Reinventing Skagway

By David T. Schaller

miner With his weatherbeaten face tucked between a bushy red beard and battered felt hat, Jim Skipper is not most employer's dream candidate. "If I walked into a place in the Lower 48," he notes dryly, "I would be subject to arrest."

But he had no trouble finding a job in Skagway, Alaska. A sightseeing tour company snatched him up to play a sourdough on the Klondike gold trail. Alongside the wooded trail he hosts champagne brunches for tour groups who want a taste of wild and woolly Alaska. And though Skipper laments sugarcoating the frontier, he's eager to exploit the current boom. Tourism is the new gold rush, he says, and "I want this tourist dollar."

Skipper is typical of Skagway, Alaska, population 700, where townspeople have recreated the era of the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush for tourists. Their restoration runs deeper than anyone intended, however, for they have also revived the town's original economy--milking visitors--which made early Skagway a haven for opportunists, thieves and swindlers. In fact, as I discovered on a visit there in 1988, the inner workings of the town are a lot more faithful to history than the facade raised for tourists. A cutthroat business climate hides behind the false-fronted buildings, making Skagway a good example of the demands which tourism makes of history.

My curiosity about Skagway was kindled by colorful stories of the gold rush. Sitting at the head of the Lynn Canal, the northernmost fjord of Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage, Skagway was a natural conduit to the Klondike. Founded to service and swindle the tens of thousands of gold-crazy stampeders passing through it, the town became notoriously rough, "little better than a hell on earth," a Canadian Mountie said. Day and night, gunfire rang out on Broadway, the main street, and spilled out of one of the many saloons in town. Merchants, prostitutes and thieves hustled stampeders, restrained by nothing more than their talent, imagination, and scruples. These opportunists mixed with such eccentrics as a dancing bear from Russia, a man who stuffed an incredible number of China eggs into his mouth, and a balloon vendor from Italy, in a carnival of greed, deceit and violence.

Out of this chaos emerged Jefferson Randall "Soapy" Smith and his gang of con men. A sophisticated, power-hungry swindler, Soapy knew that Skagway rather than the Klondike goldfields was the mother lode, and he quickly established a profitable operation. Though a con man to his core, Soapy liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy, a role enhanced by his hound dog eyes and Dixieland manners. He gave money to widows and quelled lynchings with campaign-style rhetoric, while operating a ring of thieves and swindlers who fleeced stampeders with cards, dice, shells and armed robbery. His telegraph office epitomized the man's artifice. Soapy charged five dollars to send a message anywhere in the world. Eager to send news of their adventures to folks back home, no one bothered to peer behind the shack where the telegraph wire petered out in the brush. Yet within hours of sending a telegram, a reply was bound to come--collect, of course.

Soapy sought more than mere financial success. Through bribes, intimidation, a comprehensive spy network and his private militia, the Skagway Guards, Soapy established himself as the dictator of Skagway, controlling the newspaper and Deputy U.S. Marshall as well as the vast array of thieves and con men roaming the town. Soapy won the reluctant acceptance of merchants with such sops to civic loyalty as forbidding thieves from robbing townspeople. Frightened by the rampant lawlessness, businessmen preferred such ersatz order to the chaos which might otherwise erupt.

Downtown Skagway As long as gold fever drew stampeders north with no thought to their own security, Skagway's reputation hardly hurt business. Townspeople even blessed this notoriety by making Soapy Smith the marshal of their Independence Day parade. But when one of Soapy's thugs robbed a southbound miner of his year's gold diggings, merchants finally realized that law and order had become vital to the town's economy. So on July 8, 1898, the people of Skagway made the first move in what would eventually become an all-consuming effort--reinventing Skagway. Frank Reid, leader of a vigilante group determined to bring law and order to the town, killed Smith and was himself mortally wounded in a shootout on the city docks. Townspeople honored Reid with an enormous tomb marking his sacrifice "for the honor of Skagway." No one in the town of ten thousand volunteered to bury Soapy Smith's body.

Skagway's lawless days ended just as a new industry in town removed the need for that desperate scramble for money. In 1899 the White Pass & Yukon Route completed its railway from Skagway to the Yukon. The town settled into its new role and prospered with the railroad for 83 years. But after losing its chief ore-hauling contract in 1982, the railroad shut down, nearly taking the town with it. Desperate once again, townspeople returned to their roots. Skagway had serviced the stampeders in the 1890's; it would service the tourists in the 1980's.

