Friday, October 24, 2014

#12: Gold Rush To Tourism: Skagway Undergoes A Facelift

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of Skagway's Sixth Avenue, looking west from Broadway
Sixth Avenue: Looking west from Broadway
Today Hotel Mondomin sits kitty-corner, today's Eagles Bldg
Skagway began as a mud-sticky street with a rash of tents and shacks--a “scrap heap” 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 "teenage" self-consciousness, she began sprucing up. And her get-rich-quick psyche matured into a more realistic psychology of economic sustainability: Tourism.

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of Paradise Alley, Skagway AK, 1898
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. 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.

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of the Rapuzzi family, Skagway AK 1898
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-story 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 face.

Picture of Skagway's Broadway, 1908
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 place to shop 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?

picture of Skagway, AK, 2016
“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 by clicking on the cover image in the left sidebar.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

#11: Skagway's First Cabin and William Moore's Dream

Original cabin of Skagway, AK
Skagway's First Cabin
photograph by Brenda Wilbee
Twenty-one-year-old Ben Moore filed the 160-acre commercial homestead along Skagua Bay of SE Alaska in 1886, but it that is now Skagway, AK. The property was his, but it was his father’s dream. He knew gold lay beyond the mountains somewhere to the north, and to all who’d listen the old man predicted have a pack trail through pass, followed by a wagon road, eventually a railroad track. 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,” but were often diverted by the need to fund themselves. They piloted steamships or worked in the sawmills and salmon canneries. William Moore appealed to financiers and hired help whenever funding came in. Father and son bumbled along like this for ten years. Finally, in April of 1896, Ben decided to move his family up permanently. He wrote:
My wife and I  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 good news: He’d gotten substantial financial backing from an English company. In exchange for a half interest in the property, they’d receive a cash advance of $1800. Under the newly formed Alaska and Northwest Territories Trading Company (A&NWTT 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.

Four months later Skookum Jim found The Gold on August 17, 1896.

Picture of Skagway AK 1896
Skagway 1896
Library of Congress LC-USZ62-122304 4-75
"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 word could get to the Outside. Ben and his father--and the newly formed A&TWTT Company--used that time to get their ducks in a row.

Compelled now by a sense of urgency and 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.:
Picture of Skagway AK's first stampeders
Broadway,  August 1897, Skagway, AK
The Moores and their A&NWTT Co. objected. They posted notices. They sent 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.

Today we have the cabin still marks the start of "Moorseville/Skagway," but there is no memory now of the bitter acrimony. Inside, however, its walls are lined with faded newspapers and yellow columns of small print that whisper tales of other unsavory greed and theft. This is, after all, a gold rush town.

But it's not the  end of Ben and William's story.

Not by a long shot. One cabin became many, and in the end the Moores owned 25% of the assessed value of every merchant on the land they stole.
If you're interested in more on Skagway, you can purchase my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold by clicking on the cover image in the right sidebar.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#10: Before Skagway, Skagua

sketch of Skagway flats when it was Skagua
"Here we will cast our future lots and try to hew out our fortune."
sketch by Brenda Wilbee
Skagua is Skagway's bigger history, beginning 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 figured, to settle in Skagua. 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?

Sketch of Skookum Jim, Ben Moore, William Moore
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 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 late 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, AK's, first stampeders. July 29, 1898
Skagway's First Stampeders / July 29, 1898
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'd like to know more about Skagway, you can purchase my book by clicking on the cover in the left column of this blog.

Friday, February 7, 2014

#9: John Healy: An Irony In American and Canadian History

Picture of John Healy's store in Dyea, AK, 1895
Healy and Wilson Trading Post, Dyea AK, 1885

Johnny Healy is an interesting man in Skagway history. He said she'd never amount to anything. He also has an interesting history with Canada and her Mounted Police.

A whiskey trader, Indian fighter, entrepreneur, he came to Dyea, AK, in 1885 and started a trading post at the foot of the Chilkoot Trail--the famous torturous path twisting up though the steep Coastal Mountains. A trickle of gold prospectors had been using the trail, headed into Canada's Far North and her promised rumors of gold strikes. Healy saw an opportunity to cash in with a strategically placed spott. So he and pal Wilson built Healy and Wilson. A year later Captain William Moore and son Ben arrived, setting up their homestead next door in unoccupied Skagua, 1886.

"A waste of time and resources," Healy told them. "Nothing will come from such dark and windy desolation." The future, which any nincompoop could tell, lay in Dyea and the Chilkoot Trail.

