Historical Features

from the 2006 SKAGUAY ALASKAN Visitor Guide


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Ladies of the ‘Demimonde’ Flourish

Our Intrepid Columnist Finds 70 Saloons In 1898, But No Lemons For His Cause.

By Elmer J. “Stroller” White
Special to the Alaskan
Immediately following his first breakfast in Skaguay, the Stroller set out to look over and size up the new town in which he had landed. Skaguay then had a population of somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000, counting those who would stop and look around when anyone yelled, “Hey, Kid.” There were between 500 and 750 of these “Kids,” each with his special designation, and about an equal number of – well, they wore skirts when they wore anything at all, did singing and dancing acts on the various stages and entertained in the numerous dancehalls, and if they were not of the demimonde, as the Stroller understands that term, they were closer to it than a strict interpretation of the law allowed.
At that time, in the first half of the year 1898, wives and children were scarce in Skaguay and the result was that a great deal of affection was stored up to expend on them when they should finally arrive. Also, it was by no means uncommon for the storage tanks to spring a leak, there being plenty of opportunity for acquiring punctures of that nature. But by the middle of that summer every steamer came laden with women and children. When a steamer whistled in the bay it was not unusual to see two men carefully inspecting each other’s coat sleeves and collars in quest of lingering hairs, for there was considerable wind in Skaguay that summer, and hairs – red, blonde and brunette – were wafted thither and thence by it and were likely to cling to any coat that happened by, and a great deal of trouble was saved by these careful pre-steamer inspections.
As he wandered the busy town that morning, the Stroller could see that while there was not a legal saloon in the place, for saloons were not legalized in Alaska until the following year, this did not mean that there were no saloons. The Stroller counted at least 70 that morning and probably missed another dozen. Most of the saloons were also money exchanges operating with faro layouts, roulette wheels, blackjack and crap tables and other games sometimes described as games of chance, although in this case the chance were few indeed and the “exchange” would be in any direction but one. Nearly every commodious building that was not a gambling house and saloon was a dancehall, and in some the three were combined, often with a stage thrown in. Business hours for the saloons were around the clock, while the dancehalls usually started at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and continued until everybody was soused, sometimes 12 and again 16 hours later, depending on the resisting abilities of the sousees.
It was there and then, as he wandered among the saloons and gambling house and dancehalls of Skaguay, that the Stroller’s work of moral uplift suffered a shattering blow and it appeared that his northward journey might have been in vain. From the Everglades of Florida to the shores of Puget Sound, the Stroller had sought to elevate the sodden and underdone by persuading them to put a squirt of lemon in it. The shortcomings of this gospel were at once apparent in Skaguay – there was no use prescribing for the patient if the prescription could not be filled. And the nation’s lemon crop wasn’t up to providing a squirt, even a small one, for all of the drinks then being consumed in Skaguay.
But although the Stroller was staggered by this discovery, his natural optimism asserted itself and he determined to continue his missionary work in one way or another and, by precept and example, to lift Skaguay from the morass in which she wallowed.
There was one other thing that the Stroller noticed that morning as he walked around the town. On the sheer rock wall of a mountainside, perhaps a thousand feet above the town and visible from nearly every part of it, someone had painted in large red letters, the words: “Drink Rocky Mountain Tea.” But nobody in Skaguay seemed to be paying any heed to that admonition.

– from “Skaguay, 1898”, excerpted from the book Klondike Newsman “Stroller” White, compiled and edited by R.N. DeArmond and available from Lynn Canal Publishing. White was assistant editor of The Skaguay News in 1898 before moving on to editorships in Dawson City, Whitehorse, Juneau, and finally Douglas, where his columns appeared in “Stroller’s Weekly,” and he forever became known as the “Mark Twain of the North.”

For the town’s first Fourth of July, the Manila Saloon proudly displayed a mural using Skaguay News front pages which showed Skaguay’s growth from a tent town in October 1897 to a city with railroad tracks running up Broadway in July 1898. This photo was taken during the roundup of the Soapy Smith gang a few days later. - Case & Draper, Alaska State Library

Skagway’s Saloons, 1897-1916

By Catherine Holder Spude, Ph. D.

