Skagway, Alaska

     We docked in Skagway early on the morning of June 10.  Skagway grew out of the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890’s.  In 1896 gold was discovered near Dawson City in the Yukon territory of Canada and in July of 1897 a ship docked in Seattle carrying several of the successful miners. The word spread quickly across the United States, which was in the midst of a deep economic depression, and tens of thousands of hopeful prospectors set out immediately for the gold fields.  Unfortunately by the time they got there the productive claims had already been taken, so very few of them actually got any real return for their efforts.

     And efforts they certainly were.   Even after a long trip to reach Skagway or its now long abandoned sister town of Dyea, miners had to scale the coastal mountains and travel hundreds of miles through wilderness to reach Dawson City.  The gold fields were in Canada & the Mounties would not let anyone past the border who didn’t have about a ton of supplies, enough to last a year.  At that time the only way to carry supplies up the mountains was on your back, so to get a ton of supplies up to the border in the mountains required climbing the mountains about 40 times carrying 50 lbs each time.  As you can imagine, anyone caught stealing supplies while their owner was down to get more would be summarily executed, so few tried it.  On the Chilkoot trail from Dyea, just a few miles north of Skagway, stairs were carved into the ice to enable people to climb, and it must have been quite a sight to see all those hopeful miners in a continuous line up the mountain.  There is a scene portraying this in Charlie Chaplin’s movie “The Gold Rush,” and it is also shown (not to scale) on one of Alaska’s license plates.

26. June 12 Ketchikan

     The other route up the mountain, the White Pass trail, started in Skagway,  It was longer but a little less steep, so it was possible to use pack animals.  But this didn’t work out very well as several thousand horses perished along the way, inspiring the name of Dead Horse Gulch.  The two routes came together at Lake Bennett, where the prospective miners created a huge tent city during the winter of 1897-1898 and began to cut down all the trees in the area to build thousands of boats and rafts to take them up the lake to the Klondike river.  From there they could travel on the river to Dawson City (where they would finally find out that it was all in vain for most of them).

     We did not spend much time in Skagway itself, having signed up for a full day trip into the Yukon Territory.  We drove up into the mountains in a bus on the Klondike Highway.  Plans to build this 110 mile highway were begun in 1905 but it wasn’t completed and opened the full way until 1978. The first part of the highway is very steep, climbing almost 3300 feet in 14 miles. In the mountains tall poles are planted on both sides of the highway to mark the road when it is covered with snow.  Horizontal bars on top of the poles are color coded in red & gray, sometimes with yellow between.  The guide told us that these are to guide drivers:  “Gray, you’re OK, Red, you’re dead.”  Yikes; glad it wasn’t snowy when we were there!  We drove over the Moore Creek Bridge, named for the first settler in Skagway, a suspension bridge anchored only on its southern end with a 110 foot gorge below.

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     We drove on to Carcross (originally “Caribou Crossing”) in the Yukon Territory, stopping at the border station in Fraser, B.C., several miles beyond the White Pass summit to show our passports.  Lots of beautiful views, as there were throughout this day.

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     Carcross is a small town with a wilderness vibe in a spectacular mountain & lake setting.  The buildings are small & mostly wood & there is a beach along the lake by the footbridge. We visited a small art gallery with some unusual items on display, including pictures made partly from cut-out computer boards.  It had become a beautiful day (the best weather of the entire cruise & much better than at sea level in Skagway), & the town was full of flowers.  There is a statue of a caribou (which is basically a wild reindeer) where the highway enters the town.  Oh yes, there was also a public library!

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     In Carcross we boarded the train in the picture above for the 67.5 mile trip back to Skagway.  The Whitepass & Yukon Railway was begun in 1898 to provide easier & more reliable transportation to the Klondike gold fields.  It was quite a challenge to build a railroad in rough winter weather through these daunting mountain passes, but it was completed all the way to Lake Bennett by July, 1899.  It has a narrow gauge, with rails only 3 feet apart on a 10 foot wide bed, because this made it easier to make tight turns around mountains and required less blasting into the sides of mountains.  There are two tunnels & several spectacular bridges over mountain gorges.  In July, 1900 the road reached Carcross, where it was met by a railroad being constructed from the north & a golden spike was symbolically driven to join them (It was actually an iron spike because the gold one was too soft to drive).  In 1994 this was designated as one of about 250 Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks worldwide.

