Klondike Road Trip Part 7: You’ve Gotta (Gold) Rush to Skagway
today at 12:18 pm
Miss our adventures in Tombstone Provincial Park (Yukon), Dawson City (Yukon), Kluane National Park (Yukon), or backcountry hiking? Not see my escapade on the side of the mountain? Overlook the time we watched three grizzlies fishing? Check out parts 1-6 of the Klondike road trip at the links!
Alaskan cruises have definitely risen in popularity over the years, and because of its location on the Chilkoot Inlet Skagway is a stop on most itineraries. My family did an Alaskan cruise when I was 14, but I hadn’t yet discovered my interest in the Klondike Gold Rush so its historical significance was wasted on my brace-faced ass. Now that I’m a little older (the little wiser part is debatable), I was ready to look at Skagway through a different lens on our recent road trip through the Yukon and Alaska.
As a consummate travel planner, it’s hard for me to not have every detail mapped out ahead of time, but the key to a great road trip is having a flexible mindset and our journey to Skagway is the perfect evidence for why that is. We knew that we were going to Skagway, but we decided two days before to take the ferry there from Haines. In retrospect, that’s really the only way to do it because the hour-long ferry ride gives some pretty spectacular views of glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains. It’s also not like a typical ferry where you’re just standing on a deck the whole time. It was more like a mini-cruise ship with cabin rooms for people doing multi-day jaunts and viewing areas on either side of the ship. We parked ourselves in lounge chairs under some heat lamps (it was low 50s and had a misty rain) on the solarium level and got a first row view of nature’s best.
Most of our fellow shipmates (ferry mates?) were hikers who looked like they were getting ready to take on the famed Chilkoot Trail. Originally a Tlingit trade route, the trail experienced a boom in foot traffic at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush (1897-1898) and thousands of people took the 33-mile trek from Dyea, Alaska up to Lake Bennet, BC aka the Klondike. Even in the best of conditions the trail is not for the faint of heart, and the best of conditions by Alaskan standards is still pretty tough. Hundreds of people died on the trail, went bankrupt, or simply gave up and went home. To this day there are dozens of artifacts people abandoned along the trail route, and the hike is referred to as the “world’s longest museum”. Jack London did the trail, and it was the setting for his classic, Call of the Wild, so if you’ve read the book you probably have a good idea of the conditions they faced.
Not looking to be heroes, we decided to skip the hike and spend our time in Skagway eating fresh salmon, drinking local craft beer, and soaking up as much Gold Rush history as possible. When we disembarked the ferry, it felt like we were stepping back in time. The main drag of downtown Skagway looks like it’s frozen in the year 1898, the year Skagway was booming as a provisions stop for those looking to make their fortunes in the Klondike. Although the streets are now paved, the sidewalks are still wooden boards and the buildings colorful and “old-timey”. Nowadays, the population is around 1,000 and the town thrives on the tourism that comes in with the mega cruise lines. It was late in the year for cruises, so stores were advertising their “end of season” sales where all the old people could get 40% off their kitschy t-shirts of cartoon prospectors holding lumps of gold near their crotch that say “I found my gold nuggets in Skagway!”
We had lunch at the Skagway Brewing Company, a huge space that had equally awesome beer and merch store (seriously, the merch was so good). We both had the Chilkoot Trail IPA and El tried the Spruce Tip Blonde ale, and we both had our first taste of fresh Alaskan fish. I had a grilled salmon sandwich that has spoiled me for life (seriously, I haven’t had salmon since b/c my expectations are too high) and El had halibut fish and chips that were so flaky they practically fell apart on their own. After lunch we strolled down Broadway St., got a magnet to add to our collection, and got called at by can-can girls dangling their legs from their seats in the second-story windows of a saloon, enticing people to come to their show. Sorry, ladies, if you’re not Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, I want no part of it. We also stopped in a shop, Inspired Arts, with locally-made jewelry carved out of mammoth ivory. When you hear the word “ivory”, your first thought is probably of the unethical and illegal trade of elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. Mammoth ivory is so abundant in Alaska/Yukon that a coffee shop we visited in Dawson City had an actual mammoth tusk mounted on their wall.
The Visitor Center definitely scratched my Gold Rush history itch and taught me all about the different trails (Chilkoot and White Pass) people took to the Klondike, how the Gold Rush took off, the people like Jack London and Martha Black who were associated with that period of history, and the impact that period of history had on the Tlingit (pronounced “Clink-it”) and Tagish tribes. Spoiler alert: It was mostly negative. El and I also spun the ‘Wheel of Fate’ where we learned that if we had attempted the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 I would have turned back on the trail and El would have turned back at the rapids. I’m surprised my fate wasn’t “slip and fall into the river” given my tendency to be a klutz.
