Skagway, Alaska owes its existence to the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s. There were three main routes to the Klondike. One route was across Alaska. A second was the all-Canadian route starting at Edmonton and heading north-west. The third route was over the White Pass from Skagway to the Yukon. Of the thousands of people that who the first two routes, less than one percent of them made it to the Klondike. Most turned back and many of them died in the attempt. Although the Skagway route involved walking over a mountain during winter, most of those who attempted it, made it to the Klondike.
The population of Skagway and surrounding area in 1898 was about 30,000. It was the largest city in Alaska. Today it is the smallest borough in Alaska with a population of less than 1,000.
In the late 1800s, it was a lawless frontier town; full of gunmen, con-men, card sharks, prostitutes and thieves. Today it is a very tranquil place. If you want to study the history of the Klondike Gold Rush, this is the place to start. There is a great museum and many interesting historical buildings.
During the summer months, the sleepy town comes alive with tourists. It is a cruise ship destination and often there are three ships at a time in the port. On these days the town is packed like sardines, which is perhaps what it was like in the 1800s but today the people are friendlier. This little town gets more than 900,000 tourists during the short summer season.
If you really want to see what Skagway is like, visit it when there are no cruise ships in town. I was there in February and I think I was the only tourist in town. Many of the shops close up for the winter. The workers in the bars dress up in 1800’s costumes for the benefit of the tourists. When the crowds go back to the their ship, the waiters and waitresses change into blue jeans and the local people come out to the bars. As the only tourist in town, I sat at a table with the local people and learned a lot about life in Skagway today.
The town is really worth a visit. In summer there will always be a few tourists who come overland even when there are not cruise ships there but the numbers are not huge.
The story of the Klondike Gold Rush is a fascinating one and I followed the route the stampeders took from Skagway to the Klondike.
Planning your trip to Skagway Alaska
Besides cruise ships or driving from Canada, you can get to Skagway from the south on the Alaska Ferry. There is no road access to other towns in Alaska. There are campgrounds and hotels if you want to stay overnight.
You can take in the “Days of 98″ show; a one-hour show about life in Skagway in 1898, featuring its most notorious gangster, Soapy Smith, can-can girls and songs and dances. This popular show has been running since 1923.
You can try your hand at panning for gold.
There are lots of interesting shops including some that sell things made in Russia and others selling Klondike Gold Rush theme items. The downtown of historic Skagway has been designated the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. It is full of picturesque, false-fronted buildings as many were in the 1800s.
Visit the famous Red Onion Saloon and see the Brothel Museum.
For more details and other information go to the Skagway Visitor’s Center.