Historical Features

from the 2000 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Visitor Guide

The first City Council assembles following the June 28,1900 election. H.C. Barley Collection, Yukon Archives

First Incorporated City in Alaska

The City of Skagway officially will turn 100 years old on June 28, 2000, the centennial anniversary of a town-wide election in which citizens certified incorporation and selected its first city council and school board.
This election made Skagway the first incorporated city in Alaska, beating Juneau by one day, although both cities were certainly well established by the summer of 1900.
Originally known as Skagua or Skaguay, the town was established during the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush in the fall of 1897, and its first city council was selected in 1898. A president was elected amongst its members to run meetings. However, the government was technically illegal, and the real authority rested with a U.S. District Commissioner and his appointed Marshal.
It wasn’t until 1900, at the urging of Skagway citizens, that Congress passed a municipal incorporation act allowing cities in Alaska to elect a representative government. Skagway citizens, being a savvy politically as they are now, were eager to control their own destiny and immediately petitioned Hon. Judge Melville C. Brown to incorporate.
The petition, which is on file in the State of Alaska Archives, was signed by 91 citizens of the town, far more than the 60 necessary to petition the judge. It described the town’s boundaries, including 1,000 houses and buildings and a population of “3,500 souls or more.”
The buildings were of frame construction, including railroad shops, wharves, warehouses, churches “and other property interests that require the best means of fire protection possible, and better means than can be obtained by any community without legal organization at its back.”
It also demanded that the public health a town of this size needed a maintained drainage and sewerage system, and to be able to furnish its own water and lights. Police surveillance and protection, the right to use and maintain streets and sidewalks, and the need for an adequate school facility were also cited.
“Under existing laws,” the petition stated, “there being no adequate school facilities for the maintenance of public schools, necessitating the absence of many children of school age from the District during a greater portion of the year, it is in the best interest of the said town of Skagway that the citizens thereof maintain, direct and operate the school system within the said town.”
Perhaps the strongest words were saved for the principles of taxation: “Under existing laws an occupation tax is levied upon business and occupation carried on by the inhabitants of the said town of Skagway, and that all funds derived thereof are paid into the Treasury of the United States, without any direct benefits inuring to the said citizens.”
The petition, prepared by prominent attorney J.G. Price, asked for the citizens to be allowed, with a two-thirds majority, to declare the town of Skagway legally incorporated.
Judge Brown, in a short order, accepted and filed the petition in the tiny Skagway court house after a lengthy hearing on June 21, 1900. Objections were raised on behalf of Bernard Moore, who at the time was still involved in a court battle over the town’s alleged squatting on the original 160-acre town-site platted by his family in 1887 (the case was settled three weeks later). And others wanted the city boundaries increased to include tidewater. But the judge favored the petitioners’ request and set the election date for a week later, June 28. The order was published in the town’s daily newspapers, the Alaskan, Budget, and Traveler’s Guide every day before the election.
The papers were full of information prior to the election. The Daily Alaskan covered a lively meeting of businessmen on June 25 who had learned that 50 percent of the license money from incorporation, $20,000, may be required to go to school construction instead of municipal services. This did not seem to deter the crowd, who voiced support for city taxes on dogs and personal property, and a property tax not to exceed one percent of the value of property.
