Skagway is a sleepy, unremarkable little town in the middle of
What you see in this picture of Skagway is "all there is". There
were more people on board the Radiance than live in Skagway!
As you study the picture further, first you will notice a cruise ship.
Situated on the Lynn Canal at the northern point of the Inside
Passage, Skagway is easily accessible by cruise ships. Then you
will see the V-shaped formation of a passage between the mountains
carved out by the relatively narrow Skagway River.
This town is a true one-hit wonder. Only one thing of note has
ever happened in Skagway:
One hundred years ago it was briefly important as the shortest way to
get to the Canadian Yukon Territory 600 hundred miles away during the
Klondike Gold Rush era.
In other words, its only moment of glory was as a way to get to
someplace else. No one actually ever stayed long in Skagway if
they could avoid it.
And yet somehow Skagway has cleverly parlayed that Turn of the Century
Gold Rush into becoming a Must-See Stop on the Alaskan cruise
Itinerary. Their killer attraction is a marvelous scenic train
route that runs deep into the Alaskan interior.
The train may not seem a big deal on the surface, but when you combine
Skagway's deep water inlet with the train ride into the interior, you
have a license to make money that far exceeded the wildest dreams of
any Klondike explorer a hundred years ago.
So where in the world is Skagway? This little hamlet is
about 100 miles north of Juneau. Unlike Juneau which is
inaccessible by car, there is a modern highway that connects Skagway
to the Alaskan-Canadian highway system pictured at right.
(Several members of our group by-passed the train ride and took a bus
tour instead that used this highway.)
On the map at right, the red arrow inside the red circle marks the
route of the 20 mile train ride that took us a the round trip to the
Canadian border and back.
Dead Horse Trail
What was the origin of the train ride? At the start of the
Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, the miners used horses to lug their gear
up into Canada. It was a brutal and dangerous trek. Over the
course of twenty miles to the Pass, the elevation rose almost two
miles. The grade was incredibly steep, narrow and dangerous in
many places. The trail was so thin and the line of miners was so long
that if you got out of line for any reason, it could be hours before
you were allowed back on the trail.
The first four miles of the twenty mile trek to White Pass were no
problem because the trail followed a flat land route next to the
Skagway River. After that however the trail became a vertical
It crept along ledges, dropped back down to the river, and angled back
up to hoof-slicing sharp rocks and boulder fields. Frustrated by the
endless delays, the Stampeders grew oblivious to the needs of their
pack animals. One by one the neglected animals died of starvation,
cold, overwork, as well as abuse. It is estimated that over 3,000
horses died making the trip. The stench of the rotting corpses
was so bad it carried all the way back to Skagway 15 to 20 miles away.
The White Pass Trail was renamed "Dead Horse Trail".
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
The misery of the continuous treks back and forth to White Pass went on for about a year. Finally in 1898 someone
decided to take advantage of the heavy traffic along this trail and
build a railway. Once it was completed in 1900, the White Pass
and Yukon Route Railway was able to carry passengers through the
rugged pass over to Lake Bennett 40 miles away in Canada. At this
point boats and later other trains were able to take the prospectors
the remaining 600 miles to the Klondike Region of the Yukon Territory.
The glory days of the railway soon passed when the prospectors wised
up. Once they realized only a handful of people were actually going to
find any serious gold, they quickly disappeared disappointed and
Skagway was deserted. The train carried on by periodically carrying
zinc and iron ore out of Canada, but its profitability was nearing an
Then someone had a bright idea - why not throw some paint on the train
and convert it into a passenger train? They could use it to let
tourists get a first-hand glimpse at the beautiful Alaskan scenery.
It worked like a charm. The train was reborn as a tourist
attraction. Today this railway has found a new usefulness as one
of the most popular train rides in Alaska.
The scenic Skagway train ride was incredibly popular. They send
two smaller trains deeper into Canada in the morning and three longer
trains along the shorter route every day. Our train carried somewhere
between 16 and 20 cars. There was a capacity around 80 people in
There were four cruise ships in port carrying about 7,000 people.
So do the math: 1,500 people a train, 5 trains = 5,000 to 7,500.
Sounds about right. Let me add this: there wasn't an empty seat
on the train I was on.
Did I mention what the cost of the train ride was? It was a cool
hundred bucks a person. Someone is making a lot of money!
They said this was the Railway Built of Gold. Sounds to me like it is
truly a modern Gold Mine on wheels.
That said, one of the mysteries of Skagway was "Where is the money
going?" Clearly no one is putting the money back into
Skagway. There is a total absence of expensive-looking
buildings. Furthermore the train conductor put a squeeze on us
for tip money harder than a beggar in the streets of Calcutta.
