SKAGWAY, DISTRICT OF ALASKA — 1884-1912: Building the Gateway to the Klondike
Historical and Preservation Data
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Part II

Chapter 3

In less than 20 years, Skagway grew from a tent city of gold stampeders to an established town, the major economic and political center of the District of Alaska (1884-1912). This history is embodied in Skagway's architecture. Reflecting the general American culture brought into the region during the gold rush, the construction, style, and features of the buildings contrasted sharply with the earlier traditional Native structures and the massive buildings of Russian America. Basically Victorian, many of the structures still stand — making Skagway one of the best preserved examples of turn-of-the-century architecture in the far northwest.

Skagway street plan, March 8, 1898.

Whether to study the town's influence in Alaskan history or to reconstruct or renovate specific buildings in Skagway itself, it is helpful to understand the architecture of this substantial remnant of the Klondike gold rush. The town's growth, and its architectural development, can be divided into four phases of building activity:

PHASE I, Pioneer Tent City, 1887 to 1897
PHASE II, Gold Rush Boom Town, fall 1897 to spring 1899
PHASE III, Mature Railroad Town, 1899 to 1905
PHASE IV, Tourist Town, 1905 to the present.
Fifth Avenue, 1897.

Skagway, A Pioneer Tent City, 1887 to 1897

The first phase of Skagway's development began when Captain Moore and his son Ben constructed the first cabin and ended after the first wave of stampeders built upon the land, after disputes over lot titles had been settled or sent to the courts and after buildings were aligned with the streets instead of the trail. Buildings dating from this period of time tend to be simple in construction and detail. Log cabins, tents, and quickly constructed wood frame structures abounded. During the first days of the stampede, land ownership was undecided. Stampeders were unsure whether gold would continue to be found in the Klondike, and businessmen built with one aim — to make the most money as quickly as possible.

Except for the few log structures, buildings erected during this period tended to be tall and narrow in proportion. Board and batten building fronts were extended occasionally to create false fronts. These were lavishly painted or covered with canvas signs. Tents were all sizes and shapes. Ornamental details were nonexistent. Structures such as the Moore cabin, the Seattle Hotel, and the Goldberg Cigar Store were characteristic of this period. Few of the buildings of this phase have survived. What has been retained is a land use pattern which reflects a definite business orientation toward the east side of the valley as well as a grid of streets, lots, and blocks which reflect the general layout of Skagway during this early period.

Skagway, from the bay, on August 27, 1897. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Klondike Trading Co. in 1897. (Photo courtesy of Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)

Clondyke Trading Co. relocated by Frank Reid, the town surveyor known for shooting Soapy Smith.

Buildings constructed in August 1897 were often not aligned with future streets. These structures which stand along Moore's pack trail were later moved; this area is now the center of Broadway and Sixth Ave. (Photo courtesy of Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle)

The tent city becomes a gold rush boom town.

Gold Rush Boom Town — Fall 1897 to Spring 1899

The second phase has received the most publicity. It is the era of mad dashes for the passes, of crowded saloons, and of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, con man extraordinaire. The completion of the railroad over the White Pass and the increase in federal laws (and their enforcement) in the spring of 1899 symbolized the end of the "Days of 98." There was a more intense use of the land during this phase. The construction of building facades along the front of property lines created a nearly continuous linear mass along the streets. Boardwalks were built at different levels and were usually cluttered. False fronts of one, two and three stories were ornamented with painted signs, sign boards, and ornamental advertisement figures — boots, clocks, wooden Indians, and barber poles. Utility lines and telephone poles appeared. Fire towers on Fourth and Sixth avenues loomed over the downtown area while tower-like structures used by breweries were located outside the business district in cramped alley ways such as Hiroshima or Jap Alley, French Alley, and Paradise Alley. One-story cigar stores, saloons, and prostitutes' cribs abounded.

Outside the business district, homes were situated back from the property front and side lines. Each of these small log cabins and wood-frame structures was set in its own frame of trees, grass, and an occasional garden. All of these buildings were considered temporary, filling the quick demand caused by the gold rush. Most have been torn down or have been altered by later additions and renovations, placing their architecture more accurately in a later period.

Because of the accessibility of Puget Sound dealers, construction materials were easily shipped to Skagway on steamships. Unemployed craftsmen were lured north to build the new town, but because profits from the stampede depended on how quickly buildings were available, structures were of poor quality. Fire was a hazard. During 1898-1899 several fires destroyed clusters of buildings, including the grand three-story 50-by 100-foot People's Theater and the 50-room Brannick Hotel. The Mascot and Idaho saloons, the St. James Hotel, and the Hegg Photograph Studio belong to this phase, although they later received new window or facade treatments. The least altered reminders of this era are Jeff Smith's Parlor and the Pacific Clipper Line office. With the completion of the railroad and the change in attitude toward long-term commitments to Skagway, the second phase ended.