     Of course, by the summer of 1899 the gold rush was effectively over.  But the railway kept up commercial operation until 1982, hauling passengers and freight (mostly non-gold mining ore).  During World War II it was taken over by the US Army & carried supplies for the builders of the Alaska Highway.  By 1982 most of the mines had closed because of falling metal prices & the railroad ceased operations.  But in 1988 it was reopened to run from May to September at the behest of the cruise lines whose Alaska business was growing rapidly.  It has been taking passengers all the way to Carcross only since 2007.

     We travelled south along the shore of Lake Bennett for about 25 miles.  We were told that such beautiful sunny days are rare in this area. Some of the coaches used on this railway date all the way back to 1881, and others are modern replicas of vintage cars.  We have no idea which we were on, but it sure looked vintage, complete with a coal stove at one end.  About 15 miles from Carcross we crossed the Yukon – British Columbia border.

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     We stopped at Bennett, British Columbia, now mostly uninhabited.  This is where the Chilkoot & White Pass trails converged.  Tens of thousands of miners pitched tents here in 1897 & built boats to take them, once the ice melted, almost 600 miles across lakes and down the Klondike River river to Dawson City.  Donald Trump’s grandfather built and ran a hotel & saloon, now long gone, on the lakefront near the train depot. When the railroad was extended to Whitehorse in 1900 Bennett lost its train-to-boat transfer business & the town was abandoned.  Bennett is maintained today by Parks Canada.  We had limited time, so we walked through the small museum in the train depot then set out along the path that led to the top of the hill.  The view from the top was impressive.  Halfway down the hill is St Andrews Presbyterian Church, the last building remaining from the original town.

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     Reboarding the train, we continued toward Fraser, British Columbia, where the customs office is located.  This is some 7 miles inside Canada because there is no room for a building at the border on the White Pass Summit.  Breathtaking scenery the entire way.

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    The last 20 miles from White Pass Summit to Skagway is all downhill, with tunnels, bridges & narrow paths curving around mountains. About two miles from the summit we came out of a tunnel & passed the Steel Bridge, the tallest cantilever bridge in the world when it was built in 1901.  It has not been used since 1969.  From Inspiration Point you can see all the way to the Lynn Canal where Skagway is located.

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     We continued down the mountains, clinging to the sides above steep gorges.  At about 9 miles from Skagway there was a sign on rocks on the other side of the canyon saying “On To Alaska With Buchanan.”  This was not a prospector’s vow, but the slogan of a group that brought Detroit youths to Skagway every summer during the 1920’s.

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     As we reached flat land a few miles from Skagway, we crossed the east fork of the Skagway River & followed the river the rest of the way into town.

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     We exited the train near the train depot, but the railway buildings were closed for the day.  We were really too tired to explore the town so we walked back to the ship.  On the way we passed the striking Arctic Brotherhood Hall. It was built in 1899 to house a fraternity formed by prospectors while on the ship for Alaska.  The façade is covered with more than 8,000 pieces of driftwood gathered from Skagway bay, more than 5,000 of which are still the originals. Two doors down is the Golden North Hotel with its distinctive gold dome.   Built in 1898 for the Klondike Trading Company, which sold supplies to prospectors, it became a hotel in 1908.  We also, happily, encountered the Skagway Public Library.  As we reached the ship, it was the end of a long but very enriching day.

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3 responses

  1. Konnie

    Ok what did I miss. What’s up with library. Steve and Wendy always take pictures of libraries also

    August 10, 2017 at 11:49 am

    • Mary was a librarian & really likes libraries. We have a large collection of pictures of her standing in front of libraries around the world. I don’t know why Steve & Wendy like to photograph them; maybe its just because libraries are cool.


      On Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 11:49 AM, BADER JOURNAL wrote:


      August 10, 2017 at 1:03 pm

  2. John Oakes

    Again, Rich, the commentary is excellent and the pictures are superb.

    August 10, 2017 at 8:31 pm

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