The name Peniel (pronounced "pen-aisle") is a Hebrew word meaning "face of God." Peniel is the place on the on the Jabbok River in what is now Jordan, where according to the Old Testament book of Genesis (32:30), Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord and received a blessing. The Peniels, a protestant, evangelical humanitarian organization formed in California in the 1880s, established rescue missions in urban areas of the West Coast. In Alaska, Peniel missions were opened in 1895 in Juneau and Douglas followed by Wrangell. They ministered to both the religious and practical needs of primarily transient people in these communities.
The Peniels Arrive in Skagway
According to newspaper accounts, when Peniel missionaries first arrived in Skagway in 1897 they held street meetings outside saloons. In 1899 a small structure was moved to a lot purchased by the missionaries near the east end of Sixth Avenue where meetings were held until the present Peniel Mission building was erected in 1900 with money contributed by some of the townspeople. The two-story structure was false fronted with two vertical windows per floor and a central door entry. It appears to have had an illuminated sign marked "Peniel Mission" on a post in front of the door.
Advertisements in the Skagway Daily Alaskan suggest the daily routine: "Peniel Mission. Meetings every night at 8 except Monday. Bible Reading every day at 10 AM, Sunday at 8. Meeting in Scandinavian Language Sunday at 3." Other advertisements add: "All are cordially invited, especially strangers," and "There will be no collections," which suggests that the mission appealed to the down and out. The nightly meetings at 8:00 and the morning meetings at 10:00 further suggest that the strangers, rather than be let out into the cold, could count on the hall as an impromptu hotel. Mrs. Victoria Yorba, who served as missionary in charge, resided with her assistants on the building's second floor while on the first floor housed the main hall. As Skagway declined, support for the mission dwindled. By 1911 the Peniel Mission listing was missing from the Alaska Business Directory and Gazetteer and no more newspaper ads appeared. Although long gone from Alaska, the Peniel Missions organization still ministers to the poor and the homeless in eight American west coast cities plus a branch in Florida serving Haitian refugees.
After the Peniels
The history of this building between 1911 and 1937 has not been fully researched. A few years ago the park came into contact with a Doris I. Shoemaker who had been born in Skagway in October 1922. She related that her parents, William H. and Cynthia Irene Shoemaker had purchased the Peniel building in 1920 from the Catholics. Doris' parents apparently were missionaries to the local Tlingits. They sold the building in 1926 and left town. Sometime later, in 1937, Doctor Clayton Polly, of Juneau, purchased the building and then undertook a major remodeling effort. The first floor hall was remodeled into a residence and the second floor into an office and apartment. Dr. Polly occupied the building until 1947.
Historic Preservation and Restoration
The NPS acquired the building in 1978. It was restored to its original 1900 exterior condition in 1993-1995 at a cost of around $923,000. The Peniel Mission (employee housing) is near its original location on the south side of Sixth Avenue (Block 24, Lot 2). It was moved once, five feet to the west of its original location by the NPS just prior to restoration because the original location was too near the lot line. The interior provides modest, contemporary housing for Klondike Gold Rush NHP seasonal employees.