Stepping onto the Skagway beach in August 1897, Tappan Adney, of Harpers Weekly found four saloons strung along the trail to the White Pass: the Pack Train, the Grotto, the Bonanza, and the Nugget.
“A glimpse inside of these, as one rides by,” Adney wrote of these tent saloons, “shows a few boards set up for a bar in one corner, the other corners being filled with gambling lay-outs, around which are crowds of men playing or looking on.” Adney pretended not to be too interested.
By that December, more than 30 tents, slap-dash false fronts and maybe even a few more permanent frame buildings featured a bar with a mirror, several kegs of whiskey and beer, a row of other choice liquors – which hardly anyone ever bought – and a few gambling tables. Now, whether the proprietor called his place a saloon, a dance hall, or a gentleman’s resort hardly mattered. They all featured the same illicit product for sale: liquid refreshment with an alcoholic content.
Hard to believe, but in 1897, the federal government forbade the sale of liquor in Alaska. Not that anyone paid any attention to the law, obviously. That December, 18 people in Skagway filed into the federal court in Sitka to pay their $100 fines for selling liquor without a license, it not being possible to get one for that business. The next May, 35 Skagway saloon owners paid their fines. In December 1898, 95 hotel owners, restaurateurs, madams, and saloon keepers from Skagway trooped past the district court clerk with their $100 fines. Selling liquor to the men on the way north obviously made for good business.

Customers gather outside Lee Guthrie’s Board of Trade Saloon, probably not long after it opened in 1898, as there is no sign. - Alaska State Library/ Klondike Gold Rush NHP

The good times for the saloon men ended in March 1899, when the United States Congress passed Alaska’s Organic Act. It included a bill making it legal to sell liquor in the territory. You would think the saloon men would be happy about that. Well, some were, the richer ones. It seems that in order to keep the temperance people happy, the framers of the law instituted a high license fee. Each proprietor who wanted to sell whiskey, beer or wine, or any other liquor had to fork over $1,500 a year, the equivalent of $30,000 in today’s money.
Skagway’s saloon population dipped from almost 100 to 16 on July 1, 1899 when the law went into effect, getting rid of the tiny dives, the tent saloons, the liquor sales in restaurants and hotels, and leaving only the biggest, the richest – and supposedly, the most respectable – drinking establishments.
These men, being relatively well-to-do, became pretty powerful around town. Well, some of them had been powerful before the licensing. There was Soapy Smith, of course, with his Oyster Parlours, a tiny little hole in the wall where a man could get cheated and conned out of the clothes he wore if he wasn’t careful. We all know what happened to Soapy.
Then there was Frank Clancy, one of the Clancy Brothers. They ran a gambling and saloon syndicate that stretched from Seattle to Dawson. The five or six brothers spaced themselves all up and down the coast and ran big dancehalls, saloons and gambling houses, made a ton of money, took over the town, then moved on once the boom died. Frank ended up owning three saloons, a dancehall, an opera house, and a restaurant, besides being the first unofficial mayor of Skagway in 1900.
Lee Guthrie could be considered Frank’s nemesis. He worked for George Rice, who ran another gambling syndicate. Rice set up the Pack Train Saloon within the first few days of the stampede onto Skagway’s shores; by October, he’d built the Board of Trade Saloon half a block to the west on Sixth Avenue, a saloon and gentleman’s club that would become the swankiest place between Seattle and Dawson. Rice put Guthrie in charge. By the spring of 1898, the Board of Trade belonged to Lee Guthrie, heart, body and soul. Not too long after that, Skagway belonged to Guthrie, too.

A game of pool is played inside the Board of Trade in 1908 after Tuck Flaherty took over the operation of one of the few saloons to survive the gold rush. - Yukon Archives

A shrewd saloon man could make a mint selling liquor, running gambling tables and offering female entertainment upstairs or in the alley behind his place, all of which Mr. Guthrie did. He quickly reinvested his money in Skagway’s real estate, buying up property as soon as it hit the market. By 1900, Guthrie was building the most expensive home in Alaska, now known as the White House on Eighth Avenue, costing $10,000 to build.. He was on the first three city councils of Skagway, and married a niece of California’s Governor George Hearst, the father of press magnate, William Randolph Hearst.
And then there was Chris Shea, the son of an Irish immigrant. Chris came to Skagway in 1898, worked as a laborer for the railroad, started signing on as bartenders for the Mascot, the Pantheon, and then the Pack Train. In late 1904, he finally had enough money to partner up with two other men and buy the Pack Train. He organized baseball games, courted the labor unions, organized the men in the saloons, and formed a labor party. In 1907, his political party overthrew the businessmen who had been running Skagway since the gold rush days. For the next three years, he instituted Progressive Era reforms for city government, including equalizing the tax structure, purchasing the power and water company for the city, and overseeing the settling of a lawsuit between the original claimant to Skagway – Capt. William Moore – and the townspeople who staked out the lots in the heart of the town.
If you were a big saloon owner in the first decade of the 20th century in Skagway, you had some power, and if you were smart, you used it. You had direct access to every man in the community, and only men could vote.
A saloon, in those days, didn’t resemble anything found in Skagway today. No woman could enter a saloon after 1904, by law. It was a man’s domain. If a woman went into such a place, the men assumed she was a prostitute, and she was treated like one. That’s exactly why they were forbidden inside; the law wanted no prostitutes in the saloons. No other woman had any business in a saloon.
Otherwise, these places were a good deal for a man. Ten cents bought him a beer on draft; for a quarter he could get a shot of whiskey. During the gold rush days, he drank more of the latter than the former. He could – and did – play black jack, roulette, faro, dice and other gambling games against the house. After 1902, he could get a free meal any time of the day, as long as he kept buying drinks. His pals expected him to treat, and he, in turn, knew he’d get treated by each of them. If he didn’t want to drink (although why that would happen is beyond anyone’s comprehension), he could buy a cigar for a nickel.
During the gold rush days, when women could come into the saloons, he could dance to the music of a player piano or a phonograph. Blow-by-blow descriptions of prize fights on the West Coast and Chicago were particularly popular at places like the Mascot and the Idaho saloons. Pool competitions ran almost continually at the Board of Trade and the Pack Train. The Pack Train and the Mascot had big, fancy phonographs, and the Pack Train even kept one employee just to watch over it, an early-day disk jockey making sure the ragtime tunes were the latest from vaudeville.
When things got really boring, the men could always break out into a good old-fashioned barroom brawl. It happened at least three or four times a year. For instance in November 1901, Jerry Moore attacked Richard Ryan in the Last Chance Saloon. Moore had a knife and cut up Ryan’s coat after being thrown into the street by the bartender. Ryan, in self-defense, hit Moore over the head with a stove poker, to no avail. Moore pleaded guilty to assault and battery rather than be tried for assault with a deadly weapon. Local judge Si Tanner fined him $50 and 30 days in jail.
Then, on May 7, 1902, two soldiers of the African-American Company L, stationed in Skagway, passed by the Commerce saloon. A white woman approached and asked them to protect her against James A. Perkins, a discharged soldier. Perkins pulled a razor on Private Davidson and gave him a seven-inch long gash from behind the left ear down under the chin, barely missing his jugular vein. Within three days, Perkins was fined $500 and sentenced to six months in jail in Sitka. It is likely that the woman may not have been entirely respectable. It is difficult to believe the businessmen in town would have permitted Judge Rogers to pass such a relatively light sentence had one of their own wives or daughters been involved in the incident.
But most of the time, the crimes in Skagway’s saloons were pretty innocuous. Herman Grimm’s Seattle Saloon, on the northwest corner of Sixth and State, for instance, was known as “The Gentleman’s Saloon.” Grimm stood for no nonsense. “No women, no gambling, no trouble,” was his motto. On January 22, 1904, when Army deserter Jeff Halloway, “a drunken roysterer (sic)” and “flourishing a revolver,” caused some trouble at the Seattle, Herman personally ushered him out the back door. “Soldiers were meanwhile entering and leaving the house, but paying little attention” to the known deserter. Some of these soldiers informed Lieutenant Widdifield, who engaged the assistance of the town marshal and special deputy U. S. marshal. He was traced to the United States Hotel, “where he was found in a beastly state of intoxication and taken into custody.”
Another time, in 1902, a con man worked several saloons before his game was discovered. “Several of the bartenders about town loaned him $5. Each took a valuable and flashy ring as security. He also played his graft game among the demimondes quite successfully. The jewelry was worn proudly by those in possession until it was discovered to be very bogus. All connected with the little jewelry episode are quite willing to pocket their losses and are not disposed to discuss the matter. One popular bartender said it was worth the price of admission as it was a reminder of the lively days of Soapy.”
And sometimes the trouble in a saloon started out with something the owner did. On April 3, 1908, a goat named “Sitka” wandered into the Board of Trade Saloon and ate the pockets off the famous English pool tables. The goat had become a mascot of sorts for the saloon, wandered around town freely, and caused many other complaints about general havoc he caused. The very admirers who later came to despise him painted him green on St. Patrick’s Day. “Every man cried out against him and if any were suspected of being his friend, however they might disclaim it, they were hauled before the court and fined.” After eating the pool pockets, “the goat is now excluded from the privilege of the place where lately he was like one of the family.” It turned out the owner of the goat was none other than “Tuck” Flaherty himself, then proprietor of the Board of Trade.
The high jinks and good times for Skagway’s men continued until 1916. As part of the original liquor licensing law, all of Alaska’s municipalities had to take a yearly election to approve the granting of the local liquor licenses. Women got the vote in Alaska in 1913. In 1914, at the urging of Skagway’s chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W. C. T. U.), the men who had controlled city hall since the gold rush days were voted out of office. In 1916, the liquor license vote closed down Skagway’s five remaining saloons.
Alaska Prohibition went into effect on December 31, 1917, one full year before National Prohibition. When the bars reopened in 1934, after Prohibition was repealed, the exclusive male domain of the saloon was gone.
Today, women can walk into the Red Onion, Moe’s, or the Bonanza, order a drink and have a good time without being propositioned and expected to do something she hadn’t bargained for. The customer has to pay for his or her food, and no one expects anyone else to treat them to a round, nor do they have to pay for a full round for everyone at the table. The atmosphere may be the same, but the times have changed. In my book, it’s for the better.