No one appeared rich in Skagway. Working on the train and selling
tee-shirts seemed to be the major economic activities.
It was obvious the townspeople knew where their meal ticket was. You
could practically fall off the cruise ship and land on the train.
I am certain the cruise ships of the future will provide a long chute so
you can just slide down to your train seat and completely bypass that
exhausting 20 foot walk.
The train may be the only game in town, but let me say
one more thing: the train ride delivers as advertised! It takes
you right into the heart of the Alaskan wilderness and was worth every
I loved my train
The White Pass trip was of course a scenic wonder.
I saw everything I came to see:
- Huge mountains
- Incredible Waterfalls
- Angry Rapids
- 2 Tunnels
- 2 Bridges
- Deep Gorges
- Avalanche timber falls on mountain sides
- Immense Forests as far as the eye could see
- Wild Animals... uh, let me think...
Well, actually there was one thing I didn't see.
I didn't see any Abundant Wildlife.
The brochure PROMISED me
mountain goats, moose, caribou, and eagles. Apparently the train
people didn't pay these animals and birds their appearance fee so we
got stiffed. Oh well.
Otherwise than the missing animals I definitely got my money's worth. I had my nose
pressed to the window for the entire trip forward and back.
Along the way, the train conductor gave us some of the history.
100,000 men plus a few women made the trip through Skagway at the turn
of the century.
Estimates say only a few hundred people actually struck it rich.
Before the train was built, men would use horses to pack their
supplies up to White Pass. The train conductor tried to show us
the trail down below close to the river. Alas, nothing looked flat
enough to permit a mountain goat through much less a horse.
Once the prospectors made it to White Pass, the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police said they would not be permitted to enter Canada till they had
accumulated a solid ton of supplies. There were no supplies to
be found in Canada. Until they had their dried food, picks, shovels,
medicines, sleds, tents, and stoves, they weren't going anywhere.
Since the horses and men combined could carry about 100 pounds a trip,
this meant they had to make 20 round trips before they would be
allowed into Canada.
So the "Stampeders" as they were known would drop their load in a
spot, return to Skagway and start over twenty or so times.
The thought of 20 arduous round trips on that non-existent path below
absolutely stunned me. Each 40 mile round trip could take three or
four days depending on the conditions. It might take three months
of trips just to get past the White Pass 20-mile checkpoint.
What an incredible ordeal.
I couldn't figure out how they did the two-way traffic either.
As I looked down at gorge, I didn't see
enough room to move in one direction much less two!
And once they got their ton of goods, that wasn't the end of it.
It was just the beginning!
The Yukon Territory was another 600 miles away. Once into
Canada, the Stampeders would have to make sturdy rafts that would be
able to survive on a long water system consisting of lakes, rivers,
and five different sets of powerful rapids.
Seems like there had to be an easier way to make money. When you realized that
only one man in 500 actually made any serious money,
you had to shake your head in disbelief at the folly of it all.
More than a dozen times on this train ride, I said a silent 'thank you' for
finding my profession as a dance teacher. The sheer brutality
and utter futility of
the Stampeder existence left me shaken.
After we reached the White Pass, the train turned around and headed
Sam, Marissa, Marla and I continued to watch the sights and listen to the
narrator. Meanwhile I started feeling guilty. We had
promised to share the trip with Gary Richardson and his family.
But thanks to my perpetual tardiness, we had barely made it to the
train and didn't have time to seek him out.
At the start of the trip we told in no uncertain terms we were strictly forbidden to cross from car to the next.
Obviously it was a safety regulation. But as I watched one
lady move from car to car hawking DVDs and brochures of the trip, it
was also obvious there was little to no risk at all to cross the
narrow metal bridge from car to car. What they really didn't want was having
people moving from car to car creating traffic.
But towards the end of the trip, I thought no one would care if I went
in search of Gary. After all, how else was I going to get my
So I got up. Marla asked me what I was doing and I told her I was
going in search of Gary. Marla gave me "The Look".
In our family mythology, there is a famous incident when I got Sam,
Marla, and myself thrown out of the Six Flags Park in San Antonio.
It seems we were riding the train and the conductor said that was the
FINAL TRIP of the day. That meant there would be no more trains
running, right? Right!
We were ready to leave Six Flags, but in the distance we spied one
more ride we had promised to do when the lines were down. By
coincidence, the train track made a direct bee line to the ride. Since
there were no more trains running that day, I decided to save time and
energy by walking on the
side of the train tracks. Even if a train did magically appear,
it would be no problem to step aside five feet and let it pass. In
other words, there was no danger and it saved time and energy.
