We arrived in Skagway in time for its evacuation. Skagway has a year around population on 850 but in the summer the population is on the north side of 2000. Sometimes 10,000 visitors, tourists and crew, come off of up to 5 ships. We arrived the second Sunday of September. The day we arrived we were the last of 3 ferries who were taking people home from the Klondike Road Relay Race. Later in the week they would start taking staff from the hotels and restaurants. One hotel had already closed. The hotel we were staying at was closing Thursday and the staff taking the ferry south on Friday. The Restaurant where we ate was closing on Sunday. New snow topped the mountains this week. Skagwegians first glimpsed it the morning we arrived as the clouds lifted. Termination dust, it is called, and in Skagway it really means something, the end of the season and the end of the job.
We took the last steam train of the season up over the White Pass to Fraser Meadows in BC. That Sunday was only the second day since May with no cruise ships. With the Klondike racers leaving on our ferry it looked like a ghost town, stores and restaurants locked up. I asked everyone I knew if they were Skagwegians. The hotel desk clerk had been working at the Westmark for 22 years but went home every winter to Washington. Imagine, working in Alaska for 22 summers and still being a Cheechako. Our waiters were from New Jersey and Florida. Even some of the park rangers were summer help. One lady said she was a Skagwegian, it was her official residence, but she admitted she left for the winter. In fact I met one railway brakeman, one teacher and the State Ferry agent who admitted to staying in Skagway all winter. It seems to me like Skagway is an excellent argument for a state income tax.
Skagway is false front boardwalk town from gold rush days. It was the jumping off point for the Klondike and today it lives off of that reputation. It is one of Alaska’s top tourist stops and many of the shops downtown don’t sell much that would be of practical use to a local resident, like hardware or groceries. There is lots of tourist t shirts and jewelry. Some of the store fronts are run by the National Park Service, recreating an old saloon or serving as a museum, kids activity center or visitor center showing films. Downtown Skagway is a preserved historic district and is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park that centers on Broadway.
Broadway was the widest street in Skagway, largely because the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway ran down the street until it was rerouted during the Second World War. The Railroad helped drive Skagway’s economy. In 1898 it carried stampeders to White Pass and the Canadian Border. Later it extended to Lake Bennet, the head of navigation of the Yukon River and finally, in 1900, 110 miles of narrow gauge track to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The Klondike Highway, from Skagway to Dawson through Whitehorse, was completed in 1978 taking much of the rail traffic. The Railway closed in 1982 but re-opened as strictly a tourist attraction in 1988, kind of like all of Skagway.