It wasn’t until I went to work every day dressed as a Gold Rush Stampeder that I developed an appreciation for the gritty Gold Rush era of American history.
A summer in Skagway, AK can have a funny effect on a person. Adam and I secured employment, and moved to Skagway over the course of 2 weeks. It was one of the most life altering changes of course we’ve ever taken. It was in Skagway that I purchased my first camping gear, climbed my first mountain, and worked my first seasonal job. Like many of the stampeders, I’d spent almost everything I had just to get there, believing I’d be able to make enough money to get somewhere else for the winter.
The Story of Skagway
To understand Skagway you need to know about 2 places. Skagway, Alaska and Dawson City, Yukon.
In 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike River outside of Dawson City. News papers in Portland and Seattle sparked gold fever by running headlines describing the tons of gold that was coming in on ships out of Alaska. By 1898 over 100,000 men and women began to make their way to Dawson City from places like Portland and Seattle hoping to get a piece of the action.
Skagway was the first stop for the hopeful miner with his eyes set on gold, and the destination for enterprising individuals hoping to make a fortune off the miners themselves. Once on land in Skagway, the hopeful miner would need to gather enough supplies for a year in Canada and begin transporting the load over 500 miles to Dawson City.
In the meantime, he could occupy himself in any of the many drinking houses, gambling halls, or brothels the gritty lawless town had to offer. Dawson city was a place for gold mining, Skagway was a place for “mining the miners.”
On The Trail
The trek to Dawson was a nightmare. This can not be understated. Many men and women died along the trail, and horses were treated with immeasurable cruelty.
“Men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more. . . . Their hearts turned to stone – those which did not break – and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.“
In Dawson, a beautiful wilderness was destroyed. Mountains were ground to dust in hopes that they contained gold. Huge piles of gravel, called “dredge tailings”, caterpillared over the entire landscape; the lasting footprints of the titan dredges that ripped through the Klondike river and destroyed the habitat for so many animals. Gold is the subtext in every Gold Rush tale. The moral of the story is always the same, the lust for gold will make people do crazy things.
Today, stories of people like Tappan Adney, Swiftwater Bill, and Klondike Kate are canon.
People who live in Skagway and Dawson remember the gold rush as if they were there, each believing their own version of the story. The facaded buildings of Skagway and Dawson city might look like a frontier town movie set to visitors, but to the locals they’re a continuous reminder that not much has changed.
Every day, thousands of tourists empty out of their cruise ships and fill the streets of tiny Skagway. Enterprising individuals have made fortunes by giving these people something to do and buy while they’re there.
Way Up North to Dawson
After 2 summers in Skagway I needed to see Dawson City with my own eyes.
Ten hours of driving gave me a more complete appreciation for the distance the stampeders covered. And the huge black bear that nearly ran into the side of our car reminded me just how hostile this landscape can be. The sun began to set as we neared Dawson City. The iconic tailings, now scattered with trees, stretch on for miles, leaves glowing in the evening light. Deep shadows creep across the valley.
Feeling like a tourist for the first time in ages, I unpacked my bag and my gold pan and stepped onto the unpaved street in a state of starry-eyed wonder.
Panning for Gold
As we drove out to Rabbit Creek, “Discovery claim”, the devastation began to come into focus.
Although we normally think of gold mining as a thing of the past, it’s still very much a reality here in Dawson. Mountainsides continue to be pulverized and processed, and previously dredged areas are now being re-mined with more efficient equipment to gather the fine gold left behind by rushed miners. With frozen fingers we shook our gold pans for the camera, knowing that we’d never find anything other than irony at the bottom.
Kiss The Toe
One of our few missions for our trip to Dawson was to drink a shot of whiskey with a severed human toe at the bottom.
It’s a sacred rite of passage for people up here in the deep north. For $5 you can be initiated into the esteemed club of individuals who’ve come before you to “kiss the toe” at the Downtown Hotel bar. It’s called the Sour Toe Cocktail and yes, it’s a real human toe. You even get a certificate for joining the club. And yes, I did it twice so we could get a better picture.
Poker chips fell from the sky
Visiting Dawson on the last weekend of “the season” gave us the opportunity to see the final show of the year at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall.
At Diamond Tooth Gertie’s you can enjoy 3 nightly shows while slowly feeding your money to a slot machine, but don’t worry, it’s only Canadian dollars. You can also play Blackjack and Roulette if you’re feeling lucky. The last show of the year was a definite highlight of our trip. The midnight show went from risqué to hilarious when many of the sexy women were swapped out for scantily clad Canadian blackjack dealers who shamelessly writhed on stage.
Clay chips rained down in approval from the audience as the dealers in garters took their final bows.
Photoshoot at The Dome
On our last morning in Dawson we packed up the car and drove to the top of “the dome” to soak in the panoramic view of the Klondike River Valley.
From here you can see the way the Klondike river splits off from the Yukon. You can see the ferry that transports cars to the other side of the river. And you can imagine the way this land might have looked before it was forever changed by the powers of human innovation.
On the summer solstice, people gather at the top of this mountain to view the midnight sun as it narrowly misses the horizon. We allowed ourselves to soak in the stunning beauty and harsh reality of the landscape, then changed into full 1898 regalia for a photo shoot.
From the top of The Dome
Back To Skagway
Much of the drive back to Skagway was quiet that night.
Visiting Dawson City was a lot to process. Dawson isn’t the kind of place you’d normally drive 10 hours just to see. None of the activities you do there will warrant the incredible distance. You’re not going to find any gold there, and you’re probably not going to win any money in the gambling hall either. But for those of us who’ve developed an appreciation for this area of North American history and culture, it’s a pilgrimage.
“…There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.”
-The Spell of the Yukon – Robert Service