Skagway. The old White Pass depot and administration building were restored and opened. By 1985 Skagway saw over 200,000 visitors. By 1987 over 200 cruise ships were docking in Skagway.

The 1988 year ends on scary note, as high lead levels are recorded in Skagway from past ore movement. School children were tested by state public health officials, and blood levels are below normal. A clean-up followed.

The number of visitors tops 300,000 in 1992 during 50th anniversary of the building of the Alaska Highway.

1993 and 1994 were good years for filming on the pass as the TV show "Due South" in the spring and the movie "Snowbound: Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story" in the fall 1993. "Good Morning America" visited in May.

The first cruise ship landed at the new Railroad Dock on May 30, 1995 after rebuilding of the dock damaged the previous year. Visitors came by the thousands with new tour transportation, helicopter landings on glaciers, and adventure tours in Skagway and Dyea. Visitors surpassed the 400,000 mark with 313 ships arriving at the new dock.

In 2000 Skagway was the 16th most visited cruise destination in the world with nearly 450 cruise ships arriving.  Visitor numbers approaching 750,000. After two years hard work the Airport expansion project is completed in 2001. Hard to believe but Skagway finally enters the cell phone age and the remained of the streets were paved.

In 2004 Skagway welcomes the cast of "The Big White" to town to film on the pass. Some of the stars seem to fit right in as Robin Williams bikes around town, and Holly Hunter rings bar bells.

Photos courtesy of Mike and Joan Sinnwell June  2010

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