Alaska: Skagway Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Park, Skagway was a popular stopping point for gold seekers on their way to the Klondike during the Alaskan gold rush at the end of the nineteenth century.

Site Offices:

Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau

P.O. Box 1025

Skagway, AK 99840

ph.: (907) 983-2854

fax: (907) 983-3854

Web site: www.skagway.org/

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

P.O. Box 517

Skagway, AK 99840

ph.: (907) 983-2921

fax: (907) 983-9249

Web site: www.nps.gov/klgo/

e-mail: KLGORangerActivities@nps.gov

Located in a windswept valley at the northern end of southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, Skag-way attracts thousands of visitors each year with its lures of natural beauty and its historical role in the Klondike gold rush.

The Gold Rush

During the late nineteenth century, Skagway played host to thousands of prospectors and stampeders (those eager to capitalize on the finds of prospectors) during their journey to Canada’s Yukon Territory in search of gold. Although the Alaskan gold rush is generally thought to have begun in 1897, it actually comprised a series of strikes that occurred over several decades.

The earliest reported strike took place in 1865 when Daniel B. Libby found gold in Nome while digging post holes for the Western Union Telegraph Company. In 1878 American prospector Arthur Harper found gold in Canada’s Yukon Territory, and in 1880 Fred Harris and Joe Juneau discovered Alaska’s first big strike just outside of the city of Juneau, Alaska’s present state capital.

It was not until 1896 that the rush for gold in Alaska reached legendary proportions. That year George Washington Carmack, an American of European parentage who had adopted the Native American way of life, found gold on a tributary of the Klondike River in the Yukon, starting one of the world’s greatest stampedes for gold.

Although Alaska and the Yukon are distinct regions separated by an international boundary, prospectors used the names Alaska, Yukon, and Klondike interchangeably, not in reference to any specific location, but to represent the region and its fever for gold.

Skagway was only one of several routes to the gold fields. Prospectors also came to the Yukon and Klondike via the cities of Edmonton, Valdez, Dyea, and St. Michael. The merchants of these towns played an important role in the stampede for gold by providing the newcomers, or cheechakos, with much-needed supplies and information, as most stampeders seriously underestimated the difficulty of the journey that lay before them.

The merchants, eager to drum up business, touted their respective towns as the fastest and easiest way to the Klondike. Each route, however, was beset with its own travails and dangers. The Chilkoot Pass out of Dyea, a small town nine miles out of Skagway, was the most direct route, but it was also the most arduous. The thin, winding pass proved too steep for horses, and men had to carry supplies on their backs. More than three thousand pack animals died on the Chilkoot, many at a place known as Dead Horse Gulch. The White Pass trail out of Skagway was a less direct route than the Chilkoot, but the terrain proved to be more manageable, and gold seekers could use pack animals on the three-month journey.

Skagway was originally settled by former riverboat captain William Moore, who, with his daughter, worked his 160-acre homestead before the gold rush. By 1897, however, the word of gold had spread, and prospectors, speculators, and criminals poured into Skagway. With no regard for Moore’s ownership rights, the new entrepreneurs built stores, streets, and docks to accommodate the masses.

During the first year of the gold rush more than ten thousand stampeders came through Skagway, and the town’s population grew to more than twenty thousand. Ships from Seattle and San Francisco brought people from all over the world to Skagway’s shores. People and supplies were hastily set ashore without regard for comfort or decorum so that the ship might return as quickly as possible for the next load of gold seekers. Many prospectors disembarked at Skagway only to find their stores and equipment lost or stolen. By 1898 Skagway was considered the largest if not the busiest city in Alaska. Banks, supply shops, saloons, hotels, and dance halls offered gold rush stampeders everything they might need for their arduous trip across the White Pass, as well as comforts and diversions not found on the trail.

The trails to the Klondike’s gold fields were fraught with difficulty. With no waystations for food or supplies, stampeders had to carry every item that might be required for the journey. Cold, hunger, loneliness, wild animals, impassable terrain, and criminal activity were all a reality for the stampeder. A sense of rugged individualism was vital to the survival of those on the pass and was romanticized to heroic proportions in contemporary fiction and newsprint, but without an official peace-keeping force in Alaska, it fostered a decidedly lawless environment.

Soapy Smith’s Swindles

This environment was convenient for those who would prey on the cheechakos, and Skagway gained a considerable reputation as a center for the “con” game. During the late 1890’s Skagway was controlled by the most infamous of Alaska’s criminals and con men: Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Smith earned his nickname by running a confidence game involving the selling of bars of soap. Smith sold his soap for one dollar per bar on the pretext that a certain number of bars contained under their wrappers a five, ten, or twenty dollar bill. Smith maintained the confidence of Skagway’s naive newcomers by employing alleged strangers to “find” one of the lucky bars.

From 1897 to 1898 Smith ran a gang that had a stranglehold on Skagway’s economy. He placed members of his organization on nearly every ship bound for Skagway in order to discover how much money was aboard and to set up potential customers for his confidence games.

Having arrived in Skagway, a newcomer might be steered by one of Smith’s men to the Reliable Packing Company to buy items needed for the remainder of the trip, or to the Skagway Information Agency for maps and advice. Once inside, someone would bump into the customer and steal his wallet. In his attempt to catch the thief, the customer would be knocked down by someone allegedly trying to help, and the doorway would be blocked by those in pursuit.

