Port Profile: Skagway, Alaska

The Streets of Skagway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Streets of Skagway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Nestled at the end of Lynn Canal – which is the deepest fjord in North America – lies the Gold Rush town of Skagway, Alaska. Skagway has been a staple of the Inside Passage cruise for years; in fact, many bygone ships have left their presence in Skagway, thanks to a rock face near the piers that has been spray-painted with the logos and names of the ships that have called there since the 1970’s.

Passengers are attracted by the rich Gold Rush history of Skagway, as well as the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad that transports passengers literally from their cruise ship up into the far reaches of the Canadian Yukon.

Skagway History

The Remains of Dyea. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Remains of Dyea, Alaska date back to the Gold Rush. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Skagway’s origins can be traced back to 1887, when William “Billy” Moore purchased a plot of land at the mouth of the Skagway river. Moore knew gold had been discovered in similar mountain ranges in South America and British Columbia, and he was convinced it was only a matter of time before gold would be discovered near his land.

His decision would pay off nine years later. In 1896, as Moore had predicted, gold was discovered in the Yukon. Immediately, a rush of eager prospectors descended on his land, and the town of Skagway was born almost overnight.

Two years later, Skagway was home to roughly 8,000 full-time residents, with another 1,000 passing through the town each year. By June of 1898, it had shot up to 10,000 residents and became the largest city in Alaska, virtually overnight.

The home of J. Bernard Moore, one of Skagway's earliest pioneers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The home of J. Bernard Moore, one of Skagway’s earliest pioneers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

This sudden influx of gold-hungry miners bordered on chaos. Prices for goods and services were grossly inflated. Con artists worked the streets with ease, sometimes ensnaring their victims the second they stepped off the steamboats. Brothels were on every corner. It was, according to a North West Mounted Policeman of the time, “little better than a hell on Earth.”

The Legend of Soapy Smith

Among the con men who descended upon Skagway was Jefferson Randolph Smith – better known by his alias and moniker, Soapy. He’d acquired the name down in Colorado, where he had done a steady business selling bars of soap – purportedly wrapped with varying sums of money – to curious onlookers. Shills planted in the crowd would open the wrapped packages of soap, and, finding a sizable sum of money, enthusiastically whip the crowd into a frenzy.

The docks in Skagway. Criminal gangster and all-around bad guy Soapy Smith was gunned down here in 1898. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The docks in Skagway. Criminal gangster and all-around bad guy Soapy Smith was gunned down here in 1898. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

By the time Soapy Smith drifted north to Skagway, he had an impressive criminal past behind him. He immediately set to the task of establishing control over Skagway upon his arrival in 1897. Not only was the town’s only Marshall paid off to look the other way, Soapy even went so far as to establishing a fake telegraph office complete with wires that only went as far as the building’s walls.

Things fell apart for Jefferson Randolph Smith on the night of July 8, 1898, when he was shot by a vigilante gang assembled on the wharf – nearly on the exact spot where cruise ships disembark tourists every year.

His grave can still be seen today.

What to Do in Skagway

If you love good beer, stop in for a pint of the Spruce Tip IPA at the Skagway Brewing Co. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If you love good beer, stop in for a pint of the Spruce Tip Ale at the Skagway Brewing Co. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For its diminutive size, Skagway still offers plenty of diversions – so much so that most cruise ships calling on this small town tend to arrive early in the morning and stay until late evening.

You have three basic options in Skagway: do your own thing, book a cruise line-sponsored excursion, or book an independent excursion. There’s no right or wrong answer here, but there are certainly numerous options to choose from. Some of our favorites:

  • The White Pass & Yukon Route. It’s the railroad that they said couldn’t be built, yet the WP&YR went up in less than a year, in the depths of winter. While the train served as a necessary freight and passenger link between Skagway and the Yukon, its existence nowadays is limited to taking tourists up and down the mountain. Still, the spectacular scenery – coupled with some hair-raising turns and a narrow tunnel – make this an enjoyable ride. Our tip: Take the extended train journey that goes to Fraser, British Columbia.
  • Hike The Trails. Pop into the tourist information bureau on Broadway Street, or into the Skagway Museum housed in the old City Hall on Spring Street and pick up a free trail map. Hiking and walking trails exist on nearly every end of downtown Skagway, and all are well-marked and necessary warnings or difficulties listed. Bears are rare near town, but not uncommon, so ensure you make plenty of noise and keep your distance should you see one. Never, ever, run from a bear.
  • Cycle Dyea. Skagway’s twin town was, at one time, the Gold Rush town of Dyea (die-ee). Today, Dyea is little more than a ghost town and a long-abandoned harbor, but cycling and walking tours are popular. Your cruise ship should offer tours but if they don’t, Sockeye Cycle on 5th Avenue can help you out.
  • Stroll Broadway. At one time, Skagway was little more than a collection of diamond and jewelry stores and while those certainly haven’t disappeared, there is more of a focus on locally made artisan crafts than there has been in the past. Look for windows that proudly display signs saying, “Handmade in Skagway” or “Made in Alaska” for authentic souvenirs
  • Visit the Skagway Museum. One of the best museums in Alaska, the Skagway Museum (located in the old City Hall building on Spring Street) offers an authentic look into pioneer life in Skagway, as well as the transformation and evolution of the town following the collapse of the Klondike Gold Rush.
  • Skaguay News. Yes, we spelled that right: The Skaguay News derives its name from the old spelling of the town. It also happens to be the site of the only locally published newspaper in town, as well as a mighty fine (if very small) bookstore.
  • Try the Skagway Spruce Tip Ale at the Skagway Brewing Company. Walk down Broadway until the buildings stop and hang a right; you can’t miss it. The on-site pub also offers some tasty concoctions to go with its locally made brews that include the Blue Top Porter, Prospector Pale, and the Chilkoot Trail IPA.

Why We Love Skagway

Ride the White Pass & Yukon Route to the summit. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Ride the White Pass & Yukon Route to the summit. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

In a nutshell, Skagway hasn’t changed all that much from its inception in 1897. Sure, it’s more modern now and definitely caters more to tourists, but it strikes a blend of commercialization with local small-town feel. For the full experience, talk with the friendly locals and definitely do business with them. Skagway during the summer months can become overcrowded with cruise ship passengers pushing and shoving to get their free trinkets from Diamonds International, but Skagway remains, at its heart, a unique little town with a very important story to tell.

Who Sails Here? Skagway's Ore Dock. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Skagway, as seen from onboard Princess Cruises’ Star Princess. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Nearly all the major cruise lines call on Skagway at least a handful of times on their voyages to Alaska, though some may swap out the call in Skagway for a stop in nearby Haines.

Also see Skagway, Alaska and the White Pass Railroad


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