Where in the World is This? For September 15th, 2017

About Alaska · about Culture & History

You're probably thinking somewhere in the Wild West. Good for you if you guessed the Wild North-West.

We walked off our Regent Seven Seas cruise to Alaska and felt like we were walking back in time.  Specifically, to 1896 when gold was found in the Klondike in Canada's Yukon.

There are a hundred preserved Gold Rush era buildings in downtown Skagway, Alaska, complete with wooden boardwalks and costumed 'Good Time Girls' in the formerly infamous Red Onion saloon. 

Skagway, in the Alaska Panhandle on the Pacific coast, provided the most direct route for the masses of aspiring gold miners to reach the Klondike.  With its deepwater port, large ships from the West Coast of the US or Canada could dock in Skagway to disgorge their loads of miners, pack animals and supplies.  From there, it got harder: a grueling, 500-mile trek to the gold fields in Canada.

Overnight, the city swelled with prospectors and shops and services for prospectors, styled after other towns in the North American West with false-front buildings opening onto wooden boardwalks lining a grid of broad streets.  The population ballooned, with 8000 people in town and 30,000 souls in the greater Skagway area.

It was the largest city in Alaska, where only the strong and the lucky survived.  And it seemed every swindler, con artist and criminal in the land converged on Skagway.  For the next two years, Skagway was lawless, and Canada's North West Mounted Police called it 'little better than a hell on earth'.

Like every boom, the bust must come.  The dreams of striking it rich had started to fade just a year later and by 1900 – just when a railway to the Canadian border had been completed  – it was all over.  (That top image is the train station that's still used today.) The same year, Skagway was incorporated as the first city in Alaska.

Skagway might have been destined to become a ghost town, reincorporated by Nature like other stops along the way to the gold fields that have now disappeared into the forests that have grown back where towns once stood.  But it survived – with its well-preserved and colorful historic downtown and just 1000 citizens, only a fraction of its Gold Rush heyday.  Survived in both legend and reality.

Skagway has been immortalized in literature like Jack London's 'The Call of the Wild' and even as the set of the John Wayne film 'North to Alaska'.

And, as one of the few Alaskan panhandle towns connected to the road system East into the Yukon and South into British Columbia and the Lower 48, it's a vital stop on Alaska's ferry system: the Alaska Marine Highway. 

The deepwater port that unloaded hapless prospectors now accommodates cruise ships that bring about a million cruise passengers every year to this town that now homes just 1000 citizens. 

There's no gold left in those distant Yukon hills, but a walk back in time to the Wild North-West in Skagway is a pretty rich cruise experience.

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