Skagway History

SKAGWAY, ALASKA

Mighty Great Trips can bring history alive for you in Skagway, Alaska

Skagway is a living reminder of the Klondike Gold Rush history of Southeast Alaska. The Klondike Gold Rush Centennial celebrations span the years of 1997-2000, marking the original discovery of gold through the opening of White Pass and the Yukon Railroad route to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Skagway is home to the oldest operating Narrow gauge railroad system in the United States, the White Pass & Yukon Route. The name Skagway was originally spelled Skaguay and is said to mean ‘home of the north wind’ in the local Tlingit dialect. It is often called the “Gateway to the Klondike” lies at the most northern tip of the Inside Passage in Southeastern Alaska, the protected waterway stretching for more than 1000 miles along.

Follow the trail of the Klondike Gold Rush from the historic streets of Skagway to the summit of White Pass.

In 1887 Capt. William Moore and his son, J. Bernard, settled on the east side of the Skagway River valley. Captain Moore believed a gold strike somewhere in the Yukon was imminent. When the strike was made, it was big! In 1897, just ten years later, the cry of ‘Gold in the Yukon’ echoed around the globe, triggering ‘The Last Great Adventure.’

In July 1897 thousands of prospectors sailed the Inside Passage north from West Coast ports to Skagway. Boatloads of stampeders bound for the Klondike landed at Skagway and Dyea. From there the trail to treasure led over the Chilkoot or White Pass trail, to Canada’s Yukon. The prospectors faced a lonely and rugged trail and were often delayed by the temptation of 80 saloons, brothels and gambling establishments. These were run by persons of ill-repute such as Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith and his ruthless gang.

According to a North West Mounted Police report, by October 1897 Skagway had grown ‘from a concourse of tents to a fair-sized town, with well-laid-out streets and a population of about 20,000.’ Customs office records for 1898 show that in the month of February alone 5,000 people landed at Skagway and Dyea. A Mounted Police report from the late summer of 1898 reported “Skagway was little better then hell on earth.”

As fast as it had begun, the mad rush dwindled. By the summer of 1899 the stampede was all but over. The newly built White Pass and Yukon Route railway reached Lake Bennett, taking the place of the treacherous Chilkoot Trail from Dyea. Dyea quickly became a ghost town. Its post office closed in 1902, and by 1903 its population consisted of just one settler. Skagway’s population dwindled just as quickly to 500. But Skagway held on as a port and the terminus of White Pass and Yukon railway, connecting the Inside Passage to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The oldest incorporated city in Alaska, Skagway was incorporated in 1900.

Cruise ships brought tourism and business to Skagway. The Alaska Marine Highway System began scheduled state ferry service in 1963.

Those frantic frontier days are gone but today’s Skagway offers a glimpse into history.

Today, Skagway is a community of approximately 800 residents. Tourism is Skagway’s main economic base; Skagway plays host to over 700,000 tourists a year. A portion of the Skagway downtown area has been designated as the Skagway unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Skagway’s historical district is a collection of authentic false-fronted buildings and boardwalks dating from gold rush times. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is a major visitor attraction. The City of Skagway, National Park Service, and local residents have recreated Skagway’s 1898 Gold Rush atmosphere, with many shop-keepers appearing in turn-of-the-century costume and numerous historical displays through out the community.

One of the most popular attractions in Skagway is the narrow-gauge extending through rugged White Pass. There are only two railroad systems in Alaska: the Alaska Railroad, and the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. The White Pass & Yukon Route (WPYR) is one of the only narrow gauge railroad systems operating in the world. WPYR rail-cars run on tracks that are only three feet apart, as opposed to tracks that are 4 feet 8.5 inches.

Skagway’s combination of history and scenic beauty is unsurpassed. Located at sea level, the climate in Skagway, Alaska during the summer season is mild. Skagway summer low temperatures are around 44ºF to highs of 90ºF. Annual precipitation is approximately 30 inches. The winter averages from a low of 17ºF to highs of 29ºF.

A year-round port, Skagway is also one of the two gateway cities to the Alaska Highway in Southeast Alaska. Klondike Highway 2 connects Skagway with the Alaska Highway. Getting to Skagway, Alaska is an adventure in itself! There is no jet service to Skagway, however air taxi service is available from Juneau and some other Southeast Alaskan communities. Cruise ships call on Skagway between May and September each year and the Alaska Marine Highway ferries serve the community year-round.


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