While planning our trip to Alaska I heard many time that Skagway is the place “catch the gold rush excitement.”
I didn’t know much about the Yukon Gold Rush, or Skagway for that matter, but we were set to learn all about it on the excursion we had planned to the Yukon Territory in Canada.
We took a bus the 25 or so miles into Canada where we would catch a train to come back down to Skagway. The driver/tour guide (Chilkoot tours) who drove us up to the Canadian border did an excellent job of giving us a Yukon Gold Rush history lesson which — as he put it — was 99% true and 1% his own personal opinions.
The more we learned about the gold rush, the less “gold rush excitement” I was feeling. As our driver told us, the gold rush was basically created by a series of lies told to each man who landed in the streets of Skagway looking to strike it rich. Many did not survive, but for those who did, it was likely the most physically challenging thing they ever endured and in most cases, for nothing.
The first lie told to the men was that there were fields of gold in Skagway. After months of struggling to feed their families during the 1890’s depression that paralyzed the lower 48 states, men showed up by the thousands to Skagway, eager to pull themselves and their families out of severe poverty. They begged, borrowed and did what they had to do to make it to Skagway only to be told the gold wasn’t actually in Skagway, but across the border in the Yukon Territory of Canada. And to get to Canada from Skagway, they had to travel more than 30 miles on one of two trails — The White Pass or the Chilkoot trail — in some of the most rugged terrain in North America.
Once there, the Canadian Mounties told them they could cross but only if they had a years worth of provisions, per man, as well as winter gear to keep them warm. This meant each man had to return to Skagway, purchase the needed provisions and then make the same demanding trip but with supplies that weighed more than one ton. If that weren’t enough of a burden, the men had spent all they had just to get to Alaska. They had to earn more money to buy the needed supplies. Conveniently, an opportunistic British investment company was putting in a railway from Skagway to the Yukon. They were in need of cheap laborers and they had an endless supply of willing men.
The railroad was finally built, but about two years too late. The gold-bearing land had all been claimed by the time the railroad opened. Today, the railroad carries tourists like us back and forth between Skagway and the Yukon.
The ride was definitely very scenic as we were very high up in the mountains. But looking at the surrounding area, it was hard to imagine anyone traversing the area on foot, let alone carrying a ton of provisions.
In the Gold Rush Museum in Skagway, there was a display that showed what the typical supply load looked like. The accompanying sign said the men had to make a choice of carrying a heavier load to reduce the number of back and forth trips or carry a lighter load and take more trips. It said some men traveled nearly 1,000 miles to get their supplies the 33 miles to Lake Bennett, their destination in the Yukon.
As I mentioned earlier, it took two years for the railroad to be built and just as long for many men to make it through the mountains with their required supplies. The land had already been claimed before many arrived. As a result, many of the men committed suicide to avoid the shame of going home empty-handed.
Today, hikers can travel through the same mountain pass that the stampeders traveled so long ago. The Chilkoot Trail is still largely in tact but most of the White Pass trail, near where the railroad was built, is mostly gone and park rangers discourage hikers from attempting it.
We had already made plans to do the train excursion so we didn’t look in to any hikes. I’m not sure I would want to hike that area anyway. The whole thing was very sad to me. Yes, there were people who died as a result of their greed, but many saw it as a last hope to escape from the extreme poverty caused by the depression. Those beautiful mountains saw so much tragedy it almost seems like sacred ground.
I did, however, get in a good — and educational — run through Skagway. The downtown area is only about eight blocks longs and three blocks wide. After looping around a couple of times, I went up and down the inside streets and found a few little hidden gems. There were little areas of historical significance where signs were erected telling the story of that particular sight and the people involved.
One such sight was where the home of Harriet Pullen once stood. The sign there said she was an important character of the gold rush days because she ran a guest house and also became the resident historian of Skagway. She had an extensive collection of old relics and even more tails that would entertain the tourists that came to Skagway after the gold rush came to an end. The house was demolished in 1991 but the fireplace and chimney still stand.
I also came across the entrance to another trail system that is pretty popular in this area. I would love to have checked it out but I promised Brian, who was not with me on the run, that I would stay on main streets (he’s no fun). But I also spotted a group of three people and a dog entering the trail and they looked like they were setting off on more than a day hike.
Upon further investigation later on, I found there is a short trail we could have done in the amount of time we had. I guess I’ll add that to my list of things to do next time 🙂