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Ayr, Scotland, United Kingdom
July 14, 2005
Skagway retains the air of the frontier town of the gold fever Days of ‘98. Then prospectors faced the temptations of 80 saloons, the lure of painted ladies, and the quick fingers of gamblers and thieves, such as "Soapy" Smith and his ruthless gang, even before the dangers of the trail.
Buildings like the historic Arctic Brotherhood Hall, adorned with 20,000 pieces of driftwood, are the objects of many photos. Restored vintage 1936 to 1937 cars, complete with costumed conductors, tour the streets. These are a recreation of Alaska’s first tour company founded in 1923. Its first customer was President Warren G. Harding on his way to drive the "golden spike," marking completion of the Alaska Railroad.
We took a minibus tour through the town and up a winding road to a vantage point giving a clear view of the town. The Coral Princess lay at her berth. A cliff face portrayed a painting of a pocket watch. It was a common way of advertising, as rocky outcrops became denuded of trees as the town expanded.
We rode back into town and went into the Museum of ‘98. The museum contains a wide selection of Gold Rush artifacts and other items reflecting Skagway's colourful history. The impressive building with granite walls and a high-pitched roof standing among lofty trees on the edge of town began life as a short-lived Gold Rush-era college. It later became a federal courthouse and jail and now contains the city hall and museum.
We finished the tour by taking in The Day’s of ‘98 Show celebrating the town’s gold rush days of 1898. The show in the Eagle’s Hall performed by a cast of five dramatises the last day in the life of Skagway’s infamous resident, con artist Soapie Smith.
The scenes are set in Soapie’s saloon and the performance is in the 1890’s style. Soapy, a seriously bad guy with illegitimate con games, prostitution, and bars, doesn’t see himself in that light. By fleecing stampeders, he points out that he has saved lives, as these now-penniless folk have to return home rather than getting killed on the White Pass Trail. When Skagway became more civilized, its citizens decided it was time for Soapie to go. Vigilantes organized, and on his last day, Soapy starts drinking heavily and losing the plot. Gun in hand, he set out to face his tormentors. Frank Reed shot him dead, but also died after he lingered on for more than a week. Reed received a hero’s burial in Skagway cemetery. Smith lies a few meters away.
It’s a fun show. Soapie has been more or less turned into the good guy, with the song and dance numbers in the show offsetting the bloodletting. Members of the audience persuaded to take part danced the "Can Can" and added to the fun. They were brilliant! Entertainment-wise, it’s great, but it also tells the history of Skagway and Soapie Smith.
From journal North to Alaska Princess Style
The cliff face along the side of the Coral Princess’s mooring dock at Skagway was festooned with symbols representing ships that had called. The stampeders of the Great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 piled off steamships here, eager to head overland to the Yukon gold fields on the White Pass Trail from Skagway or the Chilkoot Trail from nearby Dyea.
A railway completed in 1900 eliminated the steep slog up the White Pass Trail and onwards to Whitehorse. The train can now start from the docks, and many of the passengers having already purchased tickets stepped ashore into the awaiting passenger cars - some of them the originals from Klondike days. The train had departed by the time we stepped off the sloping gangway.
Nowadays, a road runs up the other side of the pass, connecting eventually with the Alaskan highway, built for strategic reasons in wartime. We travelled to the White Pass Summit aboard a comfortable minibus with an experienced guide narrating the historical tour. These tours are faster and cheaper than the train and have the additional advantage of stopping at viewpoints, but lack the glamour of riding the rails.
At some points we could see the train winding its way up the railway carved out of the rugged mountains by workers suspended by ropes from vertical cliffs while chipping and blasting the granite away. The train climbs 2,885 feet to White Pass in only 20 miles. Hundreds of feet below are the visible remains of the old trails. A long line of climbers, each bent with his load on the steps, cut into the pass travelled along these. At the top lay the Canadian border and the North West Mounted Police. No one could pass without a year’s supplies, about 1,000 pounds. The trail was nicknamed "Dead Horse Trail" because 3,000 pack animals perished in the canyon.
The bus tour travels into Canada, but does not pass through Canadian customs. It makes stops for passengers to view and photograph azure glaciers, towering waterfalls, breathtaking mountain vistas, and extraordinary and unusual sub-arctic alpine terrain. It is approximately 1.5 hours in length.
As we travelled upwards, snow became more prevalent. We stopped at the top, and the Mexican passengers, with whoops of joy, started a snowball fight – those of us used to snow looked on and smiled. The stampeders would have carried on to Lake Bennett, where they would have built and launched their boats for the trip to Dawson City.
Coming back, we stopped at the Alaskan border sign for photographs. The guide mentioned that on a previous trip, they had been busy taking snapshots of passengers standing at the sign - on looking round, they discovered a bear sitting at the other side of the road watching them. Lucky them, we didn’t see a single one the entire trip!
by Re Carroll
Abbotsford, British Columbia
September 20, 2000
This year (2000) marks the 100th anniversary of the completion of the White Pass & Yukon rail line that runs between Skagway & the Yukon. I took a 3 hour return train trip in a vintage railroad car to the White Pass summit, past points of interest like Dead Horse Gulch, Bridal Veil Falls and Black Cross Rock. The scenery was spectacular - deep gorges, sheer granite mountains and a long trestle bridge that was much sturdier than it looked. At the
conclusion of the ride, I browsed in the train station gift shop which was loaded with souvenirs - clothes, food (salmon, of course), pins, magnets, etc. and I found both price and quality to be excellent.
Just a few blocks away, the main tourist area had lots of little shops, bars & restaurants that were fun to check out. Not far from town, the Gold Rush Cemetery was the final resting place for many gold rush era residents, including prospectors as well as local hero Frank Reid and local bad boy, Soapy Smith.
If your ship stops in Skagway, grab the opportunity to check it out. The town is flat so shouldn’t be an issue for those with mobility problems and kids of all ages will enjoy reliving the days of "gold in them thar hills".
From journal Cruising Alaska's Inside Passage