Skagway is a first-class borough in Alaska, on the Alaska Panhandle. It was formerly a city (urban Skagway located at ) first incorporated in 1900 that was re-incorporated as a borough on June 25, 2007. As of the 2010 census, the population of the city was 920. However, the population doubles in the summer tourist season in order to deal with more than 900,000 visitors.
The port of Skagway is a popular stop for cruise ships, and the tourist trade is a big part of the business of Skagway. The White Pass and Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad, part of the area's mining past, is now in operation purely for the tourist trade and runs throughout the summer months. Skagway is also part of the setting for Jack London's book The Call of the Wild.
Skagway (originally spelled Skaguay) is from the Tlingit name for the area, "Skagua" or "Shԍagwei" meaning "a windy place with white caps on the water."
The area around present-day Skagway was inhabited by Tlingit people from prehistoric times. They fished and hunted in the waters and forests of the area and had become prosperous by trading with other groups of people on the coast and in the interior.
One prominent resident of early Skagway was William "Billy" Moore, a former steamboat captain. As a member of an 1887 boundary survey expedition, he had made the first recorded investigation of the pass over the Coast Mountains, which later became known as White Pass. He believed that gold lay in the Klondike because it had been found in similar mountain ranges in South America, Mexico, California, and British Columbia. In 1887, he and his son Ben claimed a 160-acre (650,000 m2) homestead at the mouth of the Skagway River in Alaska. Moore settled in this area because he believed it provided the most direct route to the potential goldfields. They built a log cabin, a sawmill, and a wharf in anticipation of future gold prospectors passing through.
The boundary between Canada and the United States along the Alaska Panhandle was only vaguely defined then (see Alaska boundary dispute). There were overlapping land claims from the United States' purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and British claims along the coast. Canada requested a survey after British Columbia united with it in 1871, but the idea was rejected by the United States as being too costly, given the area's remoteness, sparse settlement, and limited economic or strategic interest.
The Klondike gold rush changed everything. In 1896, gold was found in the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon Territory. On July 29, 1897, the steamer Queen docked at Moore's wharf with the first boat load of prospectors. More ships brought thousands of hopeful miners into the new town and prepared for the 500-mile journey to the gold fields in Canada. Moore was overrun by lot jumping prospectors and had his land stolen from him and sold to others.
The population of the general area increased enormously and reached 30,000, composed largely of American prospectors. Some realized how difficult the trek ahead would be on route to the gold fields, and chose to stay behind to supply goods and services to miners. Within weeks, stores, saloons, and offices lined the muddy streets of Skagway. The population was estimated at 8,000 residents during the spring of 1898 with approximately 1,000 prospective miners passing through town each week. By June 1898, with a population between 8,000 and 10,000, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska.
One of the effects of the sudden rush of people was that some of the more experienced offered miners transportation services, often at highly inflated rates. A group of miners, upset with the treatment, organized a town council to help protect their interests. It can be surmised that the most influential members of the group were named H.F. Battin, Keiser, David McKinney and Marshall Bond. The town council included their names in the naming of the streets. The outcome was that as the miners in the council moved north one by one the control of the town reverted to the more unscrupulous among the newcomers and locals organized by Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith.
Between 1897-1898, Skagway was a lawless town, described by one member of the North-West Mounted Police as "little better than a hell on earth." Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on Skagway's streets. The most colorful resident of this period was bad man Soapy Smith. He was a sophisticated swindler who liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy. He had gracious manners and he gave money to widows and stopped lynchings, while at the same time operating a ring of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and the shell game. His telegraph office charged five dollars to send a message anywhere in the world. Prospectors sent news to their folks back home without realizing there was no telegraph service to or from Skagway until 1901. Smith also controlled a comprehensive spy network, a private militia called the Skaguay Military Company, the newspaper, the Deputy U.S. Marshall and an array of thieves and con-men who roamed about the town. Smith was shot and killed by Frank Reid and Jesse Murphy on July 8, 1898, in the famed Shootout on Juneau Wharf. Smith managed to return fire — some accounts claim the two men fired their weapons simultaneously — and Frank Reid died from his wounds twelve days later. Jesse Murphy was actually the one who killed Smith. Every summer daily productions of the Days of 98 Show portray Smith's criminal antics and death in Skagway.
Smith and Reid are now interred at the Klondike Gold Rush Cemetery, also known as "Skagway's Boot Hill."
The prospectors' journey began for many when they climbed the mountains over the White Pass above Skagway and onward across the Canadian border to Bennett Lake, or one of its neighboring lakes, where they built barges and floated down the Yukon River to the gold fields around Dawson City. Others disembarked at nearby Dyea, northwest of Skagway, and crossed northward on the Chilkoot Pass, an existing Tlingit trade route to reach the lakes. The Dyea route fell out of favor when larger ships began to arrive, as its harbor was too shallow for them except at high tide.
Officials in Canada began requiring that each prospector entering Canada on the north side of the White Pass bring with him one ton (909 kg) of supplies, to ensure that he didn't starve during the winter. This placed a large burden on the prospectors and the pack animals climbing the steep pass.
In 1898, a 14-mile, steam-operated aerial tramway was constructed up the Skagway side of the White Pass, easing the burden of those prospectors who could afford the fee to use it. The Chilkoot Trail tramways also began to operate in the Chilkoot Pass above Dyea. In 1896, before the Klondike gold rush had begun, a group of investors saw an opportunity for a railroad over that route. It was not until May 1898 that the White Pass and Yukon Route began laying narrow gauge railroad tracks in Skagway. The railroad depot was constructed between September and December 1898. This destroyed the viability of Dyea, as Skagway had both the deep-water port and the railroad.
Construction of McCabe College, the first school in Alaska to offer a college preparatory high school curriculum, began in 1899. The school was completed in 1900.
By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway's economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over. In 1900, Skagway was incorporated as the first city in the Alaska Territory. Much of the history of Skagway was saved by early residents, such as Martin Itjen, who ran a tour bus around the historical town. He was responsible for saving and maintaining the gold rush cemetery from complete loss. He purchased Soapy Smith's saloon (Jeff Smith's Parlor), from going the way of the wrecking ball, and placed many early artifacts of the city's early history inside and opened Skagway's first museum.
In July 1923 President Warren G. Harding on his historic tour through Alaska visited Skagway. Harding was the first President of the United States while in office to travel and tour Alaska.
The Skagway area today is home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and White Pass and Chilkoot Trails. Skagway has a historical district of about 100 buildings from the gold rush era. It receives about a million tourists annually, most of whom (about three quarters) come on cruise ships. The White Pass and Yukon Route still operates its narrow-gauge train around Skagway during the summer months, primarily for tourists. The WPYR also ships copper ore from the interior.
Skagway was one of the few towns in Alaska (along with Petersburg and Seward) to endorse the 1939 Slattery Report on Alaskan development through immigration, especially of Jews from Germany and Austria.
Corrington's Alaskan Ivory and Museum is an outstanding private collection that spans the long and surprising history of Alaska (pre-historic times, Russian Period, U.S. Civil War, Gold Rush, through statehood in 1959) that charges no admission fee. It is located at Fifth and Broadway at the far end of the "Old Town" tourist area.