Friday, September 21, 2018

#20: Skagway Gets A Facelift: Gold Rush to Tourism

(reposted and updated)
Brenda Wilbee's sketch of Sixth Ave, Skagway, AK, 1898
Sixth Avenue: Looking west from Broadway
Today Hotel Mondomin sits kitty-corner, today's Eagles Bldg
Skagway began as a gold rush town with mud-sticky streets and 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, the inevitable "teenage" self-consciousness forced a 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.

Broadway, Skagway 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?

They tell a lot. Echoes beckon, linger, and whisper in every doorway, up the stairs, and all around. 

Picture of Skagway AK, 2016
“a gem in the wilderness”

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 left sidebar.

Monday, September 17, 2018

#19: Destination: Skagway, Alaska

(reposted from May 2010)
Delphiniums at Jewel Gardens, Skagway AK
Jewell Gardens,  Skagway, AK

small images of a cruise ship and downtown Skagway AK
My son, Blake, insisted I apply for a summer job in Skagway, AK, as a tour guide at Jewell Gardens. He was up there last summer and is up there again this summer driving tour buses. He got it into his head that I’d love it, do well, and probably make some pretty good money in tips. "For someone your age," he tells me, "you look hot." Do I feel insulted? or not? More importantly, he felt it would do my unemployment streak a world of good. It could even be fun. So I applied. Long story short, I’m headed for Alaska this Thursday morning.

Here’s the truth. I’m scared to death. I have to pay my own transportation and it ain’t cheap. Too, there is no housing. Apparently people just land and “stuff” works out.

“You  remember I’m pushing sixty, right?" I tell Blake. "I can’t do the camping thing. I can’t do cats and dogs if someone does take me in.” 

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says.

Here’s the kicker. There is no doctor, no pharmacy in town. I have to take up five months worth of medication.

He arranged for free housing with the preacher, at least for May. Okay, a compromise. A place to lay my head for a couple of weeks. So I’ll go and see if “stuff” happens. If not? I’ll just come back and consider the adventure one thing I can scratch off my Bucket List. I’ve always wanted to get up there.

Charlotte Jewell of Jewell Gardens
Charlotte Jewell
My job at Jewell Gardens will be to take tourists through the gardens, a glass-blowing factory housed in the gardens, and help serve my specific group at the tea house, also housed in the gardens. All of which I can handily do, and which I will enjoy.

A forty-hour week, I'll have time to explore, hike, maybe take a train out to some gold-rush sight, and probably write. Write lot. I always do.

To get there, I’ll be driving the AlCan highway. The 2,000-mile route will put me in beautiful landscapes and my son Phil has lent me his camera to I can capture the wildlife. I am to begin in Bellingham WA.

Map of car trip Bellingham WA to Skagway AK
My first day will be up through the Fraser Canyon to my sister's house in Quesnel. A night or two to catch up, it'll then be into the mountains to Hudson's Hope and my cousin Carolyn’s house. Then a long haul through wilderness where I’ve been told the wildlife is unbelievable to Liard Hot Springs on the B.C./Yukon border. For $19 I can soak in the hot springs and pitch my tent with the bears. Last leg to Skagway takes me to Whitehorse where Blake tells me I need to stock up on food. I’ll arrive Sunday night at the preacher’s home/hostel. 

I am now officially jazzed.

So, see ya in Skagway!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

#17: Skagway's First Frame House

Skagway AK's first cabin
Ben Moore Home, 1897
(Fifth Avenue, east of Broadway on north side)
Ben Moore, built first frame house in Skagway AKBen Moore began building Skagway’s first frame house about the time his father arrived in mid-May of 1897—a simple structure. One and a half stories tall, rectangular, clapboard siding—set directly in front of the cabin. At some point it was absorbed into the house but eventually shifted fifty yards westward to create a backyard. And as Ben’s family grew so did the house—a porch, a kitchen to the east, a parlor to the west. When he and Minnie left Skagway in 1907, Herman and Hazel Kirmse first rented then purchased the home.

Sadly, Ben and Minnie Moore’s marriage was an unhappy one. What began as a pretty love story ended badly. They’d met at a potlatch in March , 1890, near present-day Haines. Ben was twenty, Klinget-sai-yet, fourteen. “She saw me at the same time I saw her,” Ben later wrote. A pretty girl with a delicate appearance and long black hair, “refined and modest,” “a way above any of her class.” She turned out to be Chief George Shotridge’s daughter, to whose home Ben had been invited after the potlatch. He writes of this princess:
"…a bed was made up for me in one corner of the room. I lay there thinking of this meek and modest little native maiden in the next room. No warning whisper came to me to flee and dismiss this child of nature from my mind. Thoughts of home in Victoria and of another girl down there came to mind but were chased away. I was in faraway Alaska, living in the present… Thus it was with me, and thus it was that lifelong unhappiness was brought about for her and for me, and which one’s fault was it? Surely not hers, but mine."
They were happy at first, and in his journal Ben often referred to her as his “little girl bride.” They settled mostly in Juneau, Ben working the canneries and sawmills, transporting freight, occasionally foraying up to Moorseville to continue improvements on the homestead. When they moved up permanently in April, 1896, Benny was four years old, Edith Gertrude four months, and they were happy. Not until after they’d moved into the house, a third baby on the way, that life together began to sour. Some credit Ben’s temper. Others Captain Moore’s prejudice. Certainly Skagway was to blame.

