Historical Features

from the 2002 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Visitor Guide


Forty Tlingit Indian canoes line the bank of the Taiya River at Dyea Village in 1897. LaRoche photo, Library of Congress - Historic Photos courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and Skagway Museum & Archives
The Fate of a Nation

In this valley called Shgagwéi (Skagway), and the neighboring flats that we call Diyée (Dyea), the history of Native people is often obscured or untold. We see photos, or hear traces of stories about the Lingít (Tlingit) leading prospectors over the Lkóot (Chilkoot) Trail. What remains hidden in the dark corners are the tales of how the Native People are today, and how a hundred years of gold rushing has affected their way of life.

Historically, Shgagwéi and the surrounding area were important trade routes and subsistence grounds for the Lukaax.adí (Raven-Sockeye), Daklaweidí (Eagle-Killer Whale), and Kaagwaantaan (Eagle-Wolf) clans. The Lukaax.adí are primarily based in Lkóot, an area Northeast of the present day town of Déi Shu (Haines). The Daklaweidí and Kaagwaantaan come from the area surrounding the village of Lukwan (Klukwan).
The discovery of gold in the late nineteenth century brought waves of prospectors up to settle in Shgagwéi or traverse the Lingít trade routes into the interior. These trade routes are now known as the Chilkoot Trail and White Pass. Both of them were invaluable links to the interior Tribes, and the Lingít had long used the trails to bring items like precious seafood and shells to the Gunanaa (Interior Tribes) in exchange for moose hides & meat, and valuable minerals like copper.
Prior to contact with Non-Natives, the Northwest Coast was a land of commerce. A shared language called Chinook Jargon helped many Tribes create a trade ring that stretched from California to Tás Tléin (Teslin), and may have stretched out to Hawaii and up to Cordova. With the Lingít, a people of trade and ownership, balance was a key part of life. Where one thing is given, something must be received; where one thing is taken or damaged, there must be compensation.
The central part of Lingít life is clan structure and relations. The clans can be divided into two sections: Yéil (Raven) and Cháak (Eagle). Each clan is either Yéil or Cháak and is represented by a crest, which is usually an animal (ex: Raven-Sockeye). The clan lives in an area, and it is the clan that claims ownership of houses, land, ceremonial objects, stories, names, and hunting/fishing rights. This concept is known to the Lingít as at.óow, and the claim to clan ownership brings life to objects and occasions, which are often given names at important gatherings to signify such ownership.
Relationships between the two clans revolve around balance and respect, and are often addressed and strengthened through a traditional gathering called a Ku.éex (Potlatch). Every person belongs to their mothers clan, and marries into the opposite clan (Yéil clans marry Cháak clans). Most clans have cousin clans, and many of them are located in several areas throughout Lingít Aaní (Lingít Territory), which makes it important for leaders and speakers to understand the link between the clans so they can address them at social events.
A key part of Lingít life is identity. The past two hundred years have brought unforeseen changes to the Native People of Alaska, which threatens that sense of identity and thus threatens the existence of a Lingít Nation.
The Need for Cultural Strength
The Alaska Native-American Indian population has undergone continuous, dramatic change over the last two hundred years. The initial rush of newcomers drove many of the Lingít residents out of their traditional homeland, and they either moved south to other Native communities or north into the Yukon Territory of Canada. Following the Gold Rush, there were periods of intense sickness and famine for the Native People, brought on by new diseases, and the loss of traditional land and subsistence rights.
In the early portions of the twentieth century, the Shgagwéi Native population was very high. There was a tuberculosis hospital for Natives on the north end of town, which was run by the military. And where the current Garden City RV Park is, there was a Catholic Boarding School for Native children. These were dark times for the Northern Lingít, and like their southern brothers and sisters, they saw their populations drop eighty to ninety-five percent in a span of thirty years.
Social pressures (racism) and the Boarding School era (a time of Government run schools that aimed to eradicate Alaska Native/American Indian cultures) have resulted in endangered languages and cultures for Native People. The loss of language has resulted in an equal loss in culture, and the deterioration of those qualities has left our people searching for wellness. Relief has come through a variety of social dysfunctions that have surfaced because of the effects of historical trauma. The source of this trauma has been a strong combination of disease, racism, addictive substances, and cultural & spiritual genocide. From the depths of this dark history, our Native People have survived, but now as modern leaders we are left with the lingering possibility of complete cultural assimilation.
The immediate solution is to create an environment in which our culture can not only survive, but thrive. Our Native People cannot heal without healing our language and culture; and that cannot happen without sharing it with our entire community. A goal of the Skaqua Traditional Council is to spread this culture, especially to the children of Shgagwéi, whose strong minds can absorb new concepts and languages. With this, we seek to revive our struggling way of life, and bring countless generations of knowledge to this place we all call home.
The Traditional Native way of life is too fragile to exist in isolation, and the spread of our knowledge to Non-Natives will not only ensure the survival of our language and culture, but it will decrease stereotypical thought. In modern day Alaska, we see racism in the news, read it in the editorials, and even hear it from members of Alaska’s Congress. This is not an outright “in-your-face” type of racism that plagues the history of American society, but is often subtle and hides behind terms like “urban vs. rural”.
If we choose to educate all of our community on our way of life, then we can combat the ignorance that fuels racist thought. Also, we can spread our way of life across the landscape of Haa Shagóon Aaní (Our Ancestors Land) and create a place where all our children can thrive with the confidence of who they are, where they came from. This applies to the neighbors of the Lingít, because we invite all to take part in this cultural revival.