Fourth Avenue at State, "Hotel Row," in 1898; only the St. James remains. (Photo courtesy of Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle)

The Miners Hotel at one time stood one the corner of Broadway and 4th. (Photo from the Barley Collection, courtesy of Yukon Archive, Whitehorse)

Hegg Photo Studio about 1900. (Photo courtesy of Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle)

Anderson Hardware, northeast corner of 6th and State, about 1899. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Historical Library, Juneau)

Saloon, 5th Avenue, 1898. (Photo from the J. G. Price Collection, courtesy of Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)

Fifth Avenue Hotel, about 1900. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Historical Library, Juneau)

The Hotel Dewey in 1902; the hotel was built in 1898 and it burned in 1940. (Photo from the Barley Collection, courtesy of Yukon Archive, Whitehorse)

The WP& Y Route train arriving in downtown Skagway. (Photo from the Barley Collection, courtesy of Yukon Archives, Whitehorse)

Skagway, A Mature Railroad Town, 1899 to 1905

The third phase began when the rails reached from the ocean to the headwaters of the Yukon River in 1899 — the sign that Skagway had succeeded in its ambition to be the dominant gateway to the interior. It is best known as a period of sturdier buildings, of churches and fine residences, of a new morality, and of town pride. Beginning about 1899 and continuing through the next decade, building styles became more elaborate and complex. This change was greatly facilitated by the establishment of scheduled steamer service to Puget Sound cities and by the development of the White Pass & Yukon Route transportation system. Larger and heavier tools, materials, and building elements became available. Plate glass windows replaced multi-pane display windows. Pressed metal ornamental details appeared on facades. Imported machinery and the arrival of skilled craftsmen and architects improved the sophistication of construction. Many of the structures built at this time were multi-storied, well constructed, and elegantly detailed. Garish signs were replaced by appealing facades; canvas awnings appeared, as did bay windows and electric display lights. Rustic details, such as those on the Arctic Brotherhood Hall and Pantheon Saloon, added a representative touch of Alaskan rustic rugged individualism, but they still fit into the verticality and symmetry of Skagway's Victorian architecture. During this third phase, city and public efforts strived for permanence. City ordinances changed the streetscape by requiring all sidewalks to be on one level and by mandating brick chimneys. The Methodists built the only granite structure: the two-story McCabe College, one of Alaska's first institutions of higher education.

Main Street residence; demolished.

U.S. Courthouse (McCabe College). (Photo from the Laura M. Hills Collection, courtesy of Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)

Twelfth Avenue School; built 1901-1902. Demolished. (Photo courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

The origins of residential design in Skagway are commonly traced to the popular Queen Ann style. Henry Dozier, a Seattle architect hired by the White Pass & Yukon Route, used this style in designing cottages for the railroad company officials. The W.H. Case residence combines Victorian Gothic with Queen Anne details. Some residences mixed features from so many different styles that they are best classified simply as Victorian mélange. Exceptions to the Queen Anne residential styles stand out, particularly Captain Moore's "steamboat" mansion (now the Pullen House) and the bungalo-style homes along Main Street. It is probable that most of these designs were derived from pattern books, although professional architects had offices in Skagway. The work of professional architects is best seen in public buildings such as the Twelfth Avenue School, Elks Hall, WP&Y Railroad Building and Methodist Church (on the corner of Fifth and Main).

Baptist Church, Skagway, n.d. (Photo courtesy of Anchorage Historical Fine Arts Museum)

Hotel Golden North. (Photo from the Barley Collection, courtesy of Yukon Archives, Whitehorse)

The Washington and Alaska Steamship Company office and the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, about 1910. (Photo courtesy of Provincial Archives, Victoria, B.C.)

Skagway, A Tourist Town, 1905 to the present

The fourth phase of building activity was influenced by tourism as well as by a brief economic spurt in 1908. A local drive to improve the town's appearance was part of a reaction to criticism about Skagway's being the "scrap heap of creation," as one visitor phrased it.

Local groups organized to clean up the town, and civic improvements at first meant tearing down early gold rush era shacks. By 1907, however, businessmen were suggesting the creation of a New Skagway by building a business corridor along Broadway Avenue. They actually used little new construction; instead people merely moved structures from other parts of town onto Broadway. The Golden North Hotel was moved and a third floor added. The Trail Inn/Pack Train bar complex had been two army barracks which were moved to Broadway and adorned with an exuberant three-story facade, 100 feet long, with a corner tower. The avenue's new appearance was due to new architectural styles; in fact, the facades built in 1908 could have been built in 1900 or earlier. However, the overall townscape had changed. The major businesses that once lined Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues, were now shifted 90 degrees to face the railroad tracks down Broadway.

Moved from Sixth Avenue, the former U.S. Army Barracks became Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods in the summer of 1908. (Photo from the Barley Collection, courtesy of Yukon Archives, Whitehorse)

Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods about 1910, in what is now the Pack Train/Trail Inn complex. (Photo from the Barley Collection, courtesy of Yukon Archives, Whitehorse)

The Changing View Down Broadway

In August 1897, Broadway was lined with tents. (Note the street sign above the tent to the left.)

By December 1897, Broadway began to appear as a city street.

Skagway in transition, before the towered buildings appeared on Broadway but after laws requiring brick chimneys and one-level boardwalks, 1899.

Broadway, looking south from 5th, at its peak development about 1910. (Photo courtesy of Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle)

Broadway, 1920s. (Photo from the Skinner Collection, courtesy of Alaska Historical Library, Juneau)

A declining Skagway: Broadway Avenue in the 1930s. (Photo from the Skinner Collection, courtesy of Alaska Historical Library, Juneau)

Broadway Avenue in 1959; half of the structures shown here were demolished within a decade.

Broadway Avenue in 1979. Restoration of Mascot Saloon underway at right. (Meg Jensen photo)

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Last Updated: 06-Aug-2009