Friday, October 24, 2014

PART C: Skagway Spruces Up

This is the third installment of a series on Skagway's historical buildings. Check the BLOG ARCHIVE on the right for more stories about the town's Gold Rush stores, cabins, and homes—and the people who built them, lived in them, and died in them. . .
A Mud-Sticky Street, Skagway, 1897 
Today’s Skagway is not as she began—a mud-sticky street with a rash of tents and shacks: A “scrap heap of creation” one early tourist described her at the turn of the last century. But once her mud-and-puddle youth was over and early adolescence in full swing, with inevitable self-consciousness (a scrap heap?), she began sprucing up. And her get-rich-quick psyche matured into a more realistic psychology of economic sustainability: Tourism.
Paradise Alley
In 1907 she rooted out many of the old gold rush shacks, and business­ owners moved the better buildings to Broadway, relocating them along the railroad track. Shops and saloons, restaurants, hotels, and sundry offices from Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues were shifted ninety degrees and then reset to face the main thorough­fare, their Victorian false storefronts aligned to make a tidy wall. Curlicues, bright paint, some recessed doorways, elaborate lathing, these ornate facades anchored signs that swung over Broadway to announce the various establish­ments, often displaying decorations like boots and horseshoes, clocks and barber poles to distinguish one from the other. Fire towers and churches were left on the cross streets, their spires and towers breaking the horizon. Brewery chimneys—amidst the hodgepodge of cigar shops, saloons, and cribs (tiny shacks where the lower class prostitutes plied their trade)—were confined to the alleyways with names like Hiroshima, French, and Paradise, an altogether shady business in the shadows, brisk and uninterrupted. But out of sight.

By 1910 the town’s once heady population of 10- to 20,000 (depending on who you listened to) had dribbled to 872. But if the Skagway Commercial Club is to be believed,  she was coming into her own as a port of tourism, editorializing that she was “the natural headquarters for tourists and sightseers..., richer than the imagination can paint, greater in majesty and beauty than the far-famed Switzerland, and unsurpassed in loveliness of nature.” Nested between mountains at the mouth of a glacial river, approachable only by ship, and her only road out a narrow-gauge train track snaking up from the narrow valley floor to the fabled White Pass, she was a gem in the wilderness.

The Rapuzzi Family
Outside Their Washington Grocery Store
Yet there was still a cluttered and disorderly feel about town: mismatched boardwalks, too many seedy alleyways, empty lots vacated by yesterday’s hordes. In an online book published by the Parks Department, Robert Spude wrote that in order to walk down Broadway the pedestrian’s path would meander around the fruit crates at Rapuzzi’s store, by the sandwich sign at the Alaska Steamship Office, under the canvas awnings—some with signs on them—and through a host of space defined by the overflow and overhangs, openings and closing, of each narrow building.

Not the polished look a tourist-flirting Skagway was after.

She evened out her boardwalks, consolidated the red light district to just Paradise Alley between Sixth and Seventh Streets and closed the gap between the beach and Third Avenue by plucking two- and three-storey buildings from other parts of town. When in 1914 the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel was hauled by a single horse from Sixth and State to its present location on the corner of Second and Broadway, Skagway found herself a mature, pretty little town with Victorian false storefronts corseted in tidy rank, flanking the railroad tracks and with the blush of youth and health in her countenance.

The wear of time began taking its toll, however; the sting of winter winds chafing her cheeks, peeling her paint, gravity sagging her storefronts and slanting her floors. The Depression years all but did her in and Skagway’s Chamber of Commerce began talking of a face lift. Not until June 1976, though, did a congressional bill establish the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a necessary first step if Skagway was to undergo not only a much needed face lift but reconstruction as well. A decade passed. Finally, when she was 86 years old (her downtown core absorbed by the park and well past her prime) she got the first of her reconstructive surgeries in a ongoing historic preservation project that makes today’s Skagway “one of the best preserved examples of the turn-of-the-last-century architecture.” This is the Skagway we see today.