Dancers from Haines perform at last summer’s Lynn Canal Celebration in Skagway. Jennifer Collins, Skagway News

The Skaqua Traditional Council believes that when our community understands how to host traditional events, they will continue finding things to celebrate in life. Success and happiness are contagious. Life can be a festival of sharing and a collective effort to survive the hard times. We can all work together more, for the sake of our children and future generations.
Only by embracing our past can we walk into the future with confidence, and create a world that is better for our children. That is the wellness that we seek.
Gunalchéesh (Thank You)
Xoynéi (Lance A. Twitchell,
Skaqua Traditional Council President)
Editor’s note: It is wrongly assumed by many that Skagway’s history began with the gold rush, but more is being learned about the first people of this valley, thanks to the efforts of the Skaqua Village Council and others. This year, we asked the council to write an article about the Native people of Skagway, so the first history may be told in their words. We are grateful for this story and it will be updated annually for all to see.

Jean, Matilda, Tad, Virginia, and Jeanette Hillery stand among the huge sweet peas in Charley Walker’s garden, a popular “Garden City of Alaska” attraction in the 1920s. Courtesy DeGruyter/Hillery family collection

First Garden Contest Held in 1902

Skagway’s first garden competition was organized by “Pioneer Jeweler” Herman Kirmse 100 years ago this summer. The winners were announced on August 15, 1902. This marked the beginning of gardening events that would culminate in the town calling itself “Garden City of Alaska.” Here is the Daily Alaskan front page story announcing the winners. The Skagway Garden Club continues this tradition annually with awards presented at the Eastern Star Flower and Garden Show each August. A new book about Skagway’s gardens, past and present, is due out from the Garden Club and Lynn Canal Publishing this year. Watch for its release at www.skagwaybooks.com.

Mrs. Reynolds Had the Best Garden in Skagway.
The award of the Kirmse prize for the best and second best gardens in Skagway was made yesterday. Mrs. Marion Reynolds, who resides on Fourth avenue, was given the first prize, and Miss DeGruyter was awarded the second prize. Mrs. M. H. Ford, Miss Quinlan, Dr. M.F. Hall, and William Britt were the judges and the prizes were presented by H. D. Kirmse, in accordance with his announcement last spring. The first prize consisted of a set of one-half dozen Rogers Bros. 1847 knives and forks and the second prize was a silver pickle castor.
Anyone in Skagway was permitted to enter the contest and the contestants were numerous. The judges had great difficulty in making a decision, as there were so many fine gardens. However, the garden of Mrs. Reynolds had the unanimous vote for first place.