Smith ran Skagway’s only army recruiting office, where applicants received a physical while in the next room their clothes were meticulously stripped of any valuables. Smith also ran Skagway’s only telegraph office, where one could communicate with loved ones for five dollars per message, several years before telegraph service came to Alaska.

Smith argued that his treatment of the cheechakos was beneficial both to them and to the United States. He rationalized that anyone taken in by his simple swindles in the relative safety of Skagway would never survive the dangers and hardships of life on the trail. Smith also felt that by relieving cheechakos of their money, he was taking capital that was ultimately bound for Canada and keeping it in the United States.

Oddly enough, Soapy enjoyed a reputation as a philanthropist. He provided for the widows and children of those his men had killed and often paid the passage back to Seattle for those whom he had robbed. However, these displays of kindness might have been motivated less from pity than from a desire to rid Skagway of angry victims seeking revenge.

Smith’s brazenness would eventually result in his demise. During Smith’s reign, Skagway’s legitimate businesses suffered a decline as gold seekers avoided the town for safer towns such as Dyea. On July 7, 1898, the residents of Skagway had taken their last insult from Soapy Smith.

On that morning, J. D. Stewart, a stampeder returning from the trail, was robbed of $2,670 in gold in broad daylight by three of Smith’s men. If the merchants of Skagway could tolerate Smith’s weeding out the weak cheechakos, they refused to tolerate the blatant robbery of a man who had braved and worked the Yukon. A committee of townsmen immediately approached Smith and informed him that the gold must be returned and that he and his men were no longer welcome in Skagway. Smith promised that if the incident were kept quiet, he would return the money by four o’clock that afternoon and see to it that his men ceased preying on those returning from the Klondike. Smith underestimated the mood of the townsfolk and, rather than resolving the matter, began to drink heavily and speak defiantly of the committee and its ultimatum. Four o’clock passed, and the townspeople became furious. At nine o’clock they held a meeting in Sylvester’s Hall. The gathering soon grew too large for Sylvester’s, and was moved to the docks.

At 9:30 p.m., Smith approached the dock carrying a rifle and encountered four men guarding the meeting. Smith walked up to one of the men, Frank H. Reid, the city surveyor, and swung his rifle at him. Reid caught the barrel of the rifle, drew his own revolver, and the two fired at each other almost simultaneously. Smith was killed instantly, shot through the heart, and Reid soon died of his injuries. A committee was formed to clean up Smith’s gang, and eventually all were jailed or banished from Skagway. Although Skagway still suffered from the unchecked individualism of the frontier, after Smith’s passing it became a safer and more law-abiding town.

Ma Pullen’s Ingenuity

Not all of Skagway’s well-remembered residents profited from criminal activity. Skagway also yielded profits to those with perseverance and an iron will. One of those countless pioneers was “Ma” Pullen. Widowed, destitute, and with four children left at home, Pullen arrived at Skagway in September, 1897.

She was hired as a cook and sold pies in her spare time. Her pie business became so successful that she was able to send for her three sons. With her substantial knowledge of horses and able to speak five Indian dialects, Pullen left her pie business to become the only woman packer on the trail.

Pullen proved to be a great entrepreneur. While on the trail, she opened a restaurant and hauled other miners’ equipment along with her own. When Pullen reached Lake Bennet near the end of Whitehorse Pass, she showed great ingenuity by purchasing a large boat for one hundred dollars with a ten-dollar deposit, and then charging ten stampeders ten dollars each to cross the lake. Pullen recovered her initial investment and crossed the lake at no charge.

Pullen fell and broke her arm before she could begin mining herself. Injured, and realizing that the coming of the White Pass Railway would put an end to the days of packing, Pullen returned to Skagway to make a profit in the hotel business. She rented a building and bought furniture on credit and decorated the grounds with ornamental landscaping. Within a year the Pullen House was so successful that Ma Pullen owned the hotel outright.

By 1900, the days of crossing the White Pass trail on foot were over. In 1898, a group of English investors began construction on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, a narrow gauge line connecting Skagway with the Yukon town of White Horse. Amazingly, after only two years of work on the precarious mountain passes and sheer cliffs, with men using only hand tools and blasting powder, the line was complete. Skagway was now the most important city in Alaska.

Places to Visit

Today, although a few hardy individuals still mine and pan the area for gold, most of Skagway’s visitors arrive via cruise ship to see the town for a day. During the summer, Skagway’s wooden sidewalks and false-fronted buildings delight visitors with a taste of gold rush history. The Corrington Museum of Alaska History and the Trail of’98 Museum both offer Skagway’s visitors a chance to see relics and photographs of the town’s past.

Although the White Pass and Yukon Railroad closed for business in 1982, it was resurrected in 1988 for the benefit of tourists. Departing from downtown Skagway, the railway winds along tracks built against near-vertical mountainsides. From the train one can still see the trail carved by the stampeders, by the passing of countless feet and pack animals.

For Further Information
  • DuFresne, Jim. Alaska: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit. 5th ed. Oakland, Calif.: Lonely Planet, 1997. Offers an excellent overview of present-day Skagway.
  • Wharton, David. The Alaska Gold Rush. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972. This book offers an objective and thorough examination of the last great stampede for gold.
Categories: History Content