One of the characters we learned about in the Visitor Center was the legendary con-man Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, so we decided to check out his and others’ graves in the Gold Rush Cemetery. Apparently the townspeople of Skagway got fed up with Smith’s schemes, and he was shot dead in the street after crashing the meeting of a vigilante group trying to stop him. What a legend. A display at the cemetery’s entrance tells the stories of the people buried there, and boy are there some doozies. Take Ella Wilson who was famous in the Red Light District and was killed due to “an anonymous strangling”. Or “Unknown Man” who was killed when the dynamite he strapped to his chest exploded when he tried to rob a bank. The cemetery itself isn’t the most authentic because the tombstones have been updated so their writing is legible, but it’s worth a visit for the stories alone.
Much like how we wanted to see the spot where gold was first struck in the Yukon, we wanted to see the Chilkoot Trail at its source, so we drove up the mountain to the trailhead that overlooked the town below. Signs put up by the NPS gave information on hiking the trail but also provided details on the partnership between different tribes and the US government to give a true historical account of the Gold Rush. My inner nerd was more than satisfied by our visits to the Visitor Center, the Gold Rush Cemetery, and the Chilkoot Trail, so the rest of our time in Skagway was going to be dictated by craft beer and fish.
We had originally planned on camping in the RV park for the night, but given the dreariness of the weather we booked a room at the famous White House B&B, a super cute space located close to downtown. We checked into our room, grabbed a cookie from the communal jar, and made our way out for the night. Our first stop was the Happy Endings Saloon, which was deceptively NOT a brothel but rather a sports bar that had a huge banner out front that advertised how “Cornhole changes lives!” Not only were they showing the Chicago Bears game on one TV, but they were playing a National Park Service live-stream of ACTUAL BEARS on another. It was so meta.
Next up was the infamous Red Onion Saloon, a bar that now offers “quickie” tours of its former brothel space for $10. We had missed the last quickie tour so we saddled up at the bar for a beer. The place was packed because the former governor, Bill Sheffield, was there for a book signing. A woman in a can-can outfit read out a list of his accomplishments, which included making Skagway a tourist spot by expanding the railroad, sang the Alaskan state song, and then followed it with some song about a knife going through hot butter. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
We started chatting with the bartender at Red Onion and learned that he was actually from Duluth, MN, and his sister-in-law graduated with Elliot. Later that night we found ourselves chatting with some of the workers of Skagway Brewing Company, and they also happened to be from Minnesota. Apparently Minnesota isn’t north enough for some folks!
As we made our way towards Skagway Fish Company at the cruise ship port, a guy in a straw hat and old-time car from the 40s honked his horn and drove down Broadway. I said to El, “Wait, I’ve seen that guy before”, and I looked down at the Skagway Visitor Center brochure I had in my hand. Sure enough, the same guy was on the cover. Me in that moment:
After keeping our nautical restaurant streak going at dinner, (El got some pan-seared salmon and it was my turn for halibut fish n’ chips), we made our way back to a practically empty Skagway Brewing Company. We were two of only seven total people sitting at a small bar on the first floor, and we were the only ones who didn’t work there. It being the end of the season, and most visitors were already back on their cruise ships, Skagway becomes a ghost town around 9:30pm. So if you’re looking for a wild night out in September in Skagway, you’re gonna be disappointed. Fortunately for us, El and I are freaking old and were a-ok with heading back to the B&B after a pint.
When we made our way downtown for breakfast the next morning, we saw two additional cruise ships in port and Broadway St. crowded with people holding their selfie sticks. When we went down for coffee earlier at the B&B, the manager we talked to made it seem like there wouldn’t be any more ships arriving because it was so late in the season. She herself was planning to head back to NY until the following summer, so we were surprised to see so many cruise-goers taking a chance on a late-season Alaskan vacation. We got a tasty breakfast at the Sweet Tooth Cafe, where the food was classic and the servers dressed like it was still 1898. Satisfied that we had maximized our time in the town, we loaded up our car and started off on the last leg of our Klondike road trip.
Skagway may seem like just another stop on a cruise itinerary, but it has so much more to offer than just a $10 t-shirt or quickie tour. The town is rich with history if you know where to look, has some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever eat, and its people take its responsibility of making sure the Gold Rush era is accurately portrayed and includes more than just the perspective of the white prospector seriously. In short, Skagway deserves your attention as a must-visit travel spot…
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