Skaqua or Shgagwéi, as it is known by the Tlingit, a windy place with “white caps on the water,” is used by Chilkoots and Chilkats for hunting and fishing. A few of these Native Americans settle in the quieter areas of Smuggler’s Cove, Nahku Bay and Dyea, head of the Chilkoot trail, a centuries-old Indian trading route becoming popular with early prospectors heading into the Yukon. In the 1880s, U.S. Navy and Army patrols establish federal presence in the area.
In June, Skookum Jim, a Tlingit packer from Dyea and Tagish, leads Capt. William Moore, a member of Canada’s Ogilvie survey party, over a new pass up the Skaqua river valley. It is later named White Pass for the Canadian Interior minister. In October, Moore returns with his son, Bernard. They lay claim to 160 acres in the valley floor and begin work on a cabin and dock. They call the place Mooresville.
Moore opens trail on July 14, just before steamships Excelsior and Portland arrive in San Francisco and Seattle with famed “Ton of Gold,” setting off Klondike Gold Rush. On July 29, the steamer Queen lands at Moore’s wharf, the first of many stuffed with hundreds of gold seekers. The Moores are overrun: Mooresville is re-platted by surveyor Frank Reid as Skaguay. Later that fall, a post office, and the first church (Union), and newspaper (Skaguay News) are established. Many pack animals perish on crude White Pass, which will be dubbed “Dead Horse Trail.” George Brackett builds toll road to White Pass City, a tent city 15 miles up the valley. Canadian Mounties begin to guard the passes, although their government is claiming territory including Skagway, where they briefly establish a post
Skagway booms to 8,000 to 10,000 population. Daily Alaskan newspaper appears. Chamber of commerce and volunteer fire department organize. Construction begins in May on White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Unofficial city government forms and allows railroad tracks up Broadway and in June, railroad backer Close Brothers of London purchases Brackett’s road up the pass. First school opens in Union Church in June. Criminal element led by Soapy Smith reigns until he is shot and killed by an angry mob led by Frank Reid on July 8, four days after he stood on the podium with Gov. John Brady at Skagway’s first Independence Day celebration. U.S. Army, stationed in Dyea, restores order. Reid dies from wound and is given a hero’s funeral at the town cemetery on the outskirts of town. Spelling changed to Skagway by post office, and most businesses reluctantly follow. Townspeople are called Skagwayans.
City has two more newspapers, the Daily Budget and Alaska Traveler’s Guide. Railroad contractor Mike Heney’s crews advance the line to the summit in February and Lake Bennett in July. Building boom continues with construction of prominent city structures like Arctic Brotherhood Hall, and McCabe College, which is built on land donated by Capt. Moore. He builds his own showplace home nearby. Some buildings are shipped over from declining Dyea. School moves into new building on 11th. But the city becomes fire-weary after seven downtown buildings are destroyed in May, and a forest fire destroys Army post near Dyea. The troops, most of them black Spanish American War vets, move to Skagway.
Census is taken in Skagway, recording 3,117 residents. On June 28, Skagway becomes the first incorporated city in Alaska on a vote of eligible property owners, 246-60. It beats Juneau by a day. On July 29, the WP&YR is completed between Skagway and Whitehorse with a golden spike ceremony at Carcross, Yukon. Ornate WP&YR administration building completed next to rail depot at Second and Broadway. Railway also builds a hospital
McCabe College closes and building is sold to federal government for courthouse. H.D. Clark farm established across river. Charley Walker sends vegetable display to Portland Exhibition. Moore townsite claim settled, Moores get 60 of original 160 acres and compensation. Harriet Pullen leases and then purchases Moore’s stately home and opens hotel called Pullen House. Herman Kirmse organizes first garden show in 1902. On Sept. 14, a man attempts to rob the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch on Fifth and blows himself up by accident, along with cash and gold dust, some of which is recovered after mining the street. The man is never identified. Dentist L.S. Keller ends up with skull. Troops begin work on Fort Seward near Haines, where they will be transferred permanently in 1904.
