Gardening in Skagway

A variety of vegetables on display in Skagway.
A variety of vegetables on display in Skagway, 1915.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Lois Butt Collection, KLGO 0004.015.0003_14

The contrast between the neat and orderly plots of flowers and vegetables and the rough buildings just next to them was surprising to early visitors who imagined Skagway as only a tough frontier town of bars and brothels. But the gardening culture was long sown into the soils of Alaska since the days of Russian colonization, when produce was grown to feed missionaries, soldiers, and traders. Rather than subsistence, the first garden in the Skagway area was started behind the trading-post of John J. Healy and Edgar Wilson in Dyea. The vegetables that sprang from that plot were purchased by Klondike hopefuls who would otherwise carry only meals of flapjacks, beans, and coffee into the Yukon. These were cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, beets, peas, carrots, potatoes and parsnips. While the transient population of Skagway during the gold rush years was a hindrance to land cultivation, which requires time, effort, and patience, some more permanent families found success in growing potatoes on the hills surrounding town. One ambitious Kansas State Agricultural College graduate was able to harvest 54 varieties of 24 vegetables and also grew an abundance of oats, clover, barley, and flax. His most fruitful crop was the turnip, growing some over four pounds, and saying that “Alaska appears to be the home of the turnip.”
Skagway gradually grew into an established community with the help of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. And residents, in turn, began investing themselves in projects that took advantage of the unique growing conditions of the area. Compared to the majority of southeastern Alaska, the Upper Lynn Canal area has longer summer days, less rain, and more sunlight. Rain influences soil chemistry through leaching and the relatively dry days of summer keeps Skagway soil less acidic. Not only were families growing food for themselves, but also for markets. Skagway produce sometimes found its way to Haines, Whitehorse, and Juneau.

Eventually, markets were large enough to feasibly look at a goal of Skagway self-sufficiency. In 1901, farmers confidently stated that this goal was in sight and added onions, beets, pumpkins, and strawberries to their door-to-door deliveries. Small, individual family gardens were also successful to the point where it was said that, “the novelty of home produce has ceased."
A large poppy field in Skagway, Alaska.
A large poppy field in Skagway, Alaska.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Shoemaker Collection, KLGO 38022

At this time flower gardens also took root in Skagway and many novice gardeners began to dabble in home adornment. The Alaskan agricultural experiment station agent serving in Sitka in 1901 visited Skagway that year and was surprised to find that the quality of flower beds was on par with the best he had seen anywhere.
“There was scarcely a dooryard in which could not be found a fine collection of the hardy annual flowers. Pansies and sweet peas seemed to be the favorites, but poppies, nasturtiums, mignonette, marigolds, larkspur and a dozen other annuals were also much in evidence. The remarkable feature was not that the residents should attempt to grow these things, but rather the extraordinary luxuriance of everything."
That fall, the Chamber of Commerce had a collection of agricultural products sent to the Portland Exposition including twelve varieties of vegetables as well as barley, wheat, rye, and oats. The success of Skagway agriculture, however bountiful in the eyes of those interested in taking note of such things, was lost to many tourists during this time. Many visitors wrote only of the evidence of the town’s role in the gold rush found in hotels, the mining-supply trade, and huskies used for transporting goods. The gardens were often overlooked.
Two residents stand next to their marigolds outside the Gold North Hotel.
Residents show off their marigolds in bloom outside the Golden North Hotel.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 59783d_Golden North Marigolds. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Despite a lack of recognition from outsiders, the town was invested in celebrating its gardening bounty. In 1902, the jeweler Herman Kirmse began a gardening contest to promote an interest in local flowers. A group of judges carefully walked through the local flower gardens and a first prize and a runner-up. First prize was a set of silver forks and knives to Marian Reynolds and second prize a silver pickle castor to Jeannette de Gruyter. The contest grew each year and was a standard Skagway activity until 1906.

1906 brought a new era to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. Previously, the focus of the train system was on transporting miners and their supplies into the Yukon Territory. Recognizing the financial gains of catering to tourists, the company began producing material that advertised the scenic beauty and abundant wildlife all to be seen from the comfort of a train car. Among the images of the wilderness were photos of Skagway’s flower gardens, used to illustrate civility in the midst of Alaskan gold rush history. Visitors could experience both the wild frontier and the comfortable aspects of settled life in an established town before heading up the pass into a world of seemingly untouched forests and mountains. At this point, tourism played a minor role in the Skagway economy and gardens were grown by residents for their own aesthetic pleasure and sense of settlement in a town that would be largely characterized by its historical assets.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, gardeners in Skagway were men and women from all social-economic classes. The men largely worked with vegetables and the women, with flowers although this was not a rule: a Mrs. W. Lyle Speer had one of the best flower gardens in her time and also boasted a strawberry patch, the sole rose bush in town, and a noted massive head of lettuce that weighed in at forty-three ounces.