One citizen voiced the need for a first-class high school. another said the class of men opposing incorporation were greedy rent collectors who “live at the expense of his neighbors.” But the strongest words came from the Daily Alaskan itself in an editorial on June 26, raising civic pride to a second-to-none level:
“‘The Skagway Spirit’ has become as prominent in northern circles as the ‘Seattle Spirit’ has long been farther south. Ever since the days when those who are now leading citizens settled on Skagway Bay three years ago, they have taken the lead in all Alaskan matters. they have protested against Alaska’s treatment at the hands of the Federal government, and demanded again and again the attention of congress. It was through their tireless energy that this attention was a last received.... To fail to incorporate after asking the privilege of congress is to say we did not ask in good faith.”
Editor George DeSucca then played the Juneau card: “A happy circumstance has made it possible for Skagway to become a city one day ahead of Juneau and thus become the first city in Alaska. This is proper. Skagway has been first in her achievements in Alaska and should be Alaska’s first city.”
On June 26, reacting to businessmen’s concerns, Judge Brown announced that if Skagway incorporated and it improved fire protection, then the district government would build a new $5,000 courthouse and $3,000 jail within a year. He also counseled the local election board on the Australian model which was sweeping the United States. This included setting up voting booths with ballot boxes and restrictions such as no removal of ballots and no electioneering within 50 feet of the polling place, rules that are still in effect today.
The election was held on Thursday, June 28, 1900 at the “City Hall,” a cabin on 5th Avenue. It was a light turnout on a summer day. The Alaskan noted that people were more interested in the slate of candidates – more than 20 for seven city council seats, and nine for three school board seats. About 50 of the 360 voters didn’t even bother to mark the incorporation ballot, but the outcome was a landslide: 246 to 60 in favoring of becoming Alaska’s first city.
Judge Brown signed the order creating the city on June 29, and the council selected John Hislop, chief engineer of the White Pass & Yukon Route, as its first mayor. Hislop was a landed immigrant, born and raised in Canada, but he had worked on American railroads before coming north to help build the White Pass. He was president of the city council when the incorporation election was held.
The Daily Alaskan crowed his credentials: “The ability that a liberal education and a wide experience of men and large affairs gives to a man eminently fit Mr. Hislop for a wider and more important field of duty, but he accepted the call of the citizens of Skagway and the unanimous vote of his fellow councilmen to be the president and lent a modest dignity to the position.”
After a Fourth of July break, the new council got down to setting up a municipal system that is not unlike what governs the city today. Skagway citizens now elect a mayor every two years, but we still have seven council members, a city clerk, and a city treasurer, and a street commissioner, now called a public works director. There also was a magistrate, city attorney, water registrar, assessor, and surveyor.
A watchman patrolled the streets at night and inspected flues, but the man with the biggest job was the pound collector, in charge of collecting dog taxes and enforcing all animal ordinances. He was probably paid the most, given that he received 50 percent of all dog taxes and fines collected.
Although an amusing 1898 dog law was the council’s first ordinance, the first official ordinance of the first incorporated city in Alaska was the adoption of a corporate seal which would state: “Skagway, Alaska - June 28, 1900.”

