For us, half the fun of Skagway, Alaska was getting there. From Haines we took the Alaskan Marine Highway to the port town of Skagway. The two towns are only 17 miles away by ferry, but 355 miles by car through Canada. You pay for the ferry by the combined length of your rig and with a fifth-wheel that is the combination of both the truck and the trailer. We were measured at the ferry dock at 53 feet which made us the longest of any vehicle on this trip. They gave us our own waiting lane apart from all the other vehicles and we had to back down into the ferry! It was low tide so the ramp was lowered downward to the ship. The crew guided us step by step into the ferry and positioned us very tightly on the “car deck”. Of course, we were not able to take pictures of the Bighorn on the ramp but you get the idea.
The quick 45 minute ferry trip is beautiful. The first sign that you are already in Skagway is the presence of large cruise ships that are typically in port. The very small town of Skagway will have on some days over 10,000 visitors from multiple docked ships.
Skagway, we had been warned by others is like a “Disneyland” with thousands of people crowding the streets each day. The town has a hyper tourist feel that is punctuated by the hawkers seeking to usher you in to the various jewelry stores offering “train charms” to remember your visit.
It is a small town with only about 500 year round residents. As opposed to Haines, AK, the economy apparently revolves around tourism and most leave when the cruise ship season is over. There is a small grocery store which had many bare shelves when we visited. We later found out that it is stocked on Tuesdays and that is when the locals shop. By five in the afternoon most of the stores start to close and the crowds return to the ships. The town has a deserted feel late in the afternoons.
One day while we were in Skagway we took a trip on the White Pass train. It is one of the top attractions here and is so popular with the cruise ships that one of them has purchased the entire operation.
The building of the railroad to Whitehorse, Yukon is a fascinating story of sheer determination and an incredible feat. Over 35,000 people worked on the railroad and it was completed through seemingly impossible terrain in a little over two years.
Skagway was a key entry point to the Klondike, especially once the railroad was completed. Ironically, by the time the railroad was finished in 1900, the gold rush was over.
When “gold fever” broke out, most prospectors followed the famous Chilkoot Trail in search of riches. When these stampeders arrived in Alaska, the Tlingit village of Dyea (pronounced Di-eee) ballooned in size. This town, which was at the trailhead of the Chilkoot Trail, grew almost overnight to over 100 buildings. The “port” had poor anchorage as compared to Skagway, but the Chilkoot trail was the shorter route to the interior. If you look this up, you will no doubt see photos of the Golden Stairs trail section full of toe to toe climbers making their way up the pass. This difficult 1000 foot vertical climb was only a quarter mile segment of the 33 mile trail. The Canadian Mounties at the border required that anyone making their way to the gold fields have a year’s supply of provisions (a ton of goods). Stampeders would have to make up to 40 round trips to carry that much weight on their backs up the Chilkoot.
After the Gold Rush ebbed and the railroad from Skagway was completed, the town of Dyea, only nine miles away from Skagway vanished. Celia and I drove out to Dyea on the gravel road that connects it to Skagway. The Park Service maintains the townsite, but there are no foundations and few signs of past life there. Visiting Dyea today displays the beauty of the countryside devoid of its frenetic history among the tidal flats. Gone are the hotels, stores, saloons, and other buildings that once filled the water’s edge. The Park Service has erected interpretive signs and maintain some trails in the area.
Near the Dyea town site is also a “Slide Cemetery” where eerily almost all the grave markers carry the same deceased date. Over 70 gold seekers died in a spring Palm Sunday avalanche. The romantic quest for riches proved to be elusive for most and deadly for some.
About the same time, Henry Clark from Wisconsin, realized that stampeders were also dying of scurvy. He decided that being a farmer was better than travelling to the interior to the Klondike. He established a farm and was especially successful in growing vitamin C rich rhubarb. With the plentiful sunshine he had stalks grow as high as five feet!
Today the farm run by Charlotte and Jim Jewell is a show garden, restaurant, and has a Dave Chihuly inspired glass studio. Beautiful pieces of glass are placed throughout the gardens.
One of the most interesting glass pieces are “strawberries” that adorn a rebar fence that surrounds a gazebo.
After a bright sunny day in Skagway, it’s time to head north to Canada again so we can travel south towards the lower 48, or as one local told me yesterday – “America.”