Area: 452.4 square miles
Population: 862 (2000 census)
Skagway, Alaska's northernmost stop on the Alaska Marine Highway's Inside Passage. It is also the home of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. The Skagway-Carcross Highway is open year-round and was completed in 1978. It connects Skagway with the Yukon and Alaska Highway systems.
In its heyday, Skagway was the boomtown gateway to the Trail of '98 and the Klondike gold fields. The population has dwindled from 20,000 feverish goldseekers to about 800 stalwart year round citizens. Streets once choked with gold-crazed stampeders clamouring to get on to the Klondike and strike it rich, are now just as busy with the thousands of tourists that visit annually.
On July 17, 1898, the "Portland" steamed into Seattle with "a ton of gold" from the Klondike. The news electrified the world and sparked the most fantastic gold rush ever known.
In the latter part of July, the first boats of the stampede landed at Skagway and the nearby town of Dyea. Tons of freight were lightered ashore on anything which would float and piled high in wild disorder. Horses and cattle were dumped overboard to swim ashore. Everywhere there was confusion and chaos. A sense of urgency prevailed. Hurry before the world pours in its thousands! Hurry before the Yukon freezes!
In October, according to a Northwest Mounted Police Report of 1897, Skagway "had grown from a concourse of tents to a fair-sized town with well-laid-out streets and numerous frame buildings, stores, saloons, gambling houses, dance houses and a population of about 20,000." Five thousand stampeders alone landed in February 1898, according to Customs Office records.
Two trails were used by the gold seekers to reach the headwaters of the Yukon River where crude boats were fashioned from whipsawed native lumber for the continuation of their journey to the Klondike, 500 miles distant. The 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail began at nearby Dyea; and the 40-mile White Pass Trail began at Skagway and paralleled the present-day route of the White Pass & Yukon Railway. Although harder to climb, the Chilkoot Trail was favored because it was the shorter of the two.
Unspeakable hardships were endured by these early prospectors. The windswept summit of the Chilkoot Trail was so steep that the last 1,500 steps were chiselled out of solid ice. Day and night an unbroken chain of men four miles long crawled across the summit. Tlingit Indians earned as much as one dollar a pound packing supplies.
In 1898 a 14-mile, steam-operated tramway was built which eased the burdens of those able to pay.
Perhaps the greatest inhumanity on the White Pass Trail was suffered by the wretched pack horse. Over 3,000 animals used to cross the trail perished. The animals plunged off the trail and died in tangled masses, or crumpled in exhaustion, only to be trampled into the mud.
When gold strike stories about millions in loose gold began filtering out of the Klondike, every adventurer, gambler and crook in Canada and the United States headed north. Unbridled lawlessness and terror characterized early-day Skagway. The most notable criminal in Skagway was Soapy Smith, a suave, Leadville-Denver trained bunko man. Soapy's band of crooks cardsharks and cutthroats literally ran Skagway.
In 1898 a railroad right-of-way was blasted through the mountains, and in 1899 the White Pass & Yukon Railway was completed to Lake Bennett, 40 miles away. A year later saw the completion of the 110-mile railroad to Whitehorse.
The perilous Chilkoot Trail was rapidly abandoned in favor of the railway, and Dyea became a ghost town almost overnight.
In 1899, news of a gold discovery on the Bering Sea sparked a second stampede to Nome, and the Gold Rush of '98 died almost as suddenly as it had begun. Skagway's population dwindled to 800. The town lay dormant for almost half a century until the Second World War saw the building of the Alaska Highway. Once again Skagway sprang to life, this time as the terminus of the historic White Pass & Yukon Railway, which supplied the materials to build a highway.
Gold seekers have been replaced by visitors. Most of the town's permanent residents work in the curio shops, hotels, stores, bars and cafes housed in the restored false-front buildings, which line the main street.
The privately owned White Pass & Yukon Railway carried visitors and vehicles on a 110-mile mountain-and-tunnel track between Skagway and Whitehorse until 1982, when the railway shut down. It was reopened in 1988 and has become one of the premier visitor attractions in the north.