Skagway's young ladies gather around the May pole, circa 1900. Yukon Archives

In making their decision, the judges took into account the evidence of care bestowed upon the gardens as well as the arrangement. The freedom from weeds was considered in connection with evidences of care.
In addition to those to whom prizes were awarded, the judges recommended the gardens of the following persons for honorable mention: Mrs. W. H. Hardy, Mrs. Lee Guthrie, Mrs. Lyle Spear, Mrs. J.J. Daly, Mrs. Brodie, Mrs. Webster, Mrs. H. Barthel, Mrs. Wm. Sunderbruch, Mrs. E. Rudd, Mrs. M.O. Dickey, and Frank Page. - Daily Alaskan, August 16, 1902

Soldiers guard the bank on 5th after the blast. KGRNHP

Failing to Get Money Demanded Desperate Man Shoots at Bank Clerk, Explodes Dynamite Killing Himself

At 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon, the Canadian Bank of Commerce of this city was blown up and almost completely wrecked by an unknown man who sacrificed his life in his rash undertaking to hold the institution up for $20,000. Miraculous as it may seem there was only one fatality, notwithstanding the interior of the bank was so shattered that only a disordered heap of wrecked furniture and broken plaster greeted the eyes of those first on the scene. The victim of his own depravity is lying in Peoples’ undertaking room, mangled and burned almost beyond recognition. John G. Price was the only other person to get hurt from the catastrophe and his condition is not dangerous, though he was severely cut around the face from flying glass and is suffering from the shock of the explosion. It was just before the closing hour in the bank and George Wallace and C.E. Pooley were all alone in the place. Both, fortunately, escaped uninjured except from the severe shock. – Daily Alaskan, Sept. 16, 1902

So began the story of Skagway’s first and only attempted bank robbery. In the three days following the incident, the newspaper was full of first-person accounts.
Wallace the only man to talk with the dynamiter, told the Alaskan that a man came to his ledger window. He wore dark clothes and a slouch hat pulled down over his head, and stuck his left hand through the cage. He was holding two sticks of dynamite.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s dynamite,” Wallace answered.
“Well, I want you to give me $20,000,” the unknown man said. “Now be quick and give me $20,000 or I will blow up the building.”
“As this last remark was made the man raised his right hand, and partly concealed in his coat-sleeve, was a revolver, this he pointed at me,” Wallace explained. “It took me an instant to realize that I was gazing into the barrel of a gun, everything was done so quickly. however, at the moment I did awake to a realization of the situation, I quickly swung around and made for the back door, calling to Pooley to look out for himself. Just as I reached the back door, the explosion took place.”
Pooley, upon hearing the warning, ducked his head into a safe and pulled the door behind him, probably saving his life. Wallace was blown out the back door and into the alley.
What caused the explosion?
Mr. Price, the bank’s attorney, had just come from the post office, the paper said, and opened the bank’s front door as the explosion occurred. He was blown backward but caught himself to prevent a fall. The $350 that was in his hand to deposit scattered, and glass struck him in the face, cutting his nose and forehead. Bleeding and deafened by the shock, he was taken to the doctors.
Two days later, back on the street, Price told the paper he had seen the man standing in front of the bank as he went into the post office. After posting his letter, Price went to the bank where he saw the man enter ahead of him. “As I stepped into the door, (the man) hurriedly stepped to the teller’s window and fired. As I was backing out of the door to make a retreat, the explosion took place.”
At first Price thought Pooley may have fired at the man and caused the glass to fly, but when the rest of the front of the building blew out, he realized it was much bigger.
First on the scene were J.F. Dillon and J.M. Tanner. They found the victim “lying on his face fully ten feet from where he was standing at the time of the explosion. He was torn, lacerated and burned, until he was a horrible sight to behold,” the paper said, and then launched into a gruesome account of his fatal wounds.
But no one knew who he was. Doctors guessed his age at about 35, and he was tall, and had a short, dark mustache. “He was powerfully built and had the appearance of a man who had had money,” the paper said. “His teeth were gold filled and had been well cared for. There was no paper of any kind by which he could be identified.”
The revolver, a .38 Colt, was purchased in Skagway, one witness said, and another reported that he had seen the man drinking in a bar before the incident. He was either American or Canadian, judging from his perfect command of English, they said.
There were reports that the man was seen in the company of two others on a street corner shortly before the incident, but the next day’s headline in the Alaskan said no evidence of an accomplice had developed. Nor had the Marshal’s office gained any idea of the man’s identity. “Their efforts have been unavailing, except to explode some of the clues that seemed plausible,” the paper lamented.
But a story the following day told more about the “desperate criminal.” Bob Wright of Dyea had told officers that he talked to the man in the Last Chance Saloon three days before the explosion, and the man had inquired about finding a way to reach Dyea quickly so he could go up the trail, and if there was anything to eat at the summit. On a second meeting the man inquired about a boat. Suspicious, Wright asked if the man was fleeing the law, but the man said he might just need a ride. After going down to the harbor to looked at the boat, he said it was too slow. During their third meeting in the bar, 20 minutes before the explosion, Wright said the man asked him to meet at Bishop Rowe hospital at 3 o’clock. “He said he wanted to be shown the trail to Dyea and that he would have $1,000 or be in hell in a few minutes,” the Alaskan reported.
The dealers at the Board of Trade also had encounters with him, saying the unknown man had played blackjack there for about two weeks. It seems that he lost his last $80 at the table one night and then had to sell his gold nugget chain. Jeweler H.D. Kirmse came forward and said he purchased it for $22.50, and then sold it to a Klondiker. Railroaders also came forward to say the dynamite had been stolen from the WP&YR magazine.

