Historical Features

from the 2005 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Visitor Guide


• Ho for the KLONDIKE HIGHWAY! Mile-by mile driving log

• City of the New Century - Skagway Timeline from 1880s to present



Gateway to the Golden Interior - Natural Headquarters for Tourists and Sightseers
Garden City on Stage for Triumphant Era of Alaska History - Here is Skaguay.

Silent little valley town where the big ships go,
Set among your circling peaks with the crowns of snow;
Hearts of flame their summits gleam, in the morning sun,
Long blue shadows wrap them round, when the day is done.

Lonely little valley town, where the white ships go,
Yours the spell that binds men’s hearts to your peaks of snow;
Earth-wide and sea-wide, however far they roam,
Your message on a thousand winds shall call them home.

Poetry & Narrative by Floris Clark
For the Skaguay Library, circa 1920

Before the discovery of gold under a certain lone birch tree on Bonanza Creek, Skaguay consisted of a few native fishermen’s huts in a wooded valley. The significance of its name, Skagua, meaning in the Native language “The Home of the North Wind,” showed that the Indians at least were familiar with the bitter gales which swept the valley in winter, even if few white men had experienced the rare charm of its sunshine and flower filled summers. Then came the historic rush to the Klondike, and in a few months the Native fishing village had become a city of 20,000 people, living in tents, in hastily built cabins, in anything that would shelter them until they could assemble an outfit and start over the trail. From Skaguay the White Pass trail led up over the summit, while from our twin city, Dyea, the Chilkoot trail led over the mountains to join the White Pass trail at Lake Bennett. With the completion of the railroad from Skaguay in 1900, and the subsiding of the stampede, Dyea gradually passed out of existence, until its place is now marked only by deserted buildings and a ranch or two.
No sketch of Skaguay’s history would be complete without mention of the notorious Soapy Smith. Gang leader, bandit and gambler, he and his gang ruled the town for nearly two years. In his gambling house and saloon, many a poke full of gold dust and many a fat roll of greenbacks mysteriously disappeared. At last the citizens of the town organized a Vigilante Committee and called a meeting at the lower end of the wharves. They placed a guard, Frank Reid, at the approach to the wharf with orders to prevent anyone from passing. Smith heard of the meeting and started down with the avowed intention of “driving that Vigilante Committee into the bay.” Reid refused to let him pass and Soapy fired. Although mortally wounded, Reid fired a fatal shot in return. Both men were buried in the little cemetery above the town. Over Reid’s grave was placed a monument of native stone, on which are the words, “He gave his life for the honor of Skaguay.” The beautiful falls behind the cemetery are named in Reid’s Falls in his honor.
It seems a long step from those days of gambling houses and saloons and sudden death to the Skaguay of the present day, with its electric lights and telephones, its modern homes and beautiful gardens. Today the town is the embodiment of peace. Most of the public buildings, constructed when the populations numbered several thousand, are amazingly good. The school is a two-story, steam-heated and electric lighted building, containing five classrooms, gymnasium, manual training room, and domestic science kitchen. The work of grades and high school is covered, and graduates from the high school are accepted without examination in the colleges and normal schools in the State of Washington. Several good hotels minister to the needs of transients and summer visitors, and furnished cottages may be rented by the month for a very reasonable sum. The public library is also a rest and writing room and information bureau, maintained for the convenience of tourists and townspeople. The Elks, Masons, Eastern Star, Eagles, Arctic Brotherhood, Alpine Club, Camp Fire Girls, and Boy Scouts all have organizations in town. The White Pass and Yukon Route maintains an Athletic Club and reading room for the use of its employees and friends. The Women’s Club, affiliated with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, is very active, one of its important works being the founding and sponsoring of the public library. The Skaguay Alaskan, published three times a week, is the oldest newspaper in Alaska. It receives news daily over the government cable from Seattle. Messages from the States can also reach Skaguay over the Canadian telegraph line. The churches of the town are the Catholic, the Free Gospel Mission, and the Presbyterian, the last being in reality a union of the Protestant churches under the charge of the
Presbyterian Home of Missions.
Skaguay is the southern terminal of the White Pass and Yukon Route to the interior, and is the site of the offices and shops of the company. Three large steamship lines also maintain offices in the town.
Known in the North as the “Garden City,” Skaguay is a town of beautiful flowers. Almost every home has its garden or window boxes, and some of the gardens are famous throughout not only Alaska, but the Northwestern states. Vegetables also, as in other parts of Alaska, grow to unusual size, and wild flowers and berries are found in abundance.
In beauty of location the town is unsurpassed. Although entirely surrounded by mountains whose peaks are always wrapped in snow, the town itself is on a level valley floor. The bay on which it faces is deep enough for the largest steamers to land, and the trip from Seattle through the Inside Passage is conceded to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The climate of Skaguay is quite at variance with the usual ideas of Alaskan weather, since it is free alike from the endless rain of the more southern coast town and the extreme cold of the interior. The thermometer seldom drops below zero in winter, or rises above 85 in the shade in the summer.

