The wind howls across the mountains of Western Canada, screams through snowbound passes, and gives the little town of Skagway a cold slap before heading south to spend its fury along the Inside Passage.
The last outpost on the way to the Klondike, Skagway is full of the ghosts and spirits of Gold Rush days--the days of that final, frantic push of desperate souls with impossible dreams.
Their cries can be imagined in the wailing of the wind, those men who drove themselves mad in the winter of 1898, who flogged their pack animals to death on the frozen Chilkoot Trail, who left behind wives and children in Kansas City or Chicago or St. Louis to search for gold in the Yukon Territory.
There are other voices, too--of the women who danced for them in the dark bars and took them upstairs for further pleasures, of bad guys like “Soapy” Smith who relieved them of their grubstakes in a variety of devious ways, of the cooks and crooks and horse traders who followed the frenzy with their secondary hopes.
Skagway’s Golden North Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Alaska, claims to have a ghost in residence. She is Mary, a young woman who came to the Gold Rush town in the winter of 1898 to marry her man. But he died instead, along with dozens of other victims in a tragic rock slide along the Chilkoot Trail. A small cemetery at the edge of town holds their remains. Mary died disbelieving, though, and she still waits for him in Room 24.
Each of the 33 carefully restored rooms contains turn-of-the-century furniture that once belonged to local pioneer families--four-poster, canopied and brass beds, mahogany highboys and oak dressers. Hallways and public rooms contain tintype photographs, gilt-edged mirrors and porcelain pitchers. The hotel has a restaurant and lounge too.
The main action in town is in the Red Onion Saloon, where tourists and locals belly up to a 19-foot-long polished mahogany bar or sit at round wooden tables, listening to or shouting over live jazz, folk music or whatever else a hired musician happens to play. “Anything but hard rock,” says the owner, Jan Wrentmore, 38.
She bought the plank building that dates from 1897 five years ago when it was a gift shop, but her heart was in its frontier history as a bar and brothel, so when a liquor license became available, Wrentmore decided to restore the old place and play the part of “Madam of Skagway.”
With feathered hat and velvet frock, the pretty woman trots down to the pier on summer days when the cruise boats come to Skagway and makes sure the passengers know where to go for a good time.
Back in the Gay ‘90s, a row of dolls lined that long mahogany bar, each named for one of the prostitutes in residence upstairs. It was no secret in those days that if a doll lay on its back, Lulu or Grace or Hattie was otherwise occupied. If it stood upright, that meant she was available.
Upstairs in the cubicles by each narrow cot was a hole in the floor connected to a chute down which chunks of gold slid to the bartender for safekeeping. Recent renovations have also uncovered a couple of holes in the floor that didn’t connect to the bar. No doubt a few gold pieces never got tallied in the total.
Also upstairs at the Red Onion, renovation has uncovered old garters and pieces of lace, opium pipes and seltzer bottles, Wrentmore said.
But today, the action is strictly limited to the saloon on the first floor, even though one can look up from the street and see scantily clad mannequins beckoning from the upstairs windows.
Action was pretty lively in the old days at the Skagway Inn too. But the cute old inn has long since been moved, lock, stock and water barrel, from the waterfront to a sedate location four blocks up the street.
Each of the 15 rooms is named for the prostitute who occupied it in its heyday. I listened for ghosts in Mimi’s corner room and all I heard was a soft silence that cushioned the tick-tock of a grandfather clock in the hallway.
The floors creak. Baths are down the hall. The front desk, halfway through the building, seems like an afterthought once you’ve already made yourself at home. The place is plain, simple, clean. No ghosts here. No weathered prospector standing in the hallway, chunk of gold burning a hole in his dirty pocket.
Skagway is named for a Tlingit Indian word, skagua , that means windy place. It is an uncertain wind that blows in town today. The very survival of the hardy settlement has come down to its one remaining source of income: tourism.
Not many miles away is Dyea, once another route to the Klondike, and now nothing more than a pile of rubble beyond reconstruction, even beyond recognition. Dyea is as dead as a town can be. The mortal blow came in 1900 when the town was bypassed by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad that was built between Skagway and Whitehorse. And now that same railroad, which kept Skagway alive from the turn of the century until 1982, is shut down.
The railroad was Canadian, even though most of the workers were Alaskans who lived in Skagway. When Canada closed its lead, zinc and copper mines just over the mountains from Skagway, there was no reason to keep the narrow-gauge railroad in operation. No reason except the tourists who visited Skagway. They liked that train ride over the pass.
And so Skagway has existed in a state of financial desperation for the last couple of years. Voters have gone so far as to turn down a measure to keep the road to Whitehorse plowed in winter (since there’s no longer a railroad), in the hope that this might convince Canada to reopen the railroad.
Half of the 900 townspeople have already moved away and the other half have tightened their belts and brightened their smiles, hoping that tourists will keep coming to town for the pleasures of Skagway itself.
“The railroad used to be half of our economy, and tourism the other,” said Wendell Long, owner of the Skagway Inn and a former railroad worker. “Now tourism is all we have left.” He sat in the Elks Lodge nursing a beer. The railroad men hang out at the lodge. But newer Skagway residents, along with the tourists, are at the Red Onion Saloon.
Skagway has a new public school (approved for state funding just before the railroad closed) and new wooden sidewalks leading to its nicely restored historic section. If Dick Simms, park service superintendent, had had his way, even the streets would have been torn up and reverted to dirt (or mud, as the case may be) in the name of historic authenticity. Fortunately, he didn’t get his way. But the wooden sidewalks are a nice touch.
Joining Wrentmore at the dock when cruise boats come to town are other Skagway entrepreneurs hoping to hold onto their way of life by entertaining tourists. Their offerings vary from tours of the town by horse-drawn buggies to flights over the Chilkoot Trail by helicopter.
Suzanne Mullen has a 12-passenger van in which she’ll pack up a load of passengers for a picnic lunch high up on the mountain pass, halfway to Whitehorse. She knows of a sandy desert up there, an incongruous oasis in the wilds, where the sun almost always shines.
Not only that, but she packs a lunch worthy of mention: salmon quiche, sparkling cider, blueberry cheesecake and other mouthwatering specialties.
Locals put on a melodrama on the summer evenings when a cruise ship is in port. It tells the story of the notorious outlaw, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, and town hero Frank Reid who killed each other in a showdown at the wharf in the summer of 1898. Both of them are buried in the town cemetery.
Other visitors come to Skagway strictly as their last civilized stop before tackling the infamously difficult Chilkoot Trail. This is a three- to five-day strenuous climb. Canada decreed back in 1898 that each prospector had to have a year’s worth of supplies before crossing the border. That meant dozens of trips up and down the trail, hauling heavy packs to the top and going back for more.
Conditions change often on the 33-mile trek over rocks, mud and steep embankments. Even summer skies can bring thunderstorms, sleet or snow. Winter conditions are extreme and unpredictable, with temperatures ranging from freezing to 50 below zero and winds howling up to 50 m.p.h. The drawing power of gold is awesome, indeed.
Easier of a morning just to slip into Prospector’s restaurant for a cup of steaming coffee and a stack of sourdough hotcakes topped with golden maple syrup, and swap stories about the romance and adventure of the good old days.
Skagway really is an inviting little town to visit.
For information contact the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 415, Skagway, Alaska 99840, phone (907) 983-2854.