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Skagway - Alaska

Gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush

Chilkoot Trail | Alaska Hotels | Camping | Things to See & Do

During the Klondike Gold Rush, Skagway (first spelled Skaguay) was the gateway to Canada and the Yukon River system for most of the adventurers who traveled north to seek their fortunes.

The town still capitalizes on the 1898 stampede, but now as a tourist center with an outstanding heritage restoration.Skagway is reached by road, and from the sea. Alaska ferries arrive daily during the summer months, augmenting the population by thousands of cruise ship passengers who disembark for a few hours to walk around the town and to shop.

Some highway travelers arrive by the car ferries. Other visitors arrive on the Klondike Highway, coming from Whitehorse or points south via the Alaska Highway. A special feature of the summer season in Skagway is the scenic railway ride up the White Pass, on the original Klondike Gold Rush route.

Because Skagway is a slim piece of flat land squeezed between high mountains and the Lynn Canal, there are very few miles of road. The longest drive in the area is down the road to the site of the disappeared town of Dyea (dye-ee). Here at the mouth of the rushing Taiya River is the start of the historic Chilkoot Trail and the Chilkoot Slide Cemetery. Skagway's visitor center is the office of the Klondike National Historic Park, on Broadway, a short walk from the ferry terminal and all motels.

White Pass Trail

The Klondike Highway follows one of the two main routes from the port of Skagway to the Klondike gold fields, taken by thousands of prospectors and adventurers during the Klondike Gold Rush, beginning in the winter of 1897/98.

This is the White Pass route, and the modern highway is a far cry from the muddy, treacherous trail which climbed the extremely steep mountainside, resulting in the death of hundreds of pack horses as they carried the prospectors' supplies to the summit of the White Pass.

The White Pass trail was the trail of choice for the more prosperous prospectors who had the financial resources to buy horses for the trip up the slope. Horses were a great help in transporting the ton of goods was required for each prospector by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for entry into Canada. The trail was so rough and so deadly that most of the 3,000 horses that worked the trail perished on the steep slopes. Some died from exertion, others fell off the narrow trail into the canyon below.

The White Pass Railway replaced the trail when it was constructed and opened in 1900. Much of the blasting was accomplished by men hanging by ropes from the rock ledges. The scenic summer railway trip takes tourists along this historic route, although the year-round railway service between Skagway and Whitehorse was ended more than a decade ago.

Chilkoot Trail

The other "poor-man's" route was the Chilkoot Trail which began at the town of Dyea at the head of Taiya Inlet. This trail followed an old Indian passage from tidewater to Lindeman and Bennett lakes: the headwaters of the Yukon River. The first part of the trail was wet, running through swamps and bogs. The tree line ended near Sheep Camp, with snow visible throughout the year. Pictures taken during the stampede show hundreds of men struggling up the ice steps of the Chilkoot Pass, carrying their supplies -- over and over again -- to get their ton of goods up to the Canadian border.

A snow slide in March of 1898 killed more than 100 stampeders as they struggled up the pass. The slide cemetery at Dyea is a memorial to these prospectors who never realized their Klondike dreams.

The Chilkoot Trail was replaced by the White Pass and Yukon Railway in 1900. By the end of the year Dyea ceased to exist. The wood from the buildings was taken away to construct another town.

Today, the trail is a mecca for hikers from around the world and a living museum of the Gold Rush era. Thousands of people walk the trail each year, to experience a scenic and historical adventure. Transportation is available from the Canadian end of the trail, for the return trip to Skagway.

Early History - a rowdy town and Soapy Smith

A narrow wedge of land pushes from the Lynn Canal into the mountains, leading to the White Pass. Skagway was the transition point for over 20,000 Gold Rush stampeders in 1897 and 1898, and it was the most uncontrolled and lawless town in North America. The prospectors were held hostage by Jefferson (Soapy) Smith and his band of rogues, cutthroats, crooked gamblers, thieves and murderers, as they took advantage of Skagway's location as the gateway to the Klondike.

