Skagway – Gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush

On 01 August morning, our Ship anchored at the Port of Skagway.  The City of Skagway has a population of less than a thousand, but in summer months the population doubles with many temporary workers manning various restaurants and shops. Skagway becomes a busy port destination during summer months, welcoming more than a million visitors from around the globe in more than 400 cruise ships.

Skagway came into prominence when gold was discovered in 1896 at Bonanza Creek in Klondike in Yukon, Canada.  Headline of the Seattle newspaper – Intelligencer –  on 17 July 1897 read  “Gold! Gold! Gold!”, broadcasting the news of discovery of gold in Canadian Klondike. In 1897, first ships from San Francisco, Portland and Seattle arrived in Skagway, packed with gold-seekers, beginning Klondike Gold Rush.

In Klondike Gold Rush, an estimated 100,000 people tried to reach Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually succeeded in reaching there. Out of them, only about 300 actually  found gold and became rich.  Everyone from doctors to farmers, all wanted a share of gold as there was severe unemployment and poverty due to a series of financial recessions and bank failures in  1890s in USA.

Gold-seekers were required, as per Canadian laws to pack and carry one ton of goods, which was needed to last one year, if they wanted to reach Klondike Goldfields. The average man took about 40 trips over three months to haul his ton of supplies to Klondike Gold Fields from Skagway. Soon, Skagway boomed and peaked at a population of 10,000 people, many of them prospectors in the midst of their journey, but many were permanent residents offering goods and services to the gold-seeking hoards.

During Klondike Gold Rush, Skagway was a lawless town, where fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on its streets.  The period saw the rising of a con man Jefferson R Smith, better known as ‘Soapy’ Smith, who was a sophisticated swindler.  He headed a gang of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and shell game.  Smith came up with his ingenious ‘Soap Swindle’, which earned the nickname of ‘Soapy.’ The trick began with Soapy wrapping up cakes of ordinary soaps with  paper currency ranging from one dollar bill up to a hundred bill. He would then mix it with other ordinary cakes, re-wrap all in plain paper and would sell them for $1 to $5 a bar. He had his ‘men’ in the crowd who would buy a soap cake, opening it to find a $100 bill. The crowd was then anxious to buy their own, which, of course, held nothing but a 5 ¢ent soap cake.

Soapy Smith was shot and killed by Frank Reid, a town guard, on July 8, 1898, in a shootout when the two men fired their weapons simultaneously. Frank Reid died from his wounds twelve days later. Smith is buried in a corner of the Gold Rush Cemetery, where as the tomb of Reid is located in the center of the cemetery.

Klondike Gold Rush saw two men coming together- Sir Thomas Tancrede, representing investors in London and Michael J Heney, an experienced railroad contractor interested in finding new work for his talents and interests.  Though Tancrede had some doubts about building a railroad over the Coastal mountains, Heney claimed  “Give me enough dynamite and I will build a railroad to Hell.”  Construction of a narrow gauge ‘White Pass & Yukon Route’ railway line commenced on 28 May 1898.  After two years, two months and two days, on 30 July 1900, first train from Skagway arrived at White Horse, Yukon, Canada, about 110 miles.  Agony was that by the time the railway line was completed,  Gold Rush was nearly all over.

Today, fully restored cars, pulled by vintage diesel locomotives climb nearly 1,000 m over 30 km of steep grades and around cliff hanging turns, taking tourists on a  three-hour excursion to White Pass Summit.

We booked our tickets for the morning trip and boarded the train. The train pulled out of the Skagway station and after two km, we came to the railway yard where a fully functional vintage steam engine Number 73 rested.

This  monstrous looking machine is a enormous snow cutter used to cut through the deep snow to allow the train to pass during winter.

The train passed by the grave of the city’s most notorious Soapy Smith in the Gold Rush Cemetery.  Then the train commenced its climb .

We then passed Inspiration Point, looking down on the Skagway Harbour where our ship was anchored.

This abandoned  Switch-Back Bridge came into our view after traveling 24 km from Skagway.  It is a cantilever steel bridge over Dead Horse Gulch with a span of about 400 feet.  It was the world’s longest cantilever steel bridge when it opened.  In the Fall of 1969, a new tunnel and bridge that bypassed Dead Horse Gulch was built to replace the tall steel cantilever bridge that could no longer carry heavier and longer trains pulled by the diesel engines.

Dead Horse Gulch, it is believed that more than 3,000 animals, mostly horses, died on this trail and many of their bones still lie at the bottom on this ravine.

After another three km, we reached White Pass Station on US-Canada Border.  A pillar marks the International Boundary with US and Canadian Flags on either side.  Here the train stopped for its return journey to Skagway.

After alighting from the train we embarked on a five mile trek to the gorgeous Reid Falls, located North of Gold Rush Cemetery.  The Falls is named in honour of  Frank Reid, the town guard who shot dead Soapy Smith.

On return to the ship, it was dinner time.

Dinner was followed by a movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’, watched in the open air theater on the top deck of the ship, aptly named ‘Movie under the Stars.’

Next : Juneau – The Capital City of Alaska

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