A curious visitor takes a look at a crevasse on Denver Glacier in the 1900s. The glacier has receded back up the hillside and is harder to get to, but is just as stunning. J.B. Moore Collection, UAF

There are a number of beautiful spots for outings in and about the town. Denver Glacier is only about seven miles distant. The first four miles of the way may be covered by train or the first three miles by automobile. and the remainder is over a good trail to the very edge of the ice. Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes, from which come the town’s water supply, are respectively half an hour’s and three hours’ climb from town. The Devil’s Punch Bowl, beyond the Upper Lake, is another half hour’s climb, and the peak of Dewey Mountain, while not so easy of access, rewards anyone who scales it with a wonderful view of the surrounding country.
On the other side of the valley, the Alpine Footbridge opens the way to several delightful spots. Lookout Point and Smugglers’ Cove, each only a few minutes walk from town, afford a beautiful view down Lynn Canal. The Skyline Trail to A.B. Mountain is a journey of delight, with its ever-changing view of the mountains and valleys. The trip to the summit of A.B. and back may be made in a day. It is an easier climb than Dewey Peak and the view of mountains and glaciers from the top is magnificent. More than 25 glaciers may be seen from the top on a clear day.

The endless mountains, glacier-crowned,
The glorious reach of pines and snow;
God shows such things to men sometimes,
But they must climb the peaks to know.

Burro Creek, across the bay, is an ideal camping ground with a chance for rare sport with a fish line. Lake Bennett and Log Cabin on the railroad are historic spots well worth the trip to see.
Modern in many ways as the town is now, the memory of the early days remains in many historic buildings and bits of trail. The spell of the North is a spell that grow on one the longer he stays, and even the visitor of only a few weeks finds he cannot leave without a feeling of regret. For sooner or later the North claims her own, and careless or indifferent as he may at first have been, the traveler that

Earth-wide and sea-wide, however far he roam,
Her message, on a thousand winds, shall call him home.


Early Skagway Promotions

Skagway's first golden age of tourism occurred in the 1920s, and the town and railroad produced several booklets touting the region’s beauty and access to the Interior. The “Skagway Improvement Society, ” and “Skagway Commercial Club” led the campaigns.

A sampling of Skagway brochures from the 1920s, 1930s and 1970s. Brady Collection

The Shipping News On The Rocks

By Dimitra Lavrakas

The first thing a cruise ship visitor does when they step onto the Railroad Dock in Skagway is to turn around and look up at their ship. They stand in amazement at its bloated grandeur, then performing a 180, they peer up at the rocky mountainside with its many painted ship emblems.
Perplexed, the inevitable question comes, “Why is there ugly graffiti on that wall?”
It is not graffiti, says Carl Mulvihill, the closest thing Skagway has to a town historian. It is the register of all the ships that made maiden voyages to Skagway since, he believes, 1917.
“That’s the earliest date I could see,” Mulvihill said over a cup of coffee while taking a break from preserving yet another old building on his property by completely enclosing it in new material. “Ships are encouraged to record the ship’s name, captain’s name, the company’s flag, and the date it arrived. They tend to discourage the crew’s names, but there’s no one down there to enforce it.”
Mulvihill has taken pictures of just about every event in town since he got his first camera, a Kodak 116, in the 1950s.
But he doesn’t know when the practice started. Even the historian at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park scratches his head.