Notice. No franchises. No golden arches, no Walmart, no Kentucky Fried. Not even a theater. Nothing to disrupt the illusion of yesteryear. Well, one disruption—Radio Shack down on Fourth, better known to the locals as the tanning salon, single booth in the back. Okay, one other disruption. But not in the historic district. The Harley Davidson shop up on 8th and Broadway falls into a block that simply has to “look” historical. Besides, it's not really a Harley Davison. It only sells T-shirts. And there is one other teensy-weensy exception. On the window right across the street from the old train depot you’ll see a Starbuck’s logo. Don’t let it fool you. This is just another jewelry store where Mr. Star and Mr. Buck, I hear, are still selling their latt├ęs and espresso. The rumor going around town is that when they landed in Skagway in 1897 they discovered their entire ton of goods to be nothing but 2,000 pounds of coffee. They’re still trying to get rid of them. But leave these three exceptions out of it—Radio Shack, Harley Davidson, and Starbucks—the rest of the town is  authentic, which makes walking down Broadway and some of the city’s side streets a step back in time. You can tromp the wooden boardwalks and touch the walls of living history. What do they tell?

“a gem in the wilderness”
They tell a lot. Echoes beckon, linger, and whisper in every doorway, up the stairs, and all around. 
If you're interested in more on Skagway, you can purchase my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold. Click on the cover image in the right sidebar to take you to your purchase portal.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

PART B: Skagway's First Cabin

This is part of a series on Skagway's historical buildings. Check the BLOG ARCHIVE for stories about Skagway’s Gold Rush stores, cabins, and homes—and the people who built them, lived in them, and died in them. . .
Skagway's First Cabin
photograph by Brenda Wilbee
Twenty-one-year-old Ben Moore filed the 160-acre homestead along Skagua Bay in 1886, but it was his father’s dream, and to all who’d listen, the old man would predict a pack trail through the pass, followed shortly afterward by a wagon road, eventually a railroad track. Very few agreed. 
“Well, I hope the undertaking you folks have started here will fulfill your expectations," was one remark, "but I am afraid you are losing time and energy here in this." Ben writes: “These were the same discouraging remarks we always heard about our Skagway Bay wharf and land location.”
Ignoring the naysayers, Ben and his dad worked diligently (though sporadically) to “prove up,” diverted by the need to fund themselves, earning money by piloting steamships or working in sawmills and salmon canneries—and appealing to financiers and hiring help whenever they could. Ten years they bumbled along like this, coming and going. Finally, April 1896, Ben decided to move his family up permanently. 
“My wife and I,” he wrote, “worked together fixing up the log house, chinking it better, putting in a good window, a back and a front door a rough floor, and making pieces of rough bunks and furniture out of poles.” Shortly afterward, his father announced some pretty good news: He’d finally gotten financial backing, some English Company.

Skagway 1896
Library of Congress LC-USZ62-122304 4-75
In exchange for half interest in the property, they’d receive a cash advance of $1800. Under the newly formed Alaska and Northwest Territories Trading Company (AandNWTT Co), Ben headed for Juneau to purchase 6,000’ of lumber, a couple of cows, two horses, chickens, pigs, some blacksmith’s tools, shingles, groceries. He returned with George Buchanan, formerly of Enumclaw, WA, along with two native youths, John Jack and Dick Hindle.
And then Skookum Jim found the gold on August 17, 1896.
By August 17 of 1896, "Mooresville" had just gotten started, boasting only the small cabin, a lean-to blacksmith shop, a bunkhouse, and a rudimentary wharf. It would be a year, however, before anyone from the Outside could arrive. Ben and the newly formed AandTWTT Company had the fall, winter, and spring to get their ducks in a row. 

White Pass Trail Is Open:
        Porcupine Hill

  Library of Congress

Compelled now by a sense of urgencyand with an additional $50,000 from London, coupled with supervisors and hired hands sent up from Victoria—"Moorseville" started to take shape: An expanded wharf, a saw mill, another bunkhouse; the trail widened along the river’s west bank, bridges going in over the creeks and across the river up the east side. A frenzied time.
Captain Moore, now seventy-five years old, wrapped up his affairs and arrived mid-May to a hive of production under management of his British-appointed directors. He headed up the trail with two helpers. By July he had ten to fifteen men on the job. Mid-month, on the 14th, he declared White Pass Trail open. On July 29, the stampeders arrived. Ten years he’d waited. Ten years.
Two hundred miners tumbled off the Queen onto his dock. Within a days, hundreds more. Within a week, a thousand more flooded his beach with all the flotsam of selfish humanity. A fellow by the name of Frank Reid borrowed some surveying equipment and proceeded to plat “Skagway” on top of “Mooresville.” 

Replatting "Moorseville"
Broadway,  August 1897, Skagway, AK

U of WA Special Collections
LaRoc 386_4865

The Moores and the AandNWTT Co. objected. They posted notices. They sent around their wharf manager with warnings. But their complaints were run up a flagpole of indifference and left to snap in the wind.

