Skagway

June 15

We all know that Alaska is by far the largest state in the Union in terms of square miles, but seeing in superimposed on the contiguous United States is amazing. Of the entire state, only about 1% of the land is privately held, making it different than what we usually see.

map of Alaska in US

When you consider that the population of the entire state of Alaska (about 737,000) is less than the population of Tucson and only slightly larger than the metropolitan Wichita population, you know that we didn’t come into any “cities” after we left Anchorage. Skagway, at just about 1,000 permanent residents, doesn’t even make the list of the top five.

Another day of beautiful weather. The Canadians on the cruise ship thought it was HOT since it was around 80 degrees in Skagway. Our ship docked a short way from the town of Skagway itself, and we decided to walk into and around town. Here again, lots of jewelry stores. You would think everyone in Alaska shops for diamonds on a regular basis, except that we know those shops are only open during the tourist season. Several stores, though, proudly displayed “locally owned” signs or “open year round”.

High bluffs along the walk between our ship and the little town showed what I called “intentional graffiti”. Especially in years past, businesses used this means of offering their wares to those coming into the harbor. The names and logos of several cruise lines were part of the display, as well as one ad honoring a sea captain for his life of service. While I might have sold my share of ads over the years, I wouldn’t like the job of putting these in place.

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Skagway was a boom town of 8 or 9,000 built to furnish supplies for the Klondike gold rush and when you have that many miners in such harsh conditions, most of them are going to be men. Not all were single but even the married ones were all alone and lonely, so brothels sprang up until the boom went bust. Then the madams and their girls packed up at left, too. While we skipped the brothel tour upstairs offered by the ladies-of-the-evening, we did eat lunch at the Red Onion, a notable brothel of days gone by.

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We took a 90 minute, “presidential treatment” tour of the town in a yellow 1927 Mack model AB bus (reconditioned and refinished in 2001 by Boyd Coddington).

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This sign was just inside the door.

Boyd Coddington

For anyone who doesn’t know, Boyd Coddington is well known in hot rod circles for his visionary designs. He even had a show on TV about his custom car shop and the work they did before his death in 2008.

Our tour guide told us that in the winter, the town shrinks to just over a thousand people. She and her husband came to Alaska from San Diego, CA and decided to stay. Both are tour guides in the summer and she is a substitute teacher in the winter. Last year their high school graduating class consisted of three students, even smaller than my graduating class of 11.

This area of Alaska resembles the fjords of Scandinavia with the narrow inlets and steep mountain walls. In the winter, “Skagwegians” as they call themselves look for things to do and one of the primary sources of entertainment in this close knit community is the Elks club, which has a two lane bowling alley with competitive leagues every night of the week except their meeting night on Thursday. Church potlucks are a popular gathering place, too. I understand. There’s nothing like a good church dinner for food and fellowship!

Here again, as with Wasilla and Juneau, there is a Sarah Palin tie. One of the houses our guide pointed out along the way was Sarah’s childhood home.

Our driver/tour guide was well worth the price of the tour. Her flair for the dramatic made the history much more memorable! The reason for the term “presidential treatment” is that Warren G. Harding, the only president of the United States who ever traveled to Skagway, was treated to a 90 minute tour in the swept-out-and-polished vehicle usually used to deliver coal to the local residents. That vehicle was just like the ones now used for the city tours, only probably not as pretty. The gentleman who owned the bus later tried to stir up tourism by using Mae West’s famous line “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” He drove the bus to Hollywood to get her picture with him to use for publicity.

Skagway is very proud to have one thing you can’t find in Juneau–a road out! Juneau is waterbound, while Skagway is not. Also, Skagway has an international airport due to the fact that the nearest airports are in Canada. Our guide said that if you see a 747 on approach, though, RUN because the one runway is designed only for private planes.

One stop on our tour was at the local cemetery and particularly the grave of one Jefferson “Soapy” Smith

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who was shot to death in 1898 after scamming many of the townsfolk. The only mourner at his funeral was a mysterious lady in black, who we must assume was his “mother”, since Mrs. Smith was living in St. Louis raising his four children!

Soapy also got off a shot at the local hero who killed him, but that man didn’t die for 12 excruciating days after Soapy’s shot shattered his pelvis and other tender parts of his anatomy. Turns out, that hero wasn’t such a good guy either, having warrants in numerous other cities!

Just a few pictures of things we enjoyed seeing in and around the shops of Skagway.

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