The cameras clicked away in Carcross, Yukon as railroad president S.H. Graves and friends took turns at the spike. H.C. Barley Collection, Yukon Archives

Driving the “Golden Spike”

Editor’s note: Samuel H. Graves, the first president of the White Pass and Yukon Route wrote a memoir of his northern railroad years in 1908. Graves resided in Chicago during much of the railway’s construction period, from May 1898 to July 2000. Newspapers announced his arrival in Skagway on July 28, a day before the track-layers from Lake Bennett and Whitehorse would meet at Carcross, then known as Caribou Crossing. He left on a train from Skagway to Bennett and then hopped a steamship to Caribou.

Sunday, July 29, 1900. I left Skagway with a party to drive the last spike this morning. As we came down the Lake on the “Australian” and neared Caribou Crossing we could see the track layers at work on the shore, with about half a mile of track still to lay at 4:30 p.m. They had to carry the rails forward from the work train that followed a few yards behind the rear spike drivers, mark the sleepers for the rails, lay the loose rails in place, and then four gangs of men drove home the spikes (4 spikes to each sleeper, 36 to each rail – 72 to each 30 feet of track), in a continuous cyclone of sledge hammers. Then the work engine pushing a couple of cars or rails would creep cautiously forward and behind it the fish-plating gang fished the joints and the new track was laid where a few moments before there was nothing but the bare grade.
There was a great crowd at Caribou, including the White Horse people who had come up on the special train for the spike driving. They had been waiting some little time and were evidently in a jovial mood, and welcomed the Skaguay delegation in the “Australian” with fraternal and other spirits. Very soon the track layers were on the bridge over the Lake Crossing, and then they were across it, then at 5:30 the ends of the rails touched and the gap in our line was closed.
All the spies were driven except the last. (Contractor M.J.) Heney was called on for a speech, but dodged. (Chief Engineer E.C.) Hawkins and I both HAD to say a few words, but no one wanted speeches. Out of courtesy to our “guests,” being on Canadian soil, I asked the American Colonel to give the spike the first blow. The “Snow King” (Charley Moriarity, head of the track-laying gang) was there with his spike and a suppressed grin. The gallant Colonel swung the spike maul (a long-headed long-handled sledge), in the approved style and brought it down with a dull sickening thud on the sleeper some inches wide of the spike. The populace howled their glee as the Colonel handed over the maul to the next man. Warned by the Colonel’s fate, he only raised the maul a couple of feet and gave the spike a lady-like tap on the head that suggested laying carpets. This produced an ironic cheer. The next man hand been “straightening his eye” while waiting at Caribou Crossing until he had overdone the process and saw two spikes, and greatly to his credit, he hit one of them a good wallop on the side, but he knocked it flat.
After than it wouldn’t stand up properly and no one had any luck with it, till it was a pretty tired spike when it came to my turn to drive it “home.” It reminded me of a man that had been round town all night, in being a great deal farther from “home” than when it started, a nice, clean, straight spike a short time before. The “Snow King’s” smile broadened to a grin as I took the maul, and I knew he was thinking of the box of cigars which customers prescribe as the tribute of any luckless “railway man” who misses the spike. (Something as unspeakable as “missing the globe” at golf). I would have liked to go behind a tent and take a practice swing, but “the fierce light that beats upon” a President forbade, and so thinking “keep your eye on the spike” I swung the maul round with the orthodox full swing. Do you know the feeling at golf of getting off a rather good ball from a “bad lie.” That was my feeling as the head of the maul connected with the head of that disreputable spike.
But I didn’t hit it quite fair, and the spike was bent as before, so though it went half home, it was far from upright for the next blow. The “Snow King” however was as gratified as if he had won his cigars and most generously whispered, “You can’t swing on to it that way, tap it home sideways;” and I did, with heartfelt gratitude to our “Snow King.”
Then everybody cheered and a continuous clicking noise announced that the films yet remaining in their Kodak’s were being used up, and there was a lot of hand-shaking. In the middle of this the corner of my eye caught the “Snow King” sneaking up with a spike puller which he stealthily applied to the dilapidated last spike. Poor thing, it didn’t take much pulling z- it was glad to go, and Charley quietly marked the hole with a piece of chalk for the subsequent attention of his track men. I was rather pleased with the evidence of strict attention to business even in the midst of pleasure.
- excerpted from “On the White Pass Pay-Roll,” by S.H. Graves., copyright 1908. A half hour after the spike ceremony, the first train from Whitehorse left Caribou for Skagway, making it the first through train on the WP&YR.

Construction workers were still pounding away when the McCabe Building was first occupied by students in 1900. It became the U.S. Courthouse within a year and served in that capacity until it was sold to the City of Skagway in 1956. Since 1961 it has been home to Skagway City Hall and the Skagway Museum and Archives. It was restored in 1999-2000 and will reopen later this summer following re-dedication cermonies on June 25 during the City's 100th Birthday Party. Case and Draper, Alaska State Library

Affidavit of a Disgruntled Skagway Prisoner
Under “Notorious Nefsy” during Prohibition

Editor’s note: About 20 years ago, following a trial in the upstairs courtroom at the McCabe building, Judge Gerald Williams, told this reporter that he possessed an amusing account of jail conditions in Skagway during Prohibition. He later handed over the following account of a prisoner’s days in 1928-29. The accused, Stanley Krason, states in a California affidavit many years after his incarceration, that he was spotted kicking a barrel down a Juneau trail in July 1928 by a Deputy Marshal Feero. Nearby were five other whiskey barrels, the deputy discovered, and Krason was arrested for bootlegging. A bottle of beer was later found at his cabin for further evidence. Krason then describes a court case in which he was pegged as a bootlegger by a “witnesses” who probably were the owners of the whiskey. Krason was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to a year in prison and a $500 fine. He was shipped to the Skagway jail in the McCabe building, where we pick up his account.

