I love the story of Skagway. Please indulge me while I tell it. In 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon, followed immediately by a second discovery: there was no good way to get there. You could try slogging across the Canadian wilderness from Edmonton; that was the longest and most difficult route, and a lot of people never made it to the end. You could take the expensive but fast and easy way by water up the Yukon River in mid-summer, but it was frozen over the rest of the year.
Most people chose to go over the Coast Mountains in southeast Alaska. Two competing gold rush towns sprang up at the head of Lynn Canal: Dyea and Skagway.
From Dyea, you climbed to the Chilkoot Pass via steps carved in the snow. The same route was nearly impassable in the summer. The Northwest Mounted Police very wisely would not allow anyone to pass unless they had a year’s supply of goods–literally a ton of food, clothing, tools, and more–so you had to make this climb 30-40 times, carrying about 50 pounds on your back each time. When you reached the top, you stored your supplies, then sat on your shovel and slid back down.
Those aren’t ants in the photo, they’re people climbing the steps. A few people are sliding down on the right. You can also see some people resting on benches cut out of the snow–ooooh, cold!–to the left of the steps. (Don’t forget you can click these smaller images to see the full size.)
Skagway appeared to offer the easier route, as it had a walking trail over the much lower White Pass. You could use a pack animal to carry your goods. But the trail was narrow, rocky, and dangerous. Imagine walking that skinny little path in the rain and mud. People mostly made it, but thousands of pack animals did not. One particularly treacherous section was nicknamed Dead Horse Gulch.
Skagway and Dyea competed bitterly for the stampeders’ business, practicing sabotage, false advertising, and rumor mongering. Dyea hoped to triumph by building an aerial tramway over Chilkoot Pass, while Skagway began to build a railroad through White Pass and on to Lake Bennett, where you could catch a steamboat to the Yukon. The tramway failed, the railroad succeeded, and Skagway won. The White Pass & Yukon Route railway is now known as the Scenic Railway of the World. I took that shot of the Skagway trail from a WP&YR train. More about that in my next post.
Skagway today is experiencing another kind of gold rush as its deep water port is a popular cruise ship stop. Many of the historic buildings in Skagway are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. There’s a delightful museum with only two rooms. Most of the floor in one room is taken up by a pile of the goods required by the Canadian authorities. In the other room is a topographical map of the route over the mountains from Skagway and Dyea. Do click the image on the left to see it in more detail.
Notice the prominent outerwear shop in the header photo? Most of the stores have been taken over by the same merchants as in the other Alaskan towns we visited. I wasn’t too disappointed in that, it was easy to get past them, but I was disturbed that they have taken over the ground floor of the beautiful Golden North Hotel, where Mr K and I stayed many years ago. The gold covered dome of the Golden North Hotel has also become quite shabby. You can see how patchy it looks in the middle ground of the header photo. The main entrance now features a totem pole and–this startled me–a very southwestern-looking cigar store Indian.