SKAGWAY, DISTRICT OF ALASKA — 1884-1912: Building the Gateway to the Klondike
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Part I

Chapter 2

In August 1896, prospector George Washington Carmack and his partners, Natives Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, discovered gold in a tributary of the Klondike River. Earlier, in 1887, Captain William Moore and his son Ben had claimed a 160-acre homestead on the shore of Skagway Bay. These two events, located 500 miles apart, set in motion a chain of events leading to the settlement and growth of Skagway.

Located at the major gateway to the vast interior, Skagway was to become the dominant community during much of the Far North's gold rush era. With this dominance, Skagway developed a distinctive architectural style which has come to symbolize this period of Alaskan history. To appreciate the full significance of this architectural heritage, it is helpful to review the highlights of Skagway's development and its role as a major force in shaping the District of Alaska's economic and political history from 1884 to 1912.

At the time President Chester A. Arthur signed the enabling act creating the District of Alaska, the population of the district consisted of numerous Indian and Eskimo groups, a few Russian-American settlements, and a scattering of European and American adventurers (primarily in the Southeast panhandle). At that time too, the gold placers of Juneau were on the decline, and news began trickling out of the interior about discoveries of gold along the Yukon River. The governments of Canada and the United States sought information about these gold fields and sent surveyors to the area to determine on which side of the international boundary the gold fields lay. Survey parties journeyed up the Yukon and over the Coast Range passes. A member of the Canadian survey crew, Captain William Moore, explored the White Pass, noticed its low altitude, the short distance between the sea coast and the navigable headwaters of the Yukon River, and the level lands at Skagway Bay on the Lynn Canal. In October 1887, he returned with his son Ben, and staked a homestead claim. Skagway's history had begun.

The place chosen for the Moore's homestead, and later to become part of Skagway, was surrounded by spruce-covered hills rich in wild game. The rugged coastline cut deep into the ocean, creating a natural deepwater harbor. The Skagway River (from the Tlingit name Shgagwei) bordered the flats and drained the gulches leading to White Pass. The parallel Dyea River (Diyei, in Tlingit) was further northwest and led to the Chilkoot Pass. On its banks, John J. Healy and Edgar Wilson operated a trading post; Indian packers and miners hiked over the Chilkoot trail to the interior. The annual trickle of miners over these passes became a torrent once word of the Klondike discovery reached "Outside." Healy and Wilson and the Moores were overrun.

The rapid growth of Skagway in 1897-1898 is difficult to review in detail, but some of the episodes stand out. Originally, Captain Moore had intended to build a wharf, operate a sawmill, and offer a packing service over his hoped-to-be-built wagon road (or railroad) to the Yukon River, where he also hoped to operate steamboats to the mines. The Captain's plans were all but scuttled by the onrushing stampeders. By July 1897 he had a small wharf built, a sawmill under construction, and a trail blazed to the summit, but within two months, a reported 6,000 stampeders landed at Skagway Bay. The miners also faced several problems: they found that the White Pass Trail was incomplete and impassible, there was no government protection because of the district's inadequate administration in Sitka, and there was a lack of means to protect property rights. The stampeders questioned Moore's land claim since he was a Canadian citizen and his improvements were funded by Victoria, British Columbia, investors.

The stampeders re-created the common scenario found on previous mining frontiers. The miners called a meeting. They formed a committee to clear the trail — a nearly impossible task; and other inpromptu committees discussed meting out justice in criminal cases.

After considering the possibilities of a town growing at Skagway Bay, another miners committee decided to plat a townsite over Moore's homestead and allow the stampeders to claim lots for a 5-dollar filing fee. On August 18, 1897, Frank Reid and William C. Fonda began surveying the townsite. Their plan divided two quarter sections into blocks 220 feet wide by 300 feet deep. Streets were 60 feet wide, except Broadway which was 80 feet, and alleys were 20 feet wide and ran the length of each block. Two large tracts were reserved for the Moores' residence and their sawmill. Building had begun before the surveying, with the result that some businessmen were found to be either in the center of streets or alleys, or on the wrong lot. Miners' committee meetings resolved the disputes. The committee forced several building owners to align their structures with the street grid.

Skagway was an instant city. By October 15, 1897, when the first issue of the Skaguay News appeared, Skagway could boast of an array of businesses and professional services. The feverish pitch of building activity continued through 1898 and the height of the Klondike gold stampede. A population estimate reported 8,000 residents during the spring of 1898 with approximately 1,000 stampeders passing through town each week. The townsite was covered with structures, ranging from simple wood frame shacks to the three-story People's Theater and Opera House. Two- and three-story hotels lined Fourth Avenue, while Fifth and Sixth avenues were a hodgepodge of stores, saloons, and offices; dives and the red light district were found in the alleys in between. In the social sphere, church groups organized and held services in a union church, sharing the building with the town's school. The miners' committee was replaced with an elected town council which acted without legislative authority but did good works toward fire prevention, street maintenance, and the construction of a water system. Law enforcement was ineffectual; petty crimes and grander felonies went uncontrolled. The populace suffered an active criminal element but did not allow itself to be run over. The people finally formed a vigilante committee and managed to rid themselves of Soapy Smith and his gang.

Transportation was the key to Skagway's success. Four wharves extended from the town's streets to deep water. The White Pass Trail, nicknamed the Dead Horse Trail because of the fiascos of 1897, went through a rapid succession of improvements. George Bracket had a wagon toll road nearly completed to the summit when the White Pass & Yukon Route began construction of a narrow gauge railroad in May 1898. The completion of the railroad to Lake Bennett in June 1899 and to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, a year later secured for Skagway a dominant role as the main transportation entrepot to the interior mining camps. The White Pass & Yukon Route's railroad and its Yukon River steamboat line required an office force and maintenance crew. The company built large machine shops, depot and administration buildings, as well as residences and a private athletic club. The arrival of the railroad changed the Skagway psychology from one of short-term get-rich-quick schemes to one with long-term stable considerations. In June 1900 Skagway became the first incorporated city in Alaska.