Cathy Spude retired as a historical archaeologist from the National Park Service after 30 years last May. She now does free lance writing from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, penning history articles and historical fiction about Alaska and New Mexico, the two states she loves the best. Watch for her historical novel “Sin and Grace” about prostitution and reform in Skagway to be published by Lynn Canal Press this fall.

The Daily Alaskan, 1898-1918.
The Skaguay News, 1897-1898
Other Southeast Alaskan newspapers, principally the Juneau Alaska Dispatch, the Juneau Record Miner, and the Douglas Island News.
Skagway city business directories, 1898-1917.
The U. S. Commissioner’s Journals, 1897-1908, State Archives, Juneau.
U. S. Department of Justice files, First District of Alaska, National Archives, Anchorage, Alaska, 1898-1920.
Skagway City Historical Records, Records of the Magistrate, Magistrate’s Docket, Deed Records, Tax Records, and Election Registration records. On file at the State Archives, Juneau, Alaska.
Harpers Weekly, September 1897
U. S. Census schedules, 1900, 1910, and 1920.

Historical photographs courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and from The Skagway News Collection.

The Percentage Women

The women who frequented Skagway’s saloons during the gold rush days, more often than not, made their money not by prostitution, but by selling drinks. Their role was to provide companionship to the lonely bachelors coming through town on the way to the Klondike. A nicely dressed woman – no spaghetti straps, flounces or cheap red satin, but tasteful gowns of the latest fashion – flirted with the customer.
Naturally, he’d want to buy her a drink. The bartender gave her colored water or tea, charged the man for wine or whiskey, and gave the woman a percentage – usually about 25 percent – of the cost of both his and her drinks.
Now, whatever sorts of other business arrangements the man and woman might want to make were strictly between the two of them. Some saloon proprietors rented upstairs rooms or small, one-room “cribs” in the alleys to the women for about five dollars a day (the equivalent of a hundred dollars today). What they did in those rooms was strictly their own business. In fact, if the proprietor knew what was going on, he could be arrested for keeping a house of ill-fame.
Clancy’s Music Hall, the Red Onion Saloon, and the Board of Trade all had their upstairs rooms. The alley between Fifth and Sixth Avenue was known variously as French or Paradise Alley, for the cribs behind the saloons. It all ended in 1901, when the W. C. T. U. convinced the city council to move the ladies of the night to Seventh Avenue, the newly designated red light district. – Cathy Spude

Skaguay grew up in October 1897 at the start of the muddy White Pass trail heading up the pass, but Frank Clancy was there with his first saloon. - E.A. Hegg, Univ. of Washington

Clancy’s Music Hall

One of the earliest places of entertainment in gold rush era Skagway, Clancy’s Club House and Music Hall, epitomized the fun times a bachelor could have on his way to the Klondike. Open 24 hours a day, a man could find drink, gambling tables, dancing, vaudeville shows, music and upstairs rooms with willing women to offer all sorts of delightful sensations. It worked like this.
A man would enter the front door of Clancy’s. He’d see the bar in the front room, where he could order a tumbler of beer on tap or a glass of whiskey. He’d probably treat the men standing nearest him, being a generous, gregarious sort. After two or three drinks and some conversation about the latest finds in the gold fields, he’d move on through the swinging half-doors to the dance floor in the next room.
There he’d see a number of nicely dressed women, ready and willing to share a dance with him. The band would be playing some of the latest tunes from vaudeville. A comely young woman would let him put his hand around her waist, would laugh at his vulgar language, and let him keep the cigar he had clenched between his teeth. Those tolerances excited him far more than any display of skin would have.
After an hour or so, during which he would treat his chosen lady to a drink or two, the porters in the house would cover the dance floor with chairs, and the man would seat himself to watch a free vaudeville show. His lady would join the cast in singing, dancing and telling ribald jokes. At the end of the show, he wanted nothing more than to spend some private time with her.
When she came out to dance on the cleared floor with him, he might ask if she had a room somewhere. She’d wink and lead him upstairs, where for half an hour and two dollars, he could enjoy her company without all those other men looking on.
The evening might have been a bit expensive, what with all those 25 cent drinks for both him and her, nickel cigars, quarter dances and that two dollar prostitute, but, hey, he was going to the Klondike, where he’d be able to peel the gold off the bedrock like sliced cheese. He could afford it. He was going to be rich someday. – Cathy Spude

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.

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