Even today the town has something of a wild west feeling to it. The population is subject to seasonal fluctuations with the summer months bringing a large influx of tourists to the region including the many, like us, who in most years arrive by cruise ship (our trip was in August 2018).
Skagway (or Skaguay as we saw it spelt on some of the signs) comes from a Tlingit word (the First Nations people of the area) for rough seas in the inlet. It is a northerly port at the upper end of the Inside Passage very close to the modern Canadian border – in fact the border between Alaska in the US and Canada was disputed for many years in the early pioneering days (see here).
The history of the settlement is inextricably linked to the Klondike Gold Rush. Initially an early pioneer called William “Billy” Moore settled in the area in 1887 believing that the mountains to the north in the Klondike Region were a likely place for gold prospecting. He successfully navigated the White Pass over the coastal mountain range led by a Tlingit explorer Skookum Jim. It was the latter who first found a gold nugget at Discovery Claim on 16th August 1896 with his brother in law George Carmack though there are differing versions of this story! It appears that Carmack tried to take all the credit unfairly away from Skookum Jim at the time and in fact it may even have been Skookum’s sister Kate (George’s wife) who made the first discovery.
We actually followed the trail in reverse as later in our holiday we visited the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Seattle (see here for more information).
Anyway, whatever the actual version was, the word of a gold discovery led to a massive boom in the area. Thousands of would-be prospectors headed north to the small isolated town hoping to make their fortune in the goldfields. The Klondike Gold Rush National Park covers the history of this iconic quest starting from Seattle, the initial point of departure for many of the prospectors, up to Skagway.
Skagway became the base for gathering supplies before commencing the precarious and treacherous journey up the Chilkoot Trail and over the White Pass towards the Klondike goldfields in the Canadian/Alaskan border region. It soon became a hotch-potch of hastily erected buildings and shops and was known for its mud and lawless reputation – characters such as conman Soapy Smith became synonymous with the place (see here for his story). White Pass also went by the chilling epithet of “Dead Horse Pass” – no explanation needed really but it evokes the terrible suffering that people and animals endured in the desperate rush to make fortunes (most people didn’t of course).
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway runs vintage trains up over the pass towards the goldfields, and we saw the train arriving at Skagway Station.
Although this is an excellent excursion by all accounts, we opted to do a coach trip, the White Pass and Dog Mushing Tour, which had been recommended by Chris the tour guide we met on the quay at Juneau. It was more than worth it — more about that coming in my next post!
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