Under more normal circumstances, you were most likely to visit Skagway, Alaska on an Inside Passage cruise boat from Vancouver or Seattle. The cruise industry is currently in pause mode but many cruise lines are accepting bookings for 2022. The response has been enthusiastic so if an Inside Passage cruise is on your ‘to-do list’, now is a good time to look at your options.
Skagway is one of the towns visited by all Inside Passage cruises. The population today is one thousand but during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, it was one of the largest cities on the North American West Coast. As there were few laws there at the time, the city had a rough reputation. Not anymore. Now it has become a tourist hotspot visited by 1.5 million people each ‘normal’ year.
With streets lined with wooden boardwalks, restored buildings that look just as they did 100 years ago, entertainment venues, and a vintage train, Skagway meets the expectations of most visitors. It exceeded mine.
Cruise boats berth close to the city so it is easy to walk to most attractions. One of the first thing you are likely to see is the Snow and Ice Cutting Train that sits at the end of Broadway. There is no better indicator that White Pass receives a lot of snow in winter.
A good place to start any tour of Skagway is adjacent to this in the former White Pass and Yukon Railroad Depot. This massive, colourful structure, built in 1898, is now the National Park Service Visitor Center, where visitors can enjoy movies, walking tours and other activities during the summer. Most of the downtown district forms part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Further information is available from the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau which operates from the Arctic Brotherhood Hall building. This is claimed to be the most photographed building in Alaska due to the 8,883 pieces of driftwood nailed to the front of the building.
The fraternal organization was formed in 1899 by a group of gold prospectors who arrived here to set off for the Klondike gold fields seeking fortune. The club was a place for miners to connect and look out for each other.
You can’t go to Skagway without at least popping your head into the Red Onion Saloon. Built in 1897, it was operated as one of the more high-class bordellos in town. Now they serve up cocktails, wine, and beer and some good bar food. Buxom Madams in appropriate costumes overlook the scene from their perches, while waitresses in corsets and petticoats serve food and drinks. It is all good fun. A tour of the historic brothel is offered by one of the madams on the hour for $10.00. It’s well worth the peek upstairs.
Skagway’s unique history as a vital transportation corridor and gateway to interior Alaska and the Yukon is portrayed in the City Museum located in the town’s impressive City Hall. This was the first stone building in Alaska and it displays a Tlingit canoe, a Portland Cutter sleigh, Bering Sea kayaks, a WP&YR locomotive and caboose, a 1931 Ford AA truck, and other things.
The early history of Skagway is also seen in the nearby Moore Cabin and Cottage. In 1887, Captain William Moore visited this area, predicted that there would be a major gold find and foresaw the importance of this valley as a gateway to the interior gold fields. He and his son Ben cleared some land and built a wharf and sawmill to support their homestead claim and began opening the White Pass Trail. Their 1887 log cabin remains the oldest structure in town.
In 1897 Ben and wife Minnie built a new one-and-a-half storey wood-frame house next to their original cabin and this has been restored and is open to the public today.
Most visitors want to see White Pass and the most popular way is by a vintage train on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this is a marvel of engineering with tunnels and long trestles constructed despite the harsh weather and challenging geography. On the trip to the top of White Pass you see a panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges and waterfalls. Trips are expected to resume September 1 2021.
An alternative that delivers a superb combination of scenery and wildlife opportunities is a bus trip from Skagway into Canada’s Yukon Territory. You go up and over the White Pass summit and enter Canada’s British Columbia and then Yukon Territory. It’s not uncommon to see moose, caribou, sheep or bears along the remote Klondike Highway. This is available as a half or full-day tour.
There are also plenty of opportunities for adventure seekers with glacier discovery helicopter tours where you land and walk on a glacier, or a mountaineering adventure where you climb to the summit of an 1800 metre peak using ropes, crampons, and ice axes depending on conditions.
Back in town, the Days of ’98 Show promises ‘one hour of non-stop fun’. The show has been running since 1923 and even Covid19 has not been able to stop it completely. After all that, there is still time for eating and shopping and Skagway has options in abundance. It is a place well worth visiting.
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge