Skagway, Garden City of Alaska
Aug 24, 2022 (Wed) Skagway, AK Aug 25, 2022 (Thu) Skagway, AK
Aug 26, 2022 (Fri) Skagway, AK
When we arrived in Skagway, we thought, “Oh, it looks like there’s lots to do!”
They did have blue raspberry flavored shave ice
What we found out is that almost everything in Skagway involves leaving Skagway and doing it someplace else.
You can take a train up to White Pass. Or a tour of Haines Junction. Or a bus tour up to White Pass. Or rent a bicycle and go out into the countryside (that is, the road up to White Pass).
Or you can go shopping! Every other store here is a jewelry store—and we don’t mean the nice kind that sells well-crafted gold jewelry with exquisite settings. We mean the type that sells $10 “whale tail” pendants or “genuine Alaska souvenirs.”
It turns out that there are five docks for cruise ships here and four of them are filled most days. On Wednesday, there were four cruise ships docked all day, with a total of 12,000 passengers (assuming they were all full, so likely between 6,000 and 10,000 people).
A lot of these people leave Skagway to go on a tour, but a couple of thousand of them wander through the six blocks of stores to get souvenirs. They spend their money, leave that night, and the next day a new batch of 10,000 people shows up.
It makes for a weird economy.
The classic Skagway photo: Looking down Broadway towards the driver of the economy
The appeal of Skagway is based on the Klondike Gold Rush, which started in 1896, but it took until 1897 for news to reach the outside world. It was a big deal at the time—even the mayor of Seattle quit his job and headed North to get rich. In 1899, it ended (all the claims were staked and most of the gold extracted).
One hundred and twenty years later, the town of Skagway is trying to leverage a two-year event into a living for half the year. They have restored historical buildings and put on shows and events and will even sell you “genuine Alaska gold nuggets.”
It’s working pretty well for them. The shops are generally fairly crowded and there’s only a few closed ones. A steady stream of cruise passengers makes it way in and out and up and down the main street (Broadway).
Apparently, most of the effort to turn Skagway into a Tourist Town started in the early 2000’s and is still going on today (they’re working on restoring the YMCA Gym!). There are precious few hotels, but two RV parks (and the aforementioned four floating hotels each day).
The soon-to-be restored YMCA gym
Klondike Gold Rush route
It seems we traveled the Gold Rush route in reverse. Starting in Dawson City, we made our way down the Yukon River to Carmack and then Whitehorse and finally Skagway. Of course, we drove on (sometimes bad) roads, where the Gold Rushers had to walk, or use sleds, or boats.
They were also going upstream—remember that video the other day from Carmack with the Yukon River flowing briskly by? Imagine going up that river with a boatload of supplies!
The first obstacle was getting out of Skagway, which involves crossing White Pass—a very steep pass. Even U.S. Customs doesn’t have a station at White Pass. They have sensibly located their border crossing station some six miles down the mountain.
Oh—and the Mounties said that everybody had to have a years’ worth of food before crossing into Canada, because they didn’t want a bunch of starving people all over the countryside. Since the gold was found in Dawson City, part of Canada, it was their call. This works out to about a ton of supplies and food for each person. Up and over the pass. And then up the Yukon.
Some 100,000 people (mostly men, because women were too sensible to do crap like this) started out from Skagway. Only 30,000 actually made it to Dawson City (they mostly turned back, or gave up and settled down). And a few hundred struck it rich—mostly ones who got there early.
The brothel tour
There is a very G-rated brothel tour, which takes you upstairs in the former main brothel in town. In the course of the two years of the Gold Rush, 180 women worked at the brothel. There were ten teeny tiny rooms and the shifts were from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am.
The sex worker’s office (she got to choose her own wallpaper)
Details were a little light on what happened with the women—one killed herself and allegedly still haunts the place—but they could make good money and not have to climb White Pass.
As always with gold rushes (Alaska/Canada had eight of them), it’s the merchants that made most of the money.
Gini at the brothel (the musical instruments were decorative—there was no brothel band)
A very windy city
Holy Cow—we thought it was windy the first day, but we figured (as in Seattle) it would die off. Nope, all three days we’ve had steady 20 mile per hour winds, with occasional gusts. It’s moderately warm (60’s during the day), and rain has been sparse, so it’s not too miserable.
Turns out “Skagway” is based on the nickname of a native mythical woman who causes strong winds to blow. So we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a windy place.
Places we liked in Skagway
Lucy’s bakery on 5th street makes good cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies.
The Klondike Historical Museum on 1st street has a good film that tracks the entire history of the gold rush, with photos from the time. You get a good idea of what it was like to try to get to Dawson City. Wear a coat, as there’s a lot of pictures of snow and ice.
You can get shave ice on 3rd street, but only six flavors and none of them are lime. Or lemon. They also sell “Klondike Doughboys” which are like elephant ears on steroids. We do not advise getting a shave ice and a doughboy.
The Laundromat on 2nd street is good. Only $2.50 per load. Be careful not to wake up the counter lady.
Of course Robert had to get a picture of this…
Ready to set sail
Saturday afternoon we drive Harvey onto a ferry boat, part of the Alaska Marine Highway. We have a cabin (we could camp on deck, but we’ve been “camping” for four weeks and have little interest in continuing that experience). We can’t visit Harvey (“Federal Law prohibits…”) while we’re at sea.
Beyond that, we’re not sure what to expect. We’ll be very surprised if there’s Wi-Fi or cell service on board. The next time you hear from us will (probably) be Wed, Aug 31 when we finally get back home. (We supposed to dock in Bellingham at 8:00 am.)
It’s going to be very weird not to turn the table and couch into a bed tonight. We’ll miss Harvey.
Harvey and the cruise ship—two very different modes of arriving at the same place: Skagway
Gini & Robert