Printed July 23, 2019
North to Alaska V
Skagway brings rain, trains, colorful history
We docked at Skagway at around 7 a.m. to drizzling rain – which is ironic since Skagway is known as the “Sunshine Capital of southeast Alaska” with only 27 inches of moisture a year. It also struck me as funny that our first port of call, Ketchikan, with rainfall totaling 140 to 160 inches of rain per year, was sunny.
Skagway, usually known for its dryness and not the cold drizzle we faced, was our last port of call in Alaska. It is a popular stop for cruise ships, and they are a big part of the city’s industry. The 2018 census puts the population at 1,148 people, but that doubles in the summer to accommodate the million-plus annual visitors. Skagway’s native name refers to rough seas in the Taiya Inlet, which is caused by strong winds.
Skagway probably already has touched your life in a literary sense. It is associated with novelist Jack London and was one setting for his “Call of the Wild.” The John Wayne movie, “North to Alaska,” was filmed near here in 1960.
We had until 6 p.m. to discover this historic town. So, we had time to sleep in and catch a leisurely breakfast before disembarking. As fate would have it, the cruise line was testing back-up generators that morning, and the elevators would be down after 10 a.m. – until further notice. Not wanting to hoof it down many flights of stairs with our bad knees, we opted to leave the ship early – just before the elevators were stopped.
We had a scheduled shore excursion that day at 1 p.m., a 2-hour ride on the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon railway to the headwaters of the Skagway River and back.
We were conflicted whether or not to try to go into the town (which was a 10-minute ride away) and walk around and make it back before our train left the station. Since it was a long walk past two cruise ships to the little building that touted “board train here,” and we were not dressed for the rain or cold, we decided to just wait in the little shelter next to that building.
There was some confusion where to board the train, and as it came closer to boarding time, we were told we would have to walk back past 1 ½ cruise ships and wait in line until it was time to board. Back we went into the rain, and instead of being first in line, we were near the end. Then we were called back to the little house to board, and we walked back to it. We boarded the last car, which was fortunately equipped with a heater and large viewing windows, and the best part of our trip began.
The White Pass and Yukon Railway narrow gauge railway, which was part of the area’s colorful mining history, now only runs during the summer months to service the tourist trade. It employed a narrator, who told us the history of the area and of the train. One early citizen of Skagway was William “Billy” Moore, a former steamboat captain and a member of an 1887 boundary survey expedition. His investigation of the pass (which was later named White Pass) over the surrounding mountains was the first recorded. He believed that gold was in the Klondike beyond the pass and believed this pass provided the most direct route to the possible gold fields. So, he and his son, J. Bernard “Ben” Moore, settled in this area. building a log cabin, sawmill and a wharf in anticipation of the gold rush.
Gold was discovered in the Klondike of Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1896. Then the stampede was on. On July 29, 1897, the steamer, Queen, docked at Moore’s dock with the first boat load of prospectors. Thousands more miners soon swarmed the area – reaching about 30,000. In the spring of 1898, the population of Skagway numbered 8,000 residents with more than 1,000 prospectors traveling through a week. By June, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska.
Next installment – Part 6 – White Pass and Yukon Railroad.
(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: email@example.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)