The Deputy in charge of the jail at Skagway, Frank Nefsy, is a brother-in-law of Marshal White. Mrs. Nefsy cooked for the prisoners, there were five of us at that time. The food wasn’t fit to eat, and there was never enough. The second day after our arrival there we had sauerkraut and two hot dogs for supper. The sauerkraut was full of worms. I counted 60 in mine, and another prisoner found 40 in his. most of the time we had liver and beans to eat, both of which were simply terrible. When we didn’t eat all the liver it was ground and made into hamburger, and was served again the next day. the eye witnesses to these conditions are now serving time at McNeill Island, John Polock and Harry Johnson.
I asked Johnson, another prison (sic), why was it that they fed better in the jail at Juneau, while at Skagway the food was so rotten. He explained to me that the government paid so much for the clothing and feeding of each prisoner, but that Nefsy was making all he could. While in Juneau the Grand Jury makes an investigation and sees that the prisoners are treated right, from time to time. In Skagway no one investigates. Besides, Marshal White can send the prisoners to Skagway so that his brother-in-law may be able to make money.
After being five or six days in jail at Skagway, I was made a trusty. I was moved to a smaller cell with a prisoner who helped Mrs. Nefsy in the kitchen. One of my first jobs was to clean the barrel that had contained the sauerkraut. I venture to say that there must have been about 50,000 worms in it. I called Deputy Nefsy and asked him if he wasn’t ashamed to feed such rotten food to human beings. I told him that was dangerous. To this he laughed and said that worms were not dangerous when they were cooked.
The next week another brother-in-law of Marshal White, named Leonard, who works in the post office at Juneau, came to Skagway as he had a contract to put new bars in the prison window. Nefsy told me to help him. He started the job but when some friends of Nefsy came for a visit, he left me to do the work and joined them. When it came time for Leonard to return to work, the job wasn’t finished, so Leonard called Nefsy and told him to let me finish the job and that he would pay me six dollars a day. I then said I’d finish it but that four dollars a day would be enough. He said, “Never mind, the government pays for this job.” I didn’t do a very good job, as that kind of work is not in my line. If Marshal White had given that contract to some one more capable than his brother-in-law it would have been done much better and cheaper, because I heard that Leonard got $80 for the work I had done.
Afterwards I worked in the garden around the Court House. One day while at work, Nefsy came around and asked me several questions. He wanted to know if I had the money to pay my fine when my term was up. I told him I didn’t, but thought I could borrow a hundred dollars . He told me to forget about it, that when I got out of jail he had a job for me working for a lady that runs a road house for tourists in the summer time. He told me that she would pay my fine and that I could work in the garden. Then he said that if I kept my mouth shut that I could handle a little whiskey. I asked him where I could get it, and he said that he would get it and pay me 50 cents on the pint for selling it. he said that I could make plenty of money selling it to the tourists in the summer. I wanted to get all the information I could, so I told him I would think it over and let him know when my time was up.
A week later Nefsy put me to work at the road house mentioned, which a Mrs. Pullen ran. I spaded the garden, and while so doing I strained a stomach muscle. Nefsy called Dr. P.I. Dahl, who examined me and said I had a serious rupture; that if I had $200 he would operate on me and fix me up fine. Nefsy didn’t like my getting hurt while working for Mrs. Pullen, and said that I was ruptured while in prison, and that I would have to pay for the operation myself. I told them to never mind, that I didn’t want an operation.
Two days later Nefsy asked me to help carry some bottles from the basement to the kitchen. He said he was going to make some root beer. That night I heard bottles rattling in the kitchen, so the next morning I woke up at 5, and went down to the kitchen, and there around the stove in which there was a fire, were about 400 quart bottles of real beer, and about 200 pint bottles of root beer. I took six bottles of real beer and hid them, and then went back to bed. About 6 a.m. Nefsy came into the kitchen and carried all the real beer in the front room and left the root beer in the kitchen. That morning I asked the guard while I was working in the garden how it was that I got one year and a $500 fine for possession of one bottle of beer while the Marshal himself had mad 400 bottles. he asked me how I knew about it and I told him that I had six bottles of it and had tasted it and it was strong beer.
He went and told Nefsy who, with his wife and the guard (Jimmy Gibson) came running out into the garden. Nefsy said to me: “What did you know about the beer? Where is that beer?” I told him that I had hid it. They searched for about an hour and finally Mrs. Nefsy found it. She came over to me and asked me where I got it. I told her that was the root beer that they had bottled the night before. She said to me, “Don’t you know, you dirty foreigner, the we can send you to McNeill Island for stealing.”

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