Skagway: the gold rush continues in Alaska’s Garden City – Port of the Month

M.T. Schwartzman

It could be the 1920s: An old-fashioned bus pulls up, and a guide in period costume welcomes you to Skagway. As the bus leaves the dock and heads into town, it stops at the railroad tracks, where an iron locomotive is chugging along. Plumes of white vapor fill the air, and the blast of a steam whistle announces the train’s departure. Continuing into town, the tour bus turns down the main drag, Broadway, where wooden sidewalks run alongside colorful false-front buildings. In what appears to be one big open-air museum, the pioneer days of Southeast Alaska have come back to life.

More than any other port along the Inside Passage, Skagway faithfully preserves and re-creates its colorful history to the delight of cruise passengers, who come here by the hundreds of thousands. On a busy day, up to four large ships and several small ships or ferries may be tied up at the docks, unloading some 8,000 cruise passengers into a city with a permanent population of about 800.

In fact, if it weren’t for the cruise industry, Skagway probably would have faded into history a long time ago. The city was born of the rush for gold in the Klondike, just over the Coastal Mountains that separate Southeast Alaska from British Columbia and the Yukon. In the winter of 1897-1898, the town’s population mushroomed to 20,000 practically overnight, and more than 80 saloons made this, in the words of Canadian Mountie Sam Steele, “the roughest place on earth.”

After the stampede waned, Skagway became the birthplace of organized sightseeing in Alaska, when a gold-rush veteran named Martin Itjen started the original Skaguay Street Car in 1923. But the decline in mining made the city a shadow of its former self. The White Pass & Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge railway originally built to transport prospectors, continued to chug along until 1982, when it suspended operations due to rising costs and falling revenues. It reopened in 1988–this time as the excursion train we know today.

The gold rush centennial celebrations of the late 1990s renewed interest in Skagway, and ever since the town has been a staple on practically every Alaska cruise itinerary. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (comprising part of downtown Skagway) has surpassed Denali and Glacier Bay as the most-visited national park in Alaska, according to the National Park Service, due to the influx of cruise passengers.

Skagway is definitely place to sign up for a shore excursion, maybe more than one. The town offers some of the best tours in Alaska, including two all-time favorites: the Skagway Street Car Company and the White Pass & Yukon Route. First the street car: This option ($36) re-creates Martin Itjen’s original tour. Guides in period costume relate the storied history of Skagway while taking in “all points of interest.” Adding to the tour’s authenticity is a recently acquired fleet of yellow-and-black antique sightseeing buses, which the company says are similar to those used in the ’20s.

Itjen is buried in the Gold Rush Cemetery on the outskirts of town, one of the many stops along the route. The cemetery is an eerie reminder of Skagway’s frontier origins. Although no one seems to know exactly how many people participated in the rush to the Klondike, researchers estimate that 100,000 to 200,000 set off for the goldfields, but only about 20,000 to 30,000 actually made it. A few of those whose journey ended in Skagway found their final resting place at the outskirts of town. Among them are two of Skagway’s most colorful characters: infamous bad-guy Soapy Smith and hero Frank Reid, who dueled to the death in a storied gun fight on July 8, 1898, which ended Smith’s reign of terror in gold-rush-era Skagway.

The White Pass & Yukon Route narrow-gauge railway ($95) is another genuine link to Skagway’s past. The train follows the old “Trail of ’98” and at certain points along the route, you can still see the path of the prospectors worn permanently into the mountainside. Railroad buffs will love this excursion, and fans of trivia will appreciate the following facts. When it was built, the WP&YR was the northernmost railroad in the Western Hemisphere. The White Pass also is one of North America’s steepest railways, climbing 2,865 feet in 20 miles of track. In recognition of this achievement, the WP&YR was declared an international engineering landmark in 1994, putting it on a par with the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Panama Canal.

Outdoor adventure may be found in several active excursions; choosing one of these will depend upon your interests and fitness level. Cruise lines rate the degree of difficulty in their shore excursion booklets, so it’s easy to make an appropriate choice. Options include mountain biking, kayaking, dogsledding, hiking, and horseback riding ($70 to $130), which may be packaged with helicopter flightseeing or the White Pass & Yukon Route for a two-in-one adventure (up to $300 or more).