The oldest ship insignias on the rocks are from the Princess ships of the Canadian Pacific line of the 1920s, during the early heyday of cruise travel to the Inside Passage. Dimitra Lavrakas

Karl Gurke has a standard letter he sends to people that reads, in part: “(It) probably dates to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. Historic photographs of the wharf are not clear enough to be able to tell for certain, however, it is known that advertisements for local businesses and products were painted on the cliff face during the gold rush so it is possible that the registry started during this period.”
During early morning coffee at the Sweet Tooth Cafe, older residents recalled the necessities that came aboard the old Canadian Pacific Railway steamers: SS Princess Norah, SS Princess Charlotte, and the Princess Louise.
These sturdy steamers built in Scotland, plied the waters between Vancouver and Skagway during the 1920s, hauling freight to the city and the Yukon Territory, and carrying passengers. Every 10 days, it brought mail. All were part of the CPR land, sea and air transportation service touted as the “World’s Greatest Travel System.”
“They were beautiful coastal steamships,” said Barbara Dedman Kalen, 79, whose family has been here since the Klondike Gold Rush.
The Norah ended up as a floating restaurant and cabaret in Kodiak, Alaska, after undergoing a name change to Queen of the North in 1955 and then a sex change to the Canadian Prince in 1958.
The Louise, as of 1964, was a hotel and restaurant in Vancouver, B.C.
The Charlotte was sold to a shipping firm in Greece and renamed the Mediterranean, carrying travelers throughout the region.
The USS Kishwaukee, was a United States tanker, that delivered bulk fuel to the White Pass tank farm in Skagway during the 1960s. The fuel was then piped to Whitehorse and Fairbanks.
Alas, poor Princess Adelaide, another CPR steamship from 1928. She also was sold to the same Greek company, Typaldos Brothers Steamship Co. of Piraeus, Greece, in 1949. They called her the Angelika, and her final voyage came when she wrecked on the Italian coast on the way to the scrap yard.

Members of “Soapy’s Gang” return occasionally to repaint the skull. This bunch of local roustabouts last made an attempt at honoring Soapy’s skulduggery with a complete overhaul in the late 1970s, including extra gold teeth. - Rand Snure, from “Best of the Skagway Police Blotter”

Her painted wooden register has survived the elements of Skagway’s wicked wind very well, as has Soapy’s Skull just below it.
The creator of Soapy’s Skull remains a mystery. No one remembers seeing it being painted or recalls any rumor of who might have done it. Skagway does have a tradition of pulling practical jokes on itself.
The skull commemorates the city’s original bad boy, Jefferson “Soapy” Randolph Smith, so named for his soap game in which he wrapped a bill under the soap’s wrapper and then performed a version of the shell game. Moving up the ladder of crime to more outrageous and blatant forms of extortion, on July 8, 1898, he was gunned down after cheating a stampeder out of his entire bankroll.
The MV Klondike’s insignia painted on a tucked away rock has retained its bright colors for 34 years. A tanker freighter of the British Yukon Navigation Co., a subsidiary of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, it was part of White Pass’s integrated transportation system similar to that of CPR. Bringing in supplies weekly for the Yukon, it returned south with a load of ore and asbestos from Clinton Creek, Mayo or Cassiar.

The M.V. Klondike was a combination tanker and cargo vessel that traveled between Vancouver and Skagway for White Pass, a pioneer in the movement of containerized freight, from ship to train in Skagway, to trucks in Whitehorse, and then all around the Yukon until highway trucking became cheaper in the 1980s. Photos by Dimitra Lavrakas

The WP&YR was a major player in the creation of a standardized container shipping system, Mulvihill said.
It seems the survival of a ship’s register seems up to the type of paint used, shelter from the worst of the elements, and altitude. Throughout, regular folk have made their mark of immortality, and over the years have encroached on some of the oldest insignias. This enfuriates Kalen.
“They used to pride themselves in painting the most beautiful emblems, now they deface some of the old ship emblems, and that makes me really mad,” she said. – Adapted from an article in Up Here magazine

Free lance photographer/writer Dimitra Lavrakas is a former editor of the Arctic Sounder in Barrow and The Skagway News, and a seven-year Skagway resident, currently operating Dimitra Lavrakas Photography. She hopes to winter in sunny Antarctica.

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

• 2002 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Historical Features

• 2003 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Historical Features

• 2004 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Historical Features