Skagway, municipality, southeastern Alaska, U.S. Lying 90 miles (145 km) northeast of Juneau and situated at the north end of the Lynn Canal, it is the northernmost point on the Inside Passage (Alaska Marine Highway).
The area was originally inhabited by the Tlingit and its name derives from the Tlingit word skagua, meaning “place where the north wind blows.”
Skagway was founded in the 1890s as the gateway to the Yukon and Klondike goldfields, and it was incorporated as a city in 1900. It owed its importance to its role as the Pacific coastal terminus of the White Pass (2,913 feet [888 metres]) through the Boundary Ranges and of the White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) narrow-gauge railway (the first railway in Alaska) from Whitehorse, head of navigation on the Yukon River in Canada.
Sitting at the head of the Lynn Canal, the northernmost fjord of Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, Skagway was a natural conduit to the Klondike.
Founded to service and swindle the tens of thousands of gold-crazy stampeders passing through it, the town became notoriously rough, “little better than a hell on earth,” a Canadian Mountie said.
Day and night, gunfire rang out on Broadway, the main street, and spilled out of one of the many saloons in town. Merchants, prostitutes and thieves hustled stampeders, restrained by nothing more than their talent, imagination, and scruples. These opportunists mixed with such eccentrics as a dancing bear from Russia, a man who stuffed an incredible number of China eggs into his mouth, and a balloon vendor from Italy, in a carnival of greed, deceit and violence.
A sophisticated, power-hungry swindler, Soapy knew that Skagway rather than the Klondike goldfields was the mother lode, and he quickly established a profitable operation. Though a con man to his core, Soapy liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy, a role enhanced by his hound dog eyes and Dixieland manners.
He gave money to widows and quelled lynchings with campaign-style rhetoric, while operating a ring of thieves and swindlers who fleeced stampeders with cards, dice, shells and armed robbery. His telegraph office epitomized the man’s artifice.
Soapy charged five dollars to send a message anywhere in the world. Eager to send news of their adventures to folks back home, no one bothered to peer behind the shack where the telegraph wire petered out in the brush.
Yet within hours of sending a telegram, a reply was bound to come–collect, of course.Soapy sought more than mere financial success. Through bribes, intimidation, a comprehensive spy network and his private militia, the Skagway Guards, Soapy established himself as the dictator of Skagway, controlling the newspaper and Deputy U.S. Marshall as well as the vast array of thieves and con men roaming the town. Soapy won the reluctant acceptance of merchants with such sops to civic loyalty as forbidding thieves from robbing townspeople. Frightened by the rampant lawlessness, businessmen preferred such ersatz order to the chaos which might otherwise erupt.
As long as gold fever drew stampeders north with no thought to their own security, Skagway’s reputation hardly hurt business. Townspeople even blessed this notoriety by making Soapy Smith the marshal of their Independence Day parade. But when one of Soapy’s thugs robbed a southbound miner of his year’s gold diggings, merchants finally realized that law and order had become vital to the town’s economy.
So on July 8, 1898, the people of Skagway made the first move in what would eventually become an all-consuming effort–reinventing Skagway. Frank Reid, leader of a vigilante group determined to bring law and order to the town, killed Smith and was himself mortally wounded in a shootout on the city docks. Townspeople honored Reid with an enormous tomb marking his sacrifice “for the honor of Skagway.” No one in the town of ten thousand volunteered to bury Soapy Smith’s body.
Skagway’s lawless days ended just as a new industry in town removed the need for that desperate scramble for money. In 1899 the White Pass & Yukon Route completed its railway from Skagway to the Yukon. The town settled into its new role and prospered with the railroad for 83 years. But after losing its chief ore-hauling contract in 1982, the railroad shut down, nearly taking the town with it. Desperate once again, townspeople returned to their roots. Skagway had serviced the stampeders in the 1890’s; it would service the tourists in the 1980’s.
We’ve been skirting the story of the Klondike Gold Rush, but we had to establish in our minds and idea of what the whole area was like when it finally started. Now, we can move ahead and explore the full story of the Klondike.
It all started on August 16, 1896, when George Washington Carmack and two Indian friends, “Skookum Jim Mason” and “Tagish Charlie” Dawson, in the Yukon pried a nugget from the bed of Rabbit Creek, a tributary of Canada’s Klondike River, and set in motion one of the most frenzied and fabled gold rushes in history.
Over the next two years, at least 100,000 eager would-be prospectors from all over the world set out for the new gold fields with dreams of a quick fortune dancing in their heads. Only about 40,000 actually made it to the Klondike, and precious few of them ever found their fortune.
“The Rest of the Story” will follow in our next episode, make sure to check back with us in about 5 days…see you then.