We all know just how wrong Healy was. Skagway is a now pretty little town that sees close to a million visitors each summer while Dyea’s ruins lie buried by a hundred-year-old forest. What most don't know, though, is that Johnny J. Healy was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Canada's Mounties in 1873/74. Yes, true.

Fort Whoopup
Fort Whoop Up, Canada West
the flag is not America's stars and stripes
Healy was a rather notorious whiskey trader in Canadian history, working out of Montana during the late 1860s and early 1870s. He ran the nefarious Fort Whoop Up post in what is now Alberta, Canada. His whisky—watered down with red pepper, ink, Jamaican ginger, tobacco, and black strap molasses—was decimating the Blackfoot. To establish law and order and protect the First Nations, the Canadian government formulated the now famous Northwest Mounted Police in 1873 to drive Healy and the other traders back across the border. Their primary target, Fort Whoop Up—and Healy.

When the Mounties arrived after a six-month trek in 1874, their collective resolve sharpened by an epic journey of deprivation and hardship, they expected one heck of a fight. All they got was Dave Akers—a fur trapper the fleeing Healy had left in charge.

The irony is that years later Healy, after having made his way to Dyea, partnered in 1892 with big money in Chicago to create the North America Transportation and Trading Company in Canada's Yukon of the Far North. But it was becoming a dangerous place up there as more and more gold was being found by the steady trickle of American prospectors. He, among others, began writing Ottawa, asking for police protection from this growing element of American lawlessness. One more time, in 1895, the Mounties showed up. This time not to run him out, but to protect him.

The ultimate irony is not that Healy once ran from the Mounties and then begged their protection, but that he ultimately took credit for the relatively peaceful settlement of Canada West. "The Mounties got on well with the Indians," he boasted, "because I already whooped 'em."

Book on John HealyIf anyone's interested in more about this interesting and arrogant man, his autobiography is now available, Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches  by Johnny  Healy, edited by Ken Robison.

My own book, Skagway: It's All About The Gold is available for sale. Click on the cover in the left column.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

#8: KLONDIKE, The Real Story. NOT!


Yes, I get it. When you're telling a story, you utilize literary license to showcase the bigger truth of the story. You fudge a little on dates, maybe ignore conflicting or immaterial information, certainly beef up events that weren't necessarily meaty. However, in the recent airing of Klondike, I found the Discovery Channel to be so far off in their rendition of the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush that all semblance of reality has been smothered and buried beneath a swift and suffocating avalanche perpetrated by Hollywood. I'm sorry because an opportunity was lost to tell the real story.

The purpose of this essay is not to reveal the historical inaccuracies (chalk these up to literary license) but to address a plot development that flies in the face of reality. While portending to tell the story of the world's most iconoclastic gold rush in history simply echoed yet another episode of Gunsmoke and the "wild wild American West." It's my contention that we can fictionalize anything we want--but when we do, a "based on actual events" no longer is an option. Or it shouldn't be. Because when we distort reality so drastically, truth is not served. Viewers of Klondike are now under the impression they know all about Canada's Gold Rush. They do not.

Let's begin with the invisiblization of Dawson City's First Nations people--the Throndike Whech'in.

Picture of Throndike Wech'in fishing village, Dawson City, and Moosehide--all hugging the east side of the Yukon River
The Klondike
Dawson City and Thronkdike
Thronkike Whech'in
They were replaced by Alaska's Tlingit--a coastal Native American band who, as a group, never went to Dawson City. In reality, the enterprising Tlingit were far too busy making money off the incoming gold miners, charging them an arm and a leg to haul gear and grub over Chilkoot and White Passes. And while there are written and oral histories portraying the Tlingit as warriors, nothing historical suggests that the Throndike Whech'in ever were. They in fact retreated from the gold rush to their little village of Moosehide, downriver from Dawson City. Yet the mini-series shows the Throndike Whech'in (mistaken as Tlingit) going after the Mounties, slicing throats and shooting rifles. No. The Throndike Whech'in never went after the Mounties; the Mounties never went after them. Why should they? The Mounties historically had a good relationship with the Natives. To invisibilize an entire group by mixing them up with someone else--and then assigning a violence not theirs--is to deny the very existence of an ancient and noble people and to spit in the face of truth.

Picture of Fort Constantine
Fort Constantine, Mountie Detachment
Forty Mile, Yukon, Winter 1895
Shall we tackle the Mounties next? 