Tourism took hold in Alaska right before the United States became involved in World War I. Larger incomes across the country allowed for more travel and conflict in Europe encouraged travelers to explore new territories. Alaska became a feasible and desired destination. In response to this new interest, Skagway’s dentist and newspaper editor Dr. L.S. Keller in 1916 coined the nickname “Garden City of Alaska” to increase tourist appeal. This slogan beat out other considerations such as “the Key City”, “the Lynn Canal City”, “Gateway to the Golden Interior”, “The Garden Spot”, and “Summer Resort of Alaska”.
The welcome to Skagway sign with the writing "Garden City of Alaska"
Visitors who drive into Skagway from the South Klondike Highway are greeted by the greenery of the town.

NPS photo/A. Lattka

Blanchard Garden in the neighborhood of Skagway.
Blanchard Garden, a must-see to early visitors of Skagway.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 55736_Blanchard Garden. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Upon U.S. involvement in the war began, Skagway joined the effort by replacing flower gardens with vegetable gardens. The Skagway Alaskan Newspaper stated, “nearly all the available space in the yards and lawns was given over to raising things needful, and the plebeian potato took the place of the stately and aristocratic dahlia.” Once the war ended, flowers became dominate again and in the following years, gardeners experimented with new varieties. The most abundant and successful flowers were dahlias, sweat peas, pansies, and nasturtiums. Skagway dahlias were said to be, “as big as your hat." The Blanchard family’s garden was admired by locals and visitors alike during the period between the two world wars and was labeled a “must-see” tourist attraction. One visitor wrote,
“The porch on the east end is covered with a mass of giant nasturtiums in colors so flaming the porch seems on fire, while the west end is enclosed in glass for a protection for some exquisite begonias in which pink and yellow predominate. A dainty canary vine with its little birdlike blossoms is climbing the west end of the porch in the rear of the dwelling."
In 1929, the Blanchard’s had the honor of growing the world’s largest dahlia, which went uncontested for thirty years.
Another successful garden in Skagway at the time was grown by Charley Walker, the same man who covered the Arctic Brotherhood building face with 10,000 sticks of driftwood. His activities included selling flower bouquets to tourists as they walked into Skagway for the first time and was known as, “the most northern florist in the world”, a title he held with pride. Both the Walker and the Blanchard gardens were featured in Martin Itjen’s famous streetcar tours.

While flowers painted Skagway for tourists and residents alike, vegetable gardens were also thriving during this time period. Henry Clark was known as the rhubarb king and also had acres dedicated to cabbages. A weekly truck or cart carried produce grown by Clark and two other men, Walter Wills and Dale Cowen, around to residents who froze or canned vegetables for the winter.
Two young girls and a man pose with rhubarb. Text reads "Rhubarb, Clark's Ranch."
Sitting in the midst of a rhubarb harvest.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Candy Waugaman Collection, KLGO Library SP-276-8933

During the Second World War, when troops were housed in Skagway, garden plots were transformed into building foundations, topsoil was destroyed, and trees bulldozed. Tourists were no longer allowed in town and during this period many of the most successful gardeners left or passed away. When tourism was again resumed and Skagway residents began gardening again, growers chose not to advertise their gardens in the same way as those did before World War II. Popular flowers were peonies, honeysuckle, schizanthus, and nemesia. Gardening held its place as a Skagway activity until the early 1960’s when retired gardeners were not replaced by new enthusiasts. The first glimpse of the Skagway Garden Club came in 1961 but it was brief and faded away with their plans to plant native Alaskan shrubs and perennials on the museum grounds.
In the early 1980’s a renewed interest in local flowers was influenced by local businesswoman Charlotte Jewell and supported by Councilwoman Suzanne Hartson and the Skagway Garden Club was reformed and involved in efforts to beautify public places with flowers and trees. One major citizen effort was in planting fifty mountain ash trees along the road to the Ferry terminal. $10,000 in donations were generously given by Skagway citizens and by the city. “Mountain Ash Row” was dedicated on July 4th, 1987. The club also encouraged residents to grow their own flower beds and gave free soil to homes along State and Main. Today, the Skagway Garden Club still maintains its presence in the community and is joined by other supportive organizations.

North of the Skagway City School ball fields lay handfuls of raised beds, access to gardening tools and a large compost pile, which make up the community garden. Fliers around town advertise flower sales and local businesses dedicated to supporting the growth of healthy residential gardens. The National Park Service adorns Broadway with a native plant garden designed and cultivated by local children. On Facebook Skagway Organic Gardening Society has 233 members as of July 2017, and is an online medium for discussion and resources for all things gardening. The residents of Skagway keep up their gardens to continue making Skagway the Garden City of Alaska.
A picture of a garden plots with sign reading "Community Garden"
A popular place for Skagway residents in the summer to get their hands dirty.

NPS photo/K. Howard

About This Article

This article was researched and written by Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in April 2012. It was originally given as a radio talk.

Last updated: December 7, 2017