Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 12: The Wonderful Wild West Town of Skagway

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

The town of Skagway is a quaint little place of 800 residents tucked into a river valley at the very end of a dramatic fjord.

To get there from Juneau, my friends and I each paid $48 and jumped aboard a 235-foot catamaran ferry that was part of the Alaska Marine Highway. I’ve taken many ferries in my life, but this one was cleaner, better smelling, and far more comfortable than any I’ve ridden before. In addition, the views from the back deck surpassed all others except, perhaps, those I’ve seen off the coast of Norway.

I immediately fell in love with Skagway the moment I stepped off the boat. Walking down the main street was like traveling back in time to the gold rush days. 19th century buildings with turn-of-the-century accoutrements and wooden sidewalks lined both sides of a wide street down the middle of which a railroad once ran (below). Many of the original buildings remain standing today and are protected as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

Skagway was once the quintessential gold rush town. It began as a simple 160-acre homestead by a single man, Captain William Moore, who just happened to be off traveling when gold was discovered in the nearby Klondike in 1897. When he returned, he found his cabin had been physically picked up and relocated while thousands of gold diggers had made themselves at home on his land. The gold fields were still 500 miles away, but the homestead that would soon become Skagway had a mountain pass that led to the Yukon and also had the only deepwater port in the area. As a result, Skagway grew to a town of 20,000 people in less than a year.

Along with the gold diggers came the businessmen and working women who wanted to separate the diggers from their gold. More than 70 saloons and dozens of brothels popped up to do just that. Modern-day Skagway has not forgotten its dubious heritage and now embraces it as a means of separating tourists from their money.

One afternoon we joined the Ghosts and Goodtime Girls Walking Tour. Led by a local madam dolled up in a red dress, the tour took us past a number of old brothels which are still standing today but are now mostly private homes. We weren’t able to go inside any of them with the exception, fortuitously, of the most famous.

The Red Onion Saloon is a bright red building on Broadway Street, the main boulevard passing through the center of town. It was built in 1897 and is now protected as a National Historic Building.

The downstairs is an operating bar and restaurant while the upstairs is where all the action once occurred. Our tour guide explained that customers would sit at the bar and order their women based upon a set of ten toy dolls resting behind the bar. The dolls represented the working girls and informed the customers what was available. If a blonde doll was sitting on the shelf, it meant a blonde woman was upstairs ready to go. Or perhaps the Asian doll was more your thing… If the doll was lying on her back, however, so was her real-world counterpart and customers would just have to wait.

The bartender managed the dolls thanks to a series of copper tubes which ran from the rooms upstairs down to the cash register. Each time $5 in coins would come rolling down a pipe, the bartender would adjust the corresponding doll back to a sitting position. Today, a couple of dolls still sit rather eerily behind the bar staring blankly ahead.

Nearly all of the upstairs has been maintained in its original state. The decorations are pretty much what you would expect from a turn-of-the-century brothel, including original furniture, paintings, and wallpaper. The wallpaper is something I wouldn’t normally notice, but our guide pointed out that the working girls were able to choose their own wallpaper when first getting hired. As a result, each room had different wallpaper reflecting the personality and taste of the woman who worked in it. In many of the rooms, the wallpaper was peeling, revealing many layers underneath like a vertical stratum of prostitutes.

To get a sense of what Wild West Skagway was all about, we stopped by one evening to check out a campy little musical called The Days of ’98 Show. I was surprised to see an actual theater and stage in such a small town, but this was no ordinary production. The Days of ’98 first took to the stage in 1925 as a fundraiser for the local hockey team and has been running ever since. The dialogue, music, and lyrics have changed over the years, but the basic story is still the same.

The Days of ’98 tells the true story of Skagway con man Soapy Smith and how he ruled the criminal underbelly of the town up until July 1898 when he was shot and killed by a local vigilante angry over the crime and corruption Soapy had brought to town.

The production is held in the Fraternal Order of the Eagles hall, a turn-of-the-century building that is just as old and dusty as some of the jokes in the play itself. The acting was great and it was certainly entertaining, but the material was obviously written for middle-aged cruise ship passengers likely to hoot and chuckle over obvious innuendos, tired jokes, and easy punch lines. It was still very fun, albeit, in a campy sort of way. The play is an entertaining, nicely produced piece of work that is very much worth the $16 admission.

With its numerous historical buildings and Wild West flavor, it’s almost impossible to escape turn-of-the-century Skagway–even when you’re sleeping. There are no major hotels in the city, but there are a handful of Bed & Breakfasts scattered about and most of them are in historic buildings.

We stayed at the White House, a beautiful 1902 fully restored B&B with just ten rooms and plenty of antique furniture and fine woodwork to make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. I slept better here than at any of our other hotels, dropping into deep slumber atop a comfy down bed. I was never awake in time for breakfast, however, but I did make sure to always grab a cookie from the cookie jar before leaving in the morning.

Yesterday: The Joys of Filling your Stomach in Juneau
Tomorrow: Boots, Boats and Trains in Skagway