But there was a sign that specifically forbade people to walk in this
area. You know me. I paid no attention.
Immediately an executive named Duane spotted me and decided to make a
royal fuss. When I failed to show remorse, he called ten security people.
Now that he wasn't scared of my defiance any more, we proceeded to have a
very nasty confrontation.
Did I win the argument? No. Seems like they really don't
want people thinking for themselves. The issue was resolved when
Duane ordered me escorted out of the park. I don't know what his
problem was. We offered to willingly leave twenty minutes earlier. He
wanted to enjoy his pointless exercise of power.
I guess I have always had trouble with authority.
Everyone has to have a few character flaws, right? Otherwise I
would be perfect like uber-athlete/ perfect body/ great looks Robert
Goin' Somewhere and beautiful Cher Desperate Housewife Longoria and
people would resent me. Instead they go "tsk tsk" and feel sorry
So when I
prepared to look for Gary, Marla silently mouthed the word "Duane" to
me. I paused and thought about it. There was ZERO danger.
Besides, who cares? Then I took off.
Gary wasn't in the next car. He wasn't in the one after that
either. Or the next one. Or the next one. Or the one after that. Are
you getting the picture? I crossed one car after another. This
train was endless! By my estimate I crossed fourteen
cars looking for him. I began to wonder if Gary was even on the
Then I thought I saw Gary in the next compartment. I was just about to
cross the final bridge when the woman who had been more than happy to take my
$20 for the trip DVD grabbed my arm as I walked by. She hissed, "Where do you think
I politely said I was headed to see Gary in the next compartment.
That's when I got the lecture on how we were specifically FORBIDDEN to
cross from one car to the next. Having learned some lessons from
the Duane Dialogues, I profusely apologized and kowtowed and displayed
total ignorance of the rules. Then I asked if she would help
me cross the final hurdle and I would be eternally in her debt.
She wasn't buying it. Marla gets out of speeding tickets all the
time, but I never get out of trouble. I must have the WORST
acting skills in the world.
"I will do nothing of the sort! You will sit right there." She
pointed to an empty bench. "You will not move. If I have one
more problem with you, I will call ahead to the Skagway Police and
have them waiting to arrest you."
"Isn't that a bit harsh, ma'am?"
"You will do as you are told. Sit down and don't move. I mean it."
Then to reinforce her point, she pulled a chain across the door. Obviously I could
have stepped over it, but I didn't think that was a good idea.
Yes, I believe she did mean it. Having learned from Duane that
persuasion is futile in certain situations, I accepted my fate. I pulled out my computer
chess game and moved White Pawn to King Four. If I was going to be in
Detention, at least I had 'Friend' (my loyal pocket chess companion)
to keep me occupied.
At this EXACT MOMENT none other than Gary Richardson walked out on the
ledge of his car to take some pictures. He spotted me sitting in my
dunce chair just five feet away! He was
really happy to see me!
"Hey Rick! There you are! I wondered what happened to
you. Why don't you come over here?"
"No, Gary, that would not be a good idea. I am being punished and I
have been ordered to sit right here."
My captor meanwhile stood up (you can see her arm in the picture) and
began to stare crimson lightning bolts at me. She was not
in favor of this new test to her authority.
spotted her and immediately said, "Hey, lady, this guy is a friend of
mine. Why don't you let him come over here and serve his punishment?
I know how to make him behave!"
Gary did NOT help matters by laughing at my plight. Nor did the lady
see any humor in the situation. She turned her back and refused
to make eye contact with Gary.
I shook my head vigorously hoping Gary would get the idea that she
wasn't in a very good mood. I did the "throat-slicing" gesture
to show how much trouble I was in.
Maybe I shouldn't have smiled for Gary's picture. The woman kept glowering at
without saying anything. I knew full well what she was thinking. "Go
ahead, Tourist. Make my day." Thankfully Gary caught on and accepted that it
was not in my best interests to push this woman any further.
At least I got my picture taken!! Life is good.
Five minutes later the train arrived back in Skagway. Marla gave me "The Look" for the second time when she
discovered the results of my latest adventure. "You and trains," was
all she said. I was grateful she left it at that.
A Peculiar Story
Once I made my getaway from the Train Debacle, we went to look at tee-shirts. Afterwards the girls wanted to
shop further and look around, but I wasn't interested. I disengaged
over to the Red Onion Saloon, the local bar, to have a beer and
recover from my latest brush with authority.
I wasn't the only person from our group to discover the Red Onion.