Ten years it had taken Captain Moore to see this day—sorry fruition. He and his London backers filed a lawsuit for full recovery of their stolen property; it would take three years to resolve.

And today, the bitter acrimony more or less forgotten, the original cabin that marks the start of "Moorseville"/Skagway sits empty and silent, its wall lined with newspapers that remind us in faded headlines and yellowed columns the tale of unsavory greed and theft.

This, however, is not the end of Skagway's story.

Not by a long shot. One cabin became many, and, in the end, the Moores owned 25% of their assessed value. 
If you're interested in more on Skagway, you can purchase my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold. Click on the cover image in the right sidebar to take you to your purchase portal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

PART A: In The Beginning. . .Before Skagway

This is the first installment of a series on Skagway's historical buildings. Check the BLOG ARCHIVE for stories about the town's Gold Rush stores, cabins, and homes—and the people who built them, lived in them, and died in them. . .

"Here we will cast our future lots
and try to hew out our fortune."
sketch by Brenda Wilbee
The bigger story of Skagway begins when no one lived in it, not even the native Chilkoot of the Tlingit* Nation. The natives preferred the more sheltered inlet two bays to the west—and their little village of Dyea* at the foot of their ancestral trade trail. A man had to be daft, they all figured, to settle in Skagway. Who but a crazy man could put up with such a ferocious wind whipping off the pass at forty and fifty miles an hour, with the bite of the arctic in its teeth?

Skookum Jim, Ben Moore, Capt Wm Moore
sketch by Brenda Wilbee
Such wind did not stop Captain William Moore. 

A seasoned steamboat builder and gold miner, Moore had made and lost at least three fortunes—Peru, California, Colorado, Washington, BC, Alaska. He knew too, like a lot of other folks, that the big gold was yet to be found somewhere in the Canadian Yukon way up north. When, in 1887, an Interior Tagish man by the name of Skookum Jim showed him a “secret” trail through the formidable mountains—uncontrolled by the Chilkoot—Captain Moore visualized a new kind of fortune. He’d plant a town, open the trail, charge a toll, sell city lots, build a wharf, charge docking fees. He was not too old to make another fortune; only this time he’d mine the miners who would surely be stampeding through.

His son Ben Moore wrote in his diary dated October 20, 1887:
[We] arrived at Skagway Bay at 10 a.m. and ran our canoe up in the creek about a quarter of a mile, then put up our tent and camped at the foot of a little bluff on the beach, where a small creek comes down and joins the large creek on the right-hand or east side of the bay.
 He later wrote about that day: 
I have never forgotten my father’s words to me. ‘Here,’ said he, ‘we will cast our future lots and try to hew out our fortune,’ as I struck my axe into our first tree. 
Later we reconnoitered up the valley a way and put up notice of location for one hundred sixty acres upland, and measured off six hundred feet for a wharf site and placed our notice on the same. We ran across numerous old deadfall traps for bear and other animals, a short distance up the valley. My father also said on this occasion: ‘I fully expect before many years to see a pack trail through this pass, followed by a wagon road, and I would not be at all surprised to see a railroad through to the lakes.’
Son Ben filed the 160-acre homestead under his name and for the next ten years father and son “proved” up, building a rudimentary cabin, wharf, sawmill, platting city lots, and widening the trail. They worked tirelessly, coming and going for ten years, adding a bunkhouse, a cookhouse, earning money as needed by piloting steamships or working in the sawmills and salmon canneries. Ten years they worked and waited, preparing for the invasion of stampeders who would storm the beach once the gold was found.

Ten years none other than  Skookum Jim found the gold.

It took a year for news to get out. But by July, 1897, the rush was on. The first 200 miners tumbled off the Queen onto Moore Wharf on July 29, 1897. Within days, hundreds more swarmed the beach. Within weeks, thousands.

Skagway's First Stampeders / July 29, 1897
sketch by Brenda Wilbee
Skagway evolved into a city like any other, with villains and heroes and entrepreneurs. The Moores made their fortune, as did a lot of other people. Today, more than a hundred years later, Skagway remains a viable town, growing out of its gold rush roots. And while only a handful of gold rush towns exist intact, Skagway is one.
If you're interested in more on Skagway, you can purchase my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold. Click on the cover image in the right sidebar to take you to your purchase portal.

* Pronounced Cling'kit
* Pronounced Die'ee