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Visiting Skaggggggg-way

A Town Full of character and Characters

Article and Photos


Lee Juillerat


Go ahead, say it the way the locals do Skaggggggggggg-way.

Skagway, the southeastern Alaska city best known for its roll during the Klondike Gold Rush, is a funny sounding name that conjures grimaces. It shouldn't. Wedged near the mouth of the Skagway River and surrounded by horned peaks reminiscent of Switzerland, Skagway is the northern-most city along southeast Alaska's Inland Passage.

Even better, it's a town full of character, and characters.

About its name: Skagway is a variation of Skaqua, an American Indian word that's sometimes defined as "home of the north wind," "place where you never breathe the same air twice" or tied to a legend about an Indian maiden who married the North Wind only to be blown into the river and drowned.

Dancers from the "The Days of '98 Show" show their stuff

Early settlers called the town Skaguay, but Skagway was the name used when the town was incorporated in June 1900. That year, because of the Klondike Gold Rush, the town's population ballooned to more than 3,000.

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These days Skagway, population 862, mines gold from tourists. On a typical mid-summer day, upwards of 8,000 unload from behemoth cruise ships and flutter about town in search of T-shirts and trinkets. Many ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, walk about the neatly renovated historic downtown and hear tales about Jefferson R. "Soapy" Smith, Skagway's best remembered--though not necessarily revered--character.

Each evening, when the cruisers return to their floating hotels, the town resumes its homey flavor. But the cruise ship passenger and others who make only short stops miss Skagway's charms. I spent portions of four days rambling about town, and only sampled the possibilities.

A sled dog team races along a glacier reached by helicopter from Skagway. The Arctic Brotherhood Hall is Alaska's most photographed building.

Consider, for example, the modes of travel. Following by a trio of playful harbor seals, I paddled a sea kayak down the Taiya River. I rode in a helicopter that circled over the Lynn Canal and a network of snow-buried mountains before landing on a glacier at a sled dog camp, where I mushed a dig team along a snow-packed trail. In a 1937 White touring limousine, I was driven to the Gold Rush Cemetery, where Soapy and Frank Reid, his honored killer, are buried. One evening I boarded the tugboat "Le Cheval Rogue" as it accompanied a departing cruise ship out of harbor. And on my final morning I sat in a railroad passenger car for a ride in a train pulled by a wheezing, hard-chugging steam locomotive up White Pass into Canada.

In between, my feet propelled me from the comforts of the White House Inn bed and breakfast to the "Days of '98 Show, With Soapy Smith." For nearly 80 summers the drama has packed viewers into Fraternal Order of Eagles Hall for performances that feature buxom dancing girls and Soapy portrayed as a brooding Hamlet-like tragic figure.

Another several hours easily sped away at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Visitor Center watching the excellent "Days of Adventure, Dreams of Gold" film, viewing exhibits and joining in ranger walks of historic Skagway. Much of Skagway's tourism success stems from the National Park Service's decision to buy and restore 18 downtown building. Some are used for Park Service exhibits and offices but most are leased to businesses.

Steve Hites operates the popular Skagway Street Car Company The story of Soapy Smith's killing is told at the Gold Rush Cemetery.

The old-fashioned downtown is a fantasy land, but the most photographed building isn't part of the renovation. The unique exterior of the Arctic Brotherhood Hall has more than 20,000 pieces of driftwood sticks. Inside is the Skagway Visitor Information Center, the work place for one of the town's true characters, Carlin "Buckwheat" Donahue. It's a long story, but his name has nothing do with pancake flour or the zydeco music singer, and only an obscure connection to "Spanky and Our Gang."

Buckwheat drives a large pickup truck notable for the large stuffed rainbow trout attached to its front grill. When he motors around town, friends--he knows everyone--wave while tourists, after gaggling incoherently, grab their cameras and start snapping photos. He's also the creator of the Buckwheat Ski Classic, a cross country ski race held each March that's billed for "the lazy, the infirmed and the few who are fast."

Buckwheat also give readings of Robert Service's Klondike poems, including "The Cremation of Sam McGee." His highly entertaining renditions are nicely packaged on a CD, "Buckwheat At Your Service." Another good choice are the Skagway Street Car Company tours, which end back in town with Steve Hites singing and telling historical stories-- some true, some not --of Skagway. His CD is among my personal favorites.

Even with Buckwheat's prodding there wasn't time to hike the many trails accessible from downtown, visit the Trail of '98 Museum, be the consummate tourist at the once-upon-a-time bar and brothel Red Onion Saloon, or do more than make a quick visit to the Skagway Hardware Company, with its wooden floors and shelves crammed with old-time items. All great stuff for next time. And Skagggggggggggway is a town worthy of several next times.

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Getting There--Skagway can be reached by air by a 45-minute commuter flight from Juneau or from Whitehorse. Many visit by sea, either on cruise ships or by the Alaska Marine Highway System, a fleet of car-carrying vessels that serve all of southeast Alaska. Large numbers of visitors are people traveling by car or RVs on the Alaska Highway. Skagway is 110 miles south of the Alaska Highway via the South Klondike Highway.

For More Information--To learn more about Skagway contact the Skagway Visitor Center, Box 1025, Skagway, AK 99840, telephone (907) 983-2854, email at infoskag@aptalaska.net, or Web site at www.skagway.org; or the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, P.O. Box 517, Skagway, AK 99840-0517, telephone (907) 983-2921, or Web site at www.nps.gov/klgo. A excellent resource book is "Alaska-Yukon," by Don Pitcher, $19.95, Moon Handbooks.

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Lee Juillerat is the regional editor for the Herald and News newspaper in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He has written travel and adventure stories about national and international destinations for High on Adventure for nine years. He's also had more than 100 stories and photographs in a variety of magazines, including Alaska-Horizon Airlines in-flight publications, Northwest Travel, Oregon Coast, Range, Sunset and Oregon Outside, among others. He can be contacted at lee337@cvc.net.

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