There was a whole slew of people from our group assembled there.
It turns out that the Gold Rush wasn't the only tradition that the
locals still pay homage too. Back in the Gold Rush days, the 'women of the
night' held a very prominent position in the social order of things.
As you will see from a picture, outside the saloon Steve Upchurch met a lady known as Klondike Kate.
Kate was standing next to her place of business. Inside the Red Onion, Rick Rowe met
Kate's co-worker Pea Hull Annie on the staircase.
Did I mention how friendly these ladies were? You can tell
from Rick's grin and Steve's grin in the pictures that both ladies had great
Personally I thought it was great that members from our group were getting to know the
citizens!! I decided to do the same thing. So I sat down at the bar,
ordered a beer, and struck up a conversation with a local guy who called himself
Bulldog Bob (pictured at right standing next to the red car) was quite
a character. He told me he made his living fixing up the trains when
they broke down. Apparently either today was his day off or the
trains were working or whatever because he was putting down the beers
at a fast clip.
I pointed to the various "ladies of the night" such as Kate and
Annie as they strutted their stuff around the Red Onion Saloon. Obviously these ladies were just having fun
as they entertained the guests. Seeing them aroused my curiosity
about something I had heard. Was the legend of the "20 men to
every woman" ratio in Alaska really true? I asked Bulldog if Skagway's
female population had reached the point where this particular profession was
"Funny you should ask that. Yeah, there's more women these
days than used to be, but it doesn't do no good. The men around here
are so damn weird the only way some of them are going to get it is if
they pay for it. They stink, they don't bathe, their clothes are
dirty, their mouths are dirty, and they don't have a clue what manners
are all about. Plus they are mean sons of bitches pardon my french. So to answer your question, yeah, we still got that
profession around here."
I laughed. I had not expected quite this much candor, but then beer
has a way of thawing the ice so to speak. Then I asked
Bulldog about the TV show "Northern Exposure." I asked him if he thought
Alaskan people were 'quirky', the famous catchphrase used to describe
the bizarre characters on the show.
Now it was Bulldog's turn to laugh. "I saw a couple episodes one time.
They thought they captured the Alaskan strangeness, but they didn't even
"What do you mean?"
"Hell, Alaskan people are weirder than s...t!
Look at this way. If you are white, you are probably the
descendant of a misfit and a hooker. The people who came here -
women included - were people who
couldn't fit into any other society in the world. They were so tough
and so screwed up that a life of misery suited them just fine. Most of
'em would rather just be left alone so they don't have to
get into fights all the time."
"Do people ever get lonely living up here?"
"All of the time, 'specially in winter. Loneliness is our way of life.
Some people are too weird to actually make any friends. Plus the
winter nights do things to people's minds. Remember that Jack
Nicholson flick "The Shining"? Heck, everyone says that was
fiction, just a
horror movie, but guess what? That stuff really happens up here!
Think about it. That story was written by Stephen
King. That guy lives in Maine. I bet he knows a thing or two
about going crazy when it snows and locks you in. Let me tell
you a story about a couple guys who came through here a few years
These two guys had just gotten divorced from their wives and they
swore they would never have anything to do with women again.
They were best friends and they decided to move up to Alaska as far
north as they could go and never look at a woman again.
After they got here, they decided to head out to the Klondike just like the old days.
They had some money and wanted to see how tough they were. So they went
north to Whitehorse which is basically the last outpost of
civilization up in the Yukon."
Bulldog paused and took another sip of beer. Then he continued.
"These guys got up there and went straight into a trader's store.
Once these guys got snowed in their cabin, they weren't coming back
till the spring thaw. So they told him, 'Give us enough supplies
to last two men for one year.'
The trader got the gear together and on top of each man's supplies he
laid a board with a hole in it. Both men raised an eyebrow when they
noticed the hole was lined with a pocket of fur.
The guys said, "What's that board for?"
The trader said, "Well, where you're going there are no women and you
might need this."
They said, "No way! We've sworn off women for life!"
The trader said, "Yeah, I know the story. I've heard it before. Well, take the boards with you.
If you don't use
them I'll refund your money next year."
"Okay," they said and left.
The next year, one of the two guys came into the trader's store and
said, 'Give me enough supplies to last one man for one year.'
The trader said, "Weren't you in here last year with a partner?"
"Yeah," said the guy.
"Where is he?" said the trader.
"I shot him," said the guy.
"I caught him in bed with my board."
Now Bulldog took another swig of his beer. Then he smiled. He said,
"That's a true story. Some people up here are weirder than anyone needs
to know. Utter madness."