The Mounties
Portrayed as violent thugs who came after the fact, hauling a cage? what? they were apparently at the mercy of Canada's Minister of the Interior, a supposedly arrogant, corrupt, and even more violent thug who loved to brow beat the Mounties.

To start, the Mounties did not arrive after the fact. For two decades, prospectors had been pulling bits of gold from the Yukon creeks; it was only a matter of time before the really big stuff was found. History being a good indicator of the future, Canada in 1895 sent up 20 Mounties to Forty Mile (Yukon government seat) as preemptive strike against any lawless Americans that might swarm in. When the gold was found, Canada immediately sent up more men. And in February 1898, Superintendent Sam Steele arrived to take over all Yukon Mountie operations.

He did not bring cage.

As to the violence... The Mounties were formulated twenty-six years earlier in 1873 under the model of the Irish Constabulary; empowered to make up laws as they went along, carry them out, and  execute punishment. By the time of the Gold Rush came along their power was more limited, but they still had authority to run a tight ship. All business in Dawson City was shut down on Sundays, as was prostitution. Drunkenness was forbidden, the guilty assigned to the wood pile. Mores serious issues involved the famous one-way order out of town. More importantly, the Mounties served less as law enforcement and more as servant to the needs of the citizenry. Superintendent Sam Steele writes:
Picture of Sam Steele
Sam Steele, Dawson City, 1898
"The more than 30,000 persons, everyone of whom had received assistance or advice, had passed down the Yukon. Over 150,000 dollars in duty and fees had been collected, more than thirty million pounds of solid food…had been inspected and checked over by us. We had seen that sick were cared for, had buried the dead, administered their estates to the satisfaction of their kin, had brought our own supplies and means of transport, had built our own quarters and administered the laws of Canada without one...complaint against us."
The Mounties did a good work and were well respected. They certainly did not hold a gun to an old man's head, let alone a child's, behaving like the terrorist thugs. To portray Canada's early Force as nothing more than an American army of blackguards so common in American history spins a story of nonviolence into its opposite.

picture of William Ogilvy
William Ogilvy
Klondike would have us believe that Canada's Minister of the Interior, William Ogilvy, was sent to boss the Mounties around. He was a surveyor!

Ogilvy was sent to the Yukon a full decade before the gold rush define the American/Canadian boundary. When the initial rush took off, he was asked by the locals to survey Dawson City, and, as the rush intensified, was asked by the miners to resurvey their claims to avoid errors, claim jumping, and any kind of violence. He did this willingly and without bribery, and you'll not find a single miner denigrating Ogilvy. He was, and still is, regarded (along with Sam Steele) as a real hero--a man of integrity and utmost honesty. Neither he (nor Steele) ever made a dime off the millions of dollars of gold floating around. Ogilvy certainly didn't dictate orders to the Mounties, nor did he luxuriate in hot baths while threatening Sam Steele. And he most certainly did not order the hanging of an innocent "Tlingit" man and his little boy.

When a plot line relies on murder and mayhem to tell the tale, a line is crossed from telling Canadian history to obliterating it. There were only three homicides in Dawson City, population anywhere from 30,000 - 40,000, and which Sam Steele reported as being "unpreventable." There was no Count to viciously and brutally reign havoc. And in the gold fields, not a single murder. True. A rather unique and significant detail somehow missed--a detail that defines the Klondike Gold Rush.

All story is always about truth. It's why we have literary license, so we can bring focus to truth without cluttering it up with messy, minor details. But in this case, the creators of Klondike went far beyond literary license when they buried the real story under a rubble of misrepresentation. A whole people were invisibilized and maligned; Canadian law enforcement was assigned historical American policy; heroes were stripped of honor, presented as hooligans; nonviolence was ambushed by violence. Such misrepresentation bothers me--because the purpose of all story is to tell the truth. Make something up, you're still bound to universal truth. When you advertise "based upon actual events," you are obligated to embrace the fundamental truth. Klondike, however, is a case of spinning truth into everything it wasn't, spinning gold, if you will, into mere straw

Viewers of Klondike think they now understand Canada's gold rush history of the Far North. They do not. The Klondike is not about murder and mayhem and selfish greed, but of heroism amidst hardship, of ordinary men and women who rose above greed and selfishness to live in unprecedented cooperation--people who collectively pulled off the most peaceful gold rush in world history.

That's the Klondike story.