A notorious con man from Colorado, Soapy Smith was shot and killed by Frank Reid, the surveyor who laid out the Skagway town site. Their graves are in the Gold Rush Cemetery. Soapy Smith's grave is marked by a simple wooden slab.

The rowdy town was the jumping-off point for the two preferred trails to the Klondike: the White Pass and Chilkoot trails. After the main stampede of 1897 and 1898, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad was blasted up the White Pass, linking Skagway on tidewater with Whitehorse on the Yukon River. While the railroad ceased operations in 1982, a special summer tourist train began operating in 1988 and is a highlight of many visits to Skagway.

Skagway Today

Most visitors to Skagway arrive on cruise ships which stop here during summer months. Others come to hike the Chilkoot Trail, a 32 mile (51.5 km) walk along the historic route of the gold rush stampeders. This 3 to-5 day hike attracts thousands of people each summer. It's possibly the best way to relive the days of the Trail of '98, following the path which starts in the Dyea forest, climbing up through the Chilkoot Pass, and hiking above the tree line to Lindeman and Bennett lakes and the launching spots for thousands of boats and rafts in the spring of 1898. Visitors can easily spend two or three days in Skagway, reliving the history of the Trail of '98, visiting the restored buildings of the Gold Rush era, and hiking on several local trails. An excellent way to experience the 1898 ambiance is to see "Skaguay In the Days Of '98," performed nightly in the downtown dance hall at 6th and Broadway. It's been running for more than 60 years.

Practical Information

The visitor center for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and also for the town of Skagway, is at Broadway and 2nd Avenue, downtown. Walking tours leave here daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. There's a lecture on the Chilkoot Trail at 4 p.m. and ranger talks at 10 a.m. An excellent 30-minute film narrated by Hal Holbrook, with tinted photos from the Gold Rush, is shown on the hour during summer months.

The Alaska Marine Highway terminal is at the foot of Broadway, within sight of the National Park visitor center. For schedule information, call (907) 983-2941. The Bus Depot is at 3rd Avenue and Spring Street, in the Westmark Inn, (907) 983-2241. White Pass bus service includes runs to Whitehorse, and via Haines Junction and Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Things to See & Do

Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park offers walking tours of the historic downtown district centered on Broadway. Included on the tour are several significant buildings such as the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, the Mascot Saloon, one of 80 saloons and breweries which opened to quench stampeders' thirsts, and Capt. William Moore's Cabin, Skagway's original house (1888).

Dyea, Skagway's sister town on Taiya Inlet, a few miles from downtown, is now an empty space with only memories of its role in the stampede. The Slide Cemetery at Dyea is an impressive memorial to the 60 victims of the spring avalanche in 1898 that covered the Chilkoot Trail.

The Trail of '98 Museum, on the second floor of City Hall, with artifacts of the Gold Rush, should be an essential part of your visit.

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad offers an unforgettable scenic train trip over the White Pass. The track parallels the trail used by thousands of stampede adventurers, and it's easy to see while climbing the steep mountainside how hundreds of horses and men lost their lives trying to make the ascent. The train leaves the down town depot twice daily, at 8:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., during the summer visitor season, which lasts from early May to late September. The ride takes three hours, and the current rates are $78 per person.

Camping

Skagway RV and Camping Parks, P.O. Box 324, Skagway AK 99840, (907) 983-2768
These two campgrounds in Skagway are parts of the same operation. Pullen Creek RV Park is next to the Alaska State Ferry dock and the city's Pullen Creek Park, a short walk from the Klondike National Historic Park office and the downtown area. It has electrical and water hookups, showers, and a dump station. Hanousek Park, located on Broadway, is also within walking distance of downtown, with electrical and water hookups, wooded RV and tenting sites, showers, fire pits, and dump station.

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