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’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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.