International Boundary dispute finally settled in 1903 with borders set at tops of mountain passes. Skagway News closes in 1904, leaving only the Daily Alaskan. Bobby Sheldon, 22, builds first automobile in Alaska for 1905 Fourth of July parade. He will later drive first car and run tours over Alaska’s first highway between Valdez and Fairbanks, where the Skagway car will end up in the University of Alaska museum. In December, a meeting is held in Skagway about building a road from here to eventually connect with the Valdez road.
A number of buildings are relocated to Broadway from other parts of the city to develop a business district concentrated around the rail line. Among those moved are the Red Onion Saloon and the Golden North Hotel, owned by the Dedman family. The family later will take over E.A. Hegg’s photo shop.
Fire on hillside above Lower Dewey Lake destroys P.E. Kern’s Castle, a hotel in the woods. J.M. “Si” Tanner, a popular marshal and hardware store owner, is elected to Alaska’s first Territorial Legislature in 1913.
Alaska Women’s Temperance Union meets in Skagway and writes “Alaska Bone Dry Act,” which Legislature will later adopt ahead of national prohibition movement. Martin Itjen operates first Skagway Hack, doubling as a taxi and coal delivery truck. His business will evolve into the popular Skaguay Street Car Co. Itjen acquires Soapy’s Parlor for a museum; one of his artifacts is the bank robber’s skull which he acquired from Dr. Keller, who has taken over the fledgling Alaskan. Keller coins the term “Garden City of Alaska.” A new bank opens in 1916, the Bank of Alaska. It will pioneer branch banking and grow under the Rasmuson family into the largest bank in Alaska. Itjen’s friend, George Rapuzzi, establishes Pet Cemetery across river where his dog loved to chase rabbits.
Saloons close. On Oct. 23, SS Princess Sophia leaves Skagway with more than 350 aboard. That evening she strikes Vanderbilt Reef in a blinding snowstorm near Juneau. Captain gambles on tide lifting ship off reef. After two days of weather deemed too rough for a rescue by smaller boats, she breaks apart and all aboard perish. Among them are many of the Yukon’s leading citizens and Walter Harper, a member of the first expedition to ascend Mt. McKinley, who is on his honeymoon. After dodging the first wave of the Spanish flu that winter, Skagway lets its guard down and loses three residents in the spring of 1919.
Beginning of first tourism boom heralded by visible promoters Itjen and Pullen, along with WP&YR, which convinces ships to stay 36 hours so visitors may ride the train and take a Yukon lake steamer trip from Carcross to beautiful Ben-My-Chree. As a fund-raiser for the hockey club, townspeople hold a variety show for tourists at the White Pass Athletic Club. It will become known as the Days of ’98 Show and move to the Eagles after the athletic club shuts down during the Great Depression. The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) builds the Skagway Airfield from 13th Avenue to 22nd Avenue along Main Street.
Skagway is literally invaded by U.S. Army troops, who take over the railroad for a major supply route to build the Alcan Highway. The tracks are moved off Broadway and as many as 20 trains a day climb the pass. Over the next three years as many as 3,000 troops are stationed here. Vacant lots sprout rounded Quonset huts and H buildings. A pipeline is constructed along railway for fuel shipments.
Railroad takes delivery of first two diesel-electric locomotives, in addition to 39 flatcars and 6 tank cars, more were to follow. North end of dock collapses under weight of 30 tons of lead and zinc concentrate. Alaskan merges with Haines Herald to become Lynn Canal Weekly. Bid for addition to school comes in at $265,000. Alaska Road Commission approves quarter-mile extension of Carcross Road to Black Lake. But it won’t go further until Canadians support a road from Carcross to the border.