After a promising start, Skagway encountered several setbacks. Although Captain Moore desired a simple resolution of the disputed title to the Skagway townsite, his Victoria backers pressed for court action. In September 1901, rather than continue the fight, the town's businessmen agreed to pay 25 percent of their property's assessed value to the Alaska & Northwest Territories Trading Company (the Victoria concern) in exchange for a quit title. Rather than pay the fee, some businessmen abandoned the town. The economy was further weakened by the Canadian government's enforcement of customs at the international boundaries which separated Skagway from the Alaskan interior. These Canadian restrictions severely hampered Skagway's trade with the interior, and many wholesalers were forced out of business.

Further Canadian legislation hurt trade also. An anticipated rush to new gold strikes at Atlin, British Columbia, was halted by an anti-alien law allowing only Canadian citizens to own mining claims. Skagway outfitters lost heavily. Skagway's efforts to become — as its proponents proclaimed — the "San Francisco of the North" were unsuccessful.

On the other hand, the first years of the new century were filled with hope. The regular salaries of 100 to 200 troops stationed at Camp Skagway, on Sixth Avenue, paid for drinks at the town's saloons and dance halls. The lumber mill supplied local needs and nearby contracts. The Methodists built the granite McCabe College. When the college failed, the building became the federal court house for Alaska's First Judicial District. The White Pass & Yukon Route railroad continued to improve its properties; they extended and leased Moore's wharf and built more rolling stock, thus enabling the company to supply the needs of new railroads in the interior mining districts. Tourists also discovered the area; steamship companies built offices along lower Broadway to accommodate both the tourists and the gold-toting sourdoughs returning from Dawson. On the strength of these income sources, Skagway experienced several years of prosperity. It was a modern city with fine hotels, electric lights, water works, a telephone system, and growing residential districts. The city's government was strengthened by federal legislation, formulated in 1899, which regulated gambling, saloons, and, more importantly, gave the local government power to tax and collect license fees. With these revenues, funds went into further city improvements: a new water system, street grading and lighting, and a new city hall and jail. The city government was able to control vice and move the brothels into one district along Seventh Avenue. Congregations built substantial churches, all the fraternal orders built halls, and the Arctic Brotherhood formed its first "camp" in Skagway. The Twelfth Avenue School was the finest in the District of Alaska when it opened in 1902. That year, John G. Price — Alaska's unofficial delegate to Congress (sent by Skagway residents) — returned from Washington, D.C., with news that President Roosevelt looked favorably on the creation of a territorial government. Also, a new agency of the U.S. Army, the Alaska Road Commission, would select Skagway as its headquarters.

By the middle of the decade, the prosperous years had passed. The population had dropped to half the 3,117 people counted in the 1900 federal census. The military had left town in 1904, moving to the newly built Fort William H. Seward; mining stampedes to nearby districts had frizzled; and the growth of the Fairbanks district had created the competitive Valdez-Fairbanks transportation route. Numerous railroad proposals in central Alaska lured away even more of Skagway's dwindling population to the new railroad boom towns of Valdez, Cordova, and Seward. Hoped-for federal government plums such as offices and agencies' headquarters, went to Juneau.

In spite of this economic see-saw, Skagway was never in any danger of collapse. The White Pass & Yukon Route continued as the main transportation corridor into the interior. Ever increasing numbers of tourists visited the town, and sourdoughs continued to depart via Moore's wharf. New mines opened near Whitehorse, at Atlin, and at Conrad while the gold mines at Dawson continued to be productive. Large ore bins were built at Moore's wharf to handle the freight.

In 1907 the editor of the Daily Alaskan echoed soon-to-be mayor Chris Shea's call for a New Skagway. He wanted to clear up the alleys, to tear down the old ramshackle shacks, and to gather the town's scattered business houses along Broadway. Skagway's citizens took action. They moved huge two- and three-story buildings halfway across town. New buildings went up. By the end of 1909, a row of ornate hotels, shops, offices, saloons, and stores lined Broadway. The Trail Inn/Pack Train bar, the Golden North Hotel, the Dewey Hotel, the Lynch & Kennedy Haberdashery, and the Harrison's Store opened. Unfortunately, the economic base for these improvements proved short-lived. A national financial panic that shook the West in 1907-1909 had repercussions in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The low-grade Conrad silver-lead mines closed; and the Whitehorse copper mines produced only intermittently, leaving the White Pass and Yukon Route's new ten-mile railroad spur and its Skagway ore bins only partially used. By 1909 the Klondike had passed its peak productive years and was on its long steady decline. By 1913 the old White Pass & Yukon Route had paid its last dividend.

Skagway became a town of around 600 people. Most of them worked for the railroad or for steamship companies at the wharves; during the summer some residents catered to the needs of the tourists. The economy had stabilized. The social life of the community was centered in churches, active fraternal lodges, the movie house, or in saloons. The city government continued to function, and opportunities for work, recreation, self-improvement, and social participation — though limited — were present. Skagway was a friendly place in which to live.

On August 24, 1912, the citizens of Skagway joined people throughout Alaska to celebrate the creation of the new Territory of Alaska. Although Skagway could no longer claim pre-eminence as the center of population and economic activity throughout the District, the city was well established as a business center for the surrounding area and as an emerging tourist attraction.

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Last Updated: 06-Aug-2009