Minnie Moore and children
Benny, Francis, Minnie, Edith Gertrude
Isolated from her family and culture, Minnie endured the lonely, not-so-subtle ostracizing of Skagway’s incoming “Muffin and Crumpet” ladies—who, try as they might, couldn’t welcome a “Siwash Squaw” into their very “proper” Victorian circle. There were exceptions, of course, and Minnie entertained these more gracious folks in her cozy, lovely Victorian home. However, her children were taunted at school, and by 1906 Minnie’s unhappiness ran deep. To escape the terrible unkindness, she and Ben moved to Juneau. To no avail. Plagued by depression and alcoholism, her unhappiness deepened. She and Ben finally divorced three years later. In 1910, she remarried—a plumber from Victoria—and while she may have known some happy years, by 1917 she knew only unhappiness and sadly took her own life.To stand in the walls of this home one can hear laughter and joy—not all was sorrow. But ultimately, the sorrow sighs—both Minnie’s and Ben’s.

Today the Ben Moore home has been restored to its 1904 appearance, the interior reflecting what it would have been like to visit the Moores in those early days. Too bad pretty Minnie, “refined and modest,” “a way above any of her class,” was not good enough for Skagway’s pioneer women. We might have had a different story whispered from these walls.
Skagway: It's All About The Gold for sale in right side bar

#16: On The Road To Gold...2012 Style

reposted from 2012
Dawson City 1898
Dawson City 1899

2008's lingering recession has challenged many of us in similar ways to the folks back in 1898. Back then, the entire world had been plunged into economic depression through the Panic of 1893 and some of the more desperate (or adventuresome) gave it all up and headed for Alaska and the Canadian Yukon to see if they could get some of that gold everyone was talking about

Gold Miners headed up the Golden Stairs, Chilkoot Pass, YK
A Eric Hegg Gold Rush Photo
They came up over six major trails, the two cheapest and quickest being through Skagway and Dyea of SE Alaska. The two towns were just a few miles apart, both of them busy trail heads to the grueling White and Chilkoot Passes 29 - 33 miles straight up. Each trail had its advantages and disadvantages. Both were misery. One miner said it didn't matter which one you took, you wished you'd taken the other. Another said, "One's the road to damnation, the other to hell." They both ended up at the headwaters to the Yukon River at Bennett Lake.

The Yukon is a serpentine river of 2,400 miles that winds north and east, slithering south, and then east again to the Bering Sea. Five hundred miles from its headwaters on Bennett Lake was Dawson, Yukon--the miners' destination point--where the richest gold the world had (and has) ever known was found. More gold per square inch was discovered here than anywhere else on the planet. Their stories and resulting tourism industry are all that's left. Some of the stories are inspiring, some are exciting, many are tragic. All tell of human beings redefining themselves.

Yukon River
Yukon River
I'm headed up there myself tonight, flying out of Vancouver, BC, Canada. Unlike the miners of a century ago, though, my journey will not take me six months to a year, taxing every ounce of fortitude I might muster. My journey will take just two days. I'll overnight in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, and the following afternoon hop aboard what I assume will be a bush plane and wing my way over the Yukon River. I will not be required to risk my life by running a scow through its treacherous rapids, nor will I suffer the madness of being devoured alive by mosquitoes. Even so, I can relate to the collective spirit of economics and adventure that caused over 100,000 men, women, and children to give it all up and head deep into the unknown.

Statistically, only 40,000 ever made it to Dawson. Only 4,000 ever struck it rich. And only a handful managed to hold onto it. Donald Trump's grandfather did. John Nordstrom did. A few others. As for myself, I have no illusions of "striking it rich" (though I hope the tips are good!); but here's the thing. Having lived in Skagway for two summers and being in the midst of writing a book on Skagway's role in the gold rush, I've read scores of journals written by the men and women who made the attempt. Their stories all begin with hope of financial relief. They all end with gratitude and wonder for the adventure itself. They found life redefined.

Dawson City, YK, arial view
Dawson City Today
I too am going to Dawson, to find life redefined.