Skagway River floods. Dikes breached and Pullen Creek culvert washes out. Gov. Wally Hickel flies up to inspect damage. White Pass and Yukon Hospital closes after 69 years of operation. City begins work on new Dahl Memorial Clinic, named for long-time doctor P.I. Dahl, which opens in 1968.
WP&YR builds new railroad depot next to old one. Plans announced for Cyprus Anvil mine near Faro, Yukon, leading White Pass to upgrade its track and equipment for a huge lead-zinc haul. Company officials convince city council to grant 55-year tidelands lease for a new ore terminal and dock. White Pass roundhouse burns again in 1969.
News merges with Haines paper in March 1979. Klondike Highway officially opens in spring. Final cost is $14.4 million on U.S. side and $12.2 million on Canadian side. In July, a scary fire destroys Sourdough Inn, Igloo Bar and a drug store, but firefighters prevent it from spreading through Historic District. New city barge facility/ferry terminal completed.
Skagway Centennial Park is completed at First and Broadway, featuring a statue by Chuck Buchanan depicting a Tlingit packer leading a gold rush prospector up the trail. White Pass and state settle suit over 1994 dock damage, with railroad to pay $1.875 million. Skagway is 16th most visited cruise destination in the world with nearly 450 cruise calls. As visitor count approaches 750,000, city looks harder at dealing with impacts. Police, fire department/EMS and clinic expand staff. City snuffs “shuttle wars” by offering service to just one company, and then forces independent tour operators to use a single broker. Economic development director is hired, tackles “quality of life” issues to keep locals here in winter. Rec. Center improvements completed, director hired, and use expanded. The rest of the town’s streets are paved. Like the rest of the world, Skagway enters the new millennium with no bugs in its computers, and joins the cell phone age. Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles delivers decision on Juneau Access in early 2000, favoring fast ferries, but has trouble pushing ferry construction through Legislature. National Bank of Alaska is sold to Wells Fargo, which was here during the gold rush. McCabe Bldg. is restored for city centennial amidst construction delays, much like 100 years ago, and the city holds a big birthday party outside in June before it moves in. WP&YR celebrates its centennial in July with great fanfare in Carcross, hinting at a return some day. A Klondike gold dredge is brought to Skagway as a tourist attraction. Yukon abandons dock plans, but huge airport expansion is completed. People start calling themselves Skagwegians.
In 2001, the city explores building a new dock to handle freight for the proposed natural gas pipeline, but there’s resistance because the dock would need cruise ships to pay bonding costs. The concern is that Skagway, population 862 in the 2000 census, is close to its summer cruise visitor capacity, and existing docks can be improved for a pipe haul to the Yukon, if it comes. Skagway enjoys a great summer season until Sept. 11, when virtually all traffic stops for a few days after the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, but the ships and planes returned and more visitors come in 2002. Sen. Frank Murkowski is elected governor and vows to build a road from Juneau to Skagway. He restarts EIS process. In 2003, WP&YR adds on to Railroad Dock to handle bigger ships, but Skagway’s industrial position is dealt a blow when corrosion at the ore terminal makes it unsafe and the state tears it down. However, the city asks that the site be preserved for future industrial use, so a new terminal may be built if mining rebounds. Residents follow the war in Iraq on new satellite dishes. In 2004, despite pressure from a pro-road movement, the city sticks to its support of better ferries for improving Juneau Access, and voters agree by a 62-38 percent margin. Meanwhile, the state’s new fast ferry Fairweather starts running but has problems. A welcome reprieve from winter comes when the cast of “The Big White” shows up in spring 2004 to film on the snowy pass. The stars fit right in as Robin Williams bikes around town, and Holly Hunter rings bar bells. The dark comedy goes straight to DVD with mixed reviews, but its northern premiere in Skagway is a hit. AB Hall restoration, Dyea Road widening, Skagway River flood control, Broadway dock extension, and a new seawall/seawalk keep construction crews busy. State backs off road to Skagway because it would have to cross the National Historic Landmark boundary. When the final EIS is released in 2006, it supports a road from Juneau to Katzehin, with a shuttle ferry to Haines and Skagway, but it is stalled by a law suit.
