A Brief History of Skagway


Gateway to the Klondike

Home of the North Wind

We answer to both names, and both are well-deserved consequences of our geographic location. Skagway and neighboring Dyea, are situated at the northern end of Lynn Canal - the deepest glacial fjord in the world! The wind comes pouring through the lowest gap in the Coastal Mountains for hundreds of miles. It is but a scant 12 miles, as the seagull flies, from the headwaters of the Yukon River, which meanders some 2,000 miles north and west before emptying into the Bering Sea. There is not another river in the entire world that can boast of such geography. Not only that - it is navigable almost all of the way, surrendering only to larger boats at the Whitehorse rapids.

The "First Nations", native Tlingit indians, knew and used the White and Chilkoot passes. They hunted mountain goats for the wool in their famed Chilkat blankets, but the practical indians built their permanent villages 12 - 15 miles down the canal by the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers. There was more flat land, less wind, and abundant runs of salmon, which made it a comfortable place to live.

During the 1880's, following the California Gold Rush of 1849, gold was found in rivers farther and farther north. Captain William Moore followed these boomlets, and observed the lay of the land. He was hired as a guide with Captain Ogilvie's survey party in 1887. The boundary question, following some heated world politics, was resolved as, "..following the summits of the Coastal Mountains". Meanwhile, Captain Moore had filed a homestead claim covering most of the Skagway valley, and built a cabin there in 1887. He was right on the money with his thinking, but when the gold was actually found in 1896, the first great rush of men swarmed through the Skagway valley in 1897. These early settlers had the town surveyed by our "hero", Frank Reid, and proceeded to build all over Captain Moore's claim. He did manage to receive some settlement money in 1904, for his land and dock, but returned to southern BC, a defeated and bitter man.

A group of London financiers, Close Brothers, smelled the gold mine in transportation, and following a fortuitous meeting with railroad builder, Mike Heney (who was fresh from building the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver), decided to finance a railroad project from Skagway, AK to Whitehorse, YT. The WP & YR (Wait Patiently and You'll Ride) was begun in July 1898, and completed in August 1900. As the story goes, the English money men where having a dinner meeting in the Hotel, when Mike Heney overheard their conversation, and went over to them and informed them that he COULD build the link over the mountains for them. "Give me enough dynamite and snoose, and I'll build a railroad straight to Hell!"

The pursuasive young engineer convinced the London financiers, and railroad history was made. Although times were very lean for a few years during the Great Depression, the WP & YR has proven a very hardy enterprise, carrying freight, copper, lead and zinc ore, and passengers for over 100 years. Freight no longer rides the rails, as the Klondike Highway, completed in 1978, now carries the bulk of the heavy stuff. But the tourists, God Bless them, now ride and love the historic old railway, and they support it amply, while everyone else happily drives the road. An errand in Whitehorse, which used to take a day up, a day for the dental appointment or whatever, and a day to return, is now accomplished in one day, Or it can easily be stretched out to two days, as there are many fun things to do when you are in a city of 30,000 people!

A pioneer railroad when built - the WP & YR has continued as a transportation pioneer - building and using the first freight containers in the world. Nearly every commodity in the world now travels in containers.

-A Brief History of Skagway, written by Skagway resident, Barbara D. Kalen