What was left of the bank’s interior after the blast. Barley collection/Yukon Archives

The bank’s destruction was massive, and photographer H.C. Barley was on the scene with his camera. This item appeared in the paper on Sept. 17:

Views of the Explosion
Barley has them – a complete set of pictures showing the explosion at the bank yesterday.

Despite the destruction, the bank reopened the next day at temporary quarters in the post office. Manager H.M. Lay stated that the loss appeared to be about $600.
An interesting follow-up to the story was published in 1990 by the English family of another CIBC bank manager, William White.
Toward the end of “Writing Home to Dorset from the Yukon” William White, a manager from the Whitehorse branch who later moved to Skagway, wrote about the incident and some previously untold, post-mortem exploits.
White, who probably traveled to Skagway on the train after the incident, believed the unknown man was startled and fired when Wallace yelled and fled. White credited the bank’s accountant, a Mr. de Gex, for a successful recovery effort. A rather large canister of gold dust had been on the counter, and was blown up in the explosion. White said sluice boxes were used to go through the dirt and debris outside, and the bank ended up with an ounce more than what was on the counter. The extra had apparently fallen through the cracks in the bank’s floor over the years since the gold rush, he wrote.
Mr. de Gex also admitted to White that a doctor and he were responsible for pilfering the unknown man’s remains before his funeral, replacing them in the coffin with bricks and sand. DeGex kept the robber’s thumb preserved in a bottle of alcohol, and he charged 50 cents for a quarter shot of whiskey to view it.
Five years later, after he took over the Skagway bank, White tracked down the remains to a local photographer, probably Barley or Samuel Case, who had the man’s bones in a sack in his woodshed. White convinced the photographer to get rid of them so he wouldn’t get in trouble.
They took them to another doctor, who examined them, and they burned most of them in the woodstove, White wrote. The doctor kept a couple, and White kept the skull, which remained in the bank until it closed in 1910, he said. Upon leaving town, White gave the skull to Dr. L.S. Keller, the dentist, who had recently acquired the Daily Alaskan.

If you would like to read the entire 32-page SKAGUAY ALASKAN, please send $2.00 to The Skagway News, Box 498, Skagway, AK 99840 and we'll gladly mail one to you. Or you can pick one up for free on your way to Skagway. Copies are distributed on the Alaska ferries and water taxis, at the Juneau airport, at all Yukon visitor centers on the Alaska and Klondike Highways, and at RV parks in the Whitehorse-Tagish-Carcross Yukon area. It is also available at numerous locations in Skagway, or from our popular Days of '98 Newsies who greet the cruise ships every mornng in the summer.

• 2000 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Historical Features

• 2001 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Historical Features