The railroad has a record year in 2007, welcomes back Engine 69, and returns to the Yukon with scheduled service to Carcross. Visitor numbers peak at nearly 1.278 million. Rasmuson Foundation acquires the Rapuzzi Collection for local museums. A decade-long battle by Skagway to become a borough wins approval by the state’s Local Boundary Commission after an emotional hearing here, and voters ratify it on June 5, 2008. The Municipality of Skagway is the state’s first, first-class borough. AIDEA starts work on a smaller ore terminal in 2007 after reaching an agreement with Sherwood Copper (now Capstone), owner of a mine near Minto, Yukon. Ore trucks roll down the highway that fall, and ships come in monthly to carry away the ore. Other mines look at Skagway, and the community forms a port commission which promotes the “Skagway Advantage” for shipping minerals and even pipe for a future gas pipeline. Kasidaya hydro project opens 3 miles down Taiya Inlet. Former childhood resident Sarah Palin first becomes governor in 2006, then vice presidential candidate in 2008, but ultimately resigns in 2009 amid fame, secures book and TV deals. Skagway benefits from a statewide cruise tax in 2007 to the tune of about $4 million a year for various projects. Guinness Book of World Records certifies Skagway for “most eggs tossed” on July 4, 2008, and Broadway is named one of 10 Great Streets in the Great American Places program in 2009. Our girls’ basketball team goes undefeated and wins the 2010 state 2A title, and then repeats in 2011! The new E.A. and Jenny Rasmuson Health Center, funded by several grants and matched with a local bond issue, is completed in 2010, and the new census records a population of 920. Bellekeno mine begins shipping silver from Keno, Yukon to Skagway. Others court the port.
Negotiations begin between borough and White Pass for a new tidelands lease that would allow ore dock and terminal expansion with state and city funds. But when a 30-year lease extension is presented to voters in 2015, it fails by a large margin. Opponents say it’s time to prepare for municipal takeover when the current lease ends in 2023. The rush to expand the terminal slows as mines make cutbacks. Restored Jeff. Smith’s Parlor opens in 2016, and former Mission School student Byron Mallott is elected Lieutenant Governor on an independent ticket. Visitor numbers rebound with advent of huge 3,000-plus passenger ships. A floating dock is added at the Railroad Dock, and another is needed for bigger ships in 2019. Efforts to renew a tidelands lease for a shorter term stall in spring as other parties express interest. In July, after months of rumors, the WP&YR is sold by its Canadian corporate entity TWC Enterprises (formerly Federal, TriWhite or ClubLink) to a consortium led by Alaska-based Survey Point Holdings and Carnival Corp. They pledge to work with the municipality. Gov. Bill Walker rejects the Juneau Access road option due to lack of support and a state budget shortfall; a record of decision favoring improved ferry service is approved by the federal government. An SS Princess Sophia exhibit appears in the museum and a memorial at Centennial Park is dedicated in October for the 100th anniversary of the disaster. Our official population creeps over 1,000 and nearly triples in summer to deal with more than a million visitors.
At the end of 2018 Skagway is devastated by news that its second female mayor, Monica Carlson, is killed in a bus accident on the streets of Washington, DC. Carlson was loved by the community and was making progress with taking Skagway into a new era of waterfront development. A new mayor, Andrew Cremata, is selected in a special election in spring 2019, and continues her work. Budget cuts by new Governor Mike Dunleavy take its toll on the ferry system and other programs statewide, despite protests and a recall effort. Tourism, however, remains strong. But with the prospects of another record-breaking cruise ship season ahead in 2020, Skagway finds itself sheltered in the middle of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. The border is basically closed, and ferry service is down to two a week. As of May 1, 2020 there are no cases here and some restrictions are lifted, but no cruise ships are scheduled until late July. The town’s all-important summer economy desperately waits to reopen.