Multi-generational cruise groups prefer tours that include panning for gold at the recreation of a turn-of-the-century trail camp ($48), or a visit to the Trail of ’98 Museum and the “Days of ’98” show ($35), which tells the story of Skagway in song and dance–it’s been running for more than 75 years. If you’ve been to Skagway before, one of the newest excursions, “The Whitehorse Adventure” ($135) from the Skagway Street Car Company, takes travelers deeper into the Yukon than any other shore excursion. It’s designed to appeal to passengers with an interest in pioneer history and “folks who grew up reading Jack London or Robert Service,” according to the operator. The drive along the Klondike Highway passes through dramatic high-mountain scenery en route to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon.

Yet one more out-of-town option is a catamaran cruise to nearby Haines, which Princess Cruises calls “one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets,” Haines is located in “The Valley of the Eagles.” In the winter, up to 4,000 bald eagles congregate along the banks of the Chilkat River to feed on a late run of salmon. Year-round, several hundred eagles make their nests here.

Shore excursions in Haines focus on the town and its scenic environs. Choices include traditional sightseeing ($79), nature tours and hikes ($135-$145), or a boat or float ride through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve ($160). Remember that the chances of seeing an eagle here are good, but not guaranteed. The easiest way to spot a bald eagle is to scan the treetops, looking for their white heads–like a golf ball among the leaves.

Back in town, Skagway is a great place to do a little shopping and independent exploring. Fortunately, most stores and attractions are clustered along Broadway within walking distance of the piers. For trinkets, the Skagway Outlet Store is a warehouse of value-priced souveniors–most items cost just a few bucks. For something historical, Dedman’s Photo Shop, which bills itself as “Skagway’s oldest family owned business,” has historical black-and-white postcards plus gold-rush photos and slides. Its upstairs art gallery offers original and numbered prints by Alaskan artists. The Train Shoppe in the White Pass & Yukon Route depot has an array of railroad-related items. Of course, there’s the obligatory location of Little Switzerland, the chain well known for its duty-free shops in the Caribbean.

Snacking in Skagway is a tasty proposition. The Excelsior Cafe in the Skagway Mercantile serves light fare and Starbuck’s lattes. For something sweet, the Kone Kompany is a landmark for home-made fudge and old-fashioned ice cream cones. For a real taste of the gold rush, the Red Onion Saloon has been serving up suds since 1898.

While perusing the scene downtown, be on the lookout for the Skaguay News Depot, whose name comes from the original spelling of the Tlingit Indian word “Skagua,” which means “windy place.” A free bookmark available at the depot explains the history behind the change: During the gold rush, a “y” was added to end of the city’s name, which became “Skaguay.” Then a “w” replaced the “u” and ever since the city has been known by its present spelling: Skagway.

If time allows, take a detour to the Trail of ’98 Museum, a fascinating repository of gold-rush artifacts located on a second floor of City Hall. One of the more intriguing aspects of gold-rush history is the degree of luxury that was thought necessary in the wilderness. Frontiersman (and women) transported the most unbelievable items with them on their journey–some as large as an upright piano–creating a Victorian society amid the unbridled and sometimes lawless stampede.

Also note the nearby interpretive sign explaining why Skagway’s official nickname is “The Garden City of Alaska.” It all started after the gold-rush, when the citizens began planting flower gardens. Soon, Skagway’s reputation for immense flowers blossomed, and people came from far and wide to see the giant floral gardens for themselves–a tradition that continues to this day.


Ships That Call: Cruise lines that call in Skagway include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, and Royal Caribbean. Small-ship visitors include American West, Cruise West, and Glacier Bay.

Weather: Skagway’s reputation as a windy place is well deserved. It can be blustery even during cruise season, but less likely to rain than in other Alaska ports like Juneau or Ketchikan. Temperatures in May average 47 degrees on a daily basis. By July, that heats up to 56 degrees. September starts to cool down to 50 degrees. Skagway averages 16 hours of daylight in May. Daylight hours peak at 19 in July, and gradually decline to 14 hours of daylight in September.

For More Information: Contact your travel agent or the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau (Cruise Travel Magazine), P.O. Box 1029, Skagway, AK 99840; call 888-762-1898; or log on to

COPYRIGHT 2003 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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