"We're in the business of history," Jay Cable, Chief Ranger of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, told me. "Not dressing it up, not necessarily cleaning it up, but what actually took place in Skagway." Responding to a growing interest in historic preservation, Congress created the Park in 1976; by 1982 the National Park Service had purchased many of the remaining gold rush-era buildings in town. Despite Cable's claim, the Park Service had little choice but to sanitize historic Skagway. Caught as usual in its contradictory mandate, which demands both conservation and a safe, accessible park for visitors, the Park Service bowed to the wishes of townspeople who naturally had no desire for an authentic recreation. The railroad had laid off 167 men--a third of the town's work force--so economic necessity called for attracting as many tourists as possible. And that called not for history but for Disneyland.

Ironically, many of the townspeople I spoke with had fallen in love with Skagway because of its historic flavor. Steve Hites, who epitomizes the tourist industry with his two jobs--managing both the revived railroad and his own Skagway Streetcar Company--also revels in his role as witness to the recreation of Skagway. Hites came to Skagway hoping to work for the narrow-gauge railroad, but it was the town that captivated him. The ramshackle ambiance intrigued him, "the way the ghosts had been left to play. [It] had a beautiful air of dilapidation."

Some, however, disagreed. Many of the false-fronted buildings on Broadway were dusty, faded and boarded up. Heavy rains turned the dirt streets into muddy ponds, making foot travel treacherous for older residents and visitors. Merchants were tired of sweeping their stores out every day and replacing windows shattered by rocks flipped up by passing trucks. "It was," Steve Hites admits, "a little bit too much frontier."

So the City decided to pave the streets of Skagway. And though no one claims it was done strictly for tourists, paving Broadway played a fundamental role in the reinvention of Skagway. Just as killing Soapy Smith made Skagway more inviting for miners returning from the Klondike, paving Broadway signaled the town's determination to welcome tourists. "Paving Broadway," Steve Hites says, "was the greatest statement we made that we were willing to be what people thought they saw here. [It] saved the town so that it would be able to show off its fronts as they would have looked on a sunny day in 1898."

Yet this sanitized Skagway, the town's public persona, is only an echo of 1898--"how Skagway would have looked if everyone had been a millionaire," according to Skip Elliot, an infamous "Dyea Hippie" until he was elected mayor in 1987. Though townspeople and tourists alike prefer this contemporary polish to Soapy Smith's reign of terror and charity, some still regret the loss of that gritty veneer.

"How the mighty have fallen, friends," Steve Hites laments, pointing out a gold rush saloon-turned-frozen yogurt bar. Since his youth in Colorado, Hites has opposed growth and development. "I didn't want to 'John Denver' Colorado," he says. He came to Skagway in 1972 and thought, "My God, this place looks like Colorado in 1956--before anything happened. Before the corporations got ahold of it."

He told me this while garbed in a vintage three-piece suit with pocket watch, his Skagway Streetcar costume, sitting in his White Pass & Yukon Route office. For in 1988, he found himself responsible for resurrecting the railroad--strictly as a tourist attraction. A train without a destination, the railroad simply runs from the Skagway depot to the summit of the White Pass and back. Now, Hites says, leaning over a desk strewn with copies of TravelAge Magazine, "My job is to Walt Disney Alaska. This is not a railroad, this is an entertainment enterprise." He calls this about-face "mind-boggling" even as he asserts the need for it. "There are no jobs in those mountains. They're beautiful, but you can't eat them." There are jobs mining the imagination of the tourist, however, and Hites believes that Skagway's survival depends on such revisionist history. When tourists think of Alaska, he says, "they think of Skagway. They think of an image of a town that looks like Skagway."

That image, of course, is a far cry from historical reality, and it takes a foreign perspective to see contemporary Skagway as the bizarre and shocking place it was during the gold rush. A perspective provided, one day, by a group of Japanese tourists holding tickets for a reconstructed gold rush camp called Tent City.

Tour buses deposited the Japanese several miles outside of town at the end of a dirt road. Buckwheat Donahue, the closest most visitors come to a twinkly-eyed bear, greeted them with his usual schtick: "I holler and crash out of the trees and I'm howling and growling and I grab all the ladies and pick them up in the air and twirl them around and give them a big hug and shoo their men inside." The Japanese were horrified, of course, and began running back up the road toward Skagway, toward their cruise ship, toward Japan. For once, Skagway had lived up to its ferocious reputation.

Buckwheat himself conjures up images of rugged frontiersmen. Like Soapy Smith, Buckwheat came to Skagway from Colorado, where he had dealt in oil and gas leases. His introduction to Skagway came as an unexpected detour on a visit to Alaska. He passed out after drinking his fill at a party on the State Ferry, missed his stop in Juneau, and woke up outside of Skagway. "I've been here ever since." Much like the man who stuffed China eggs into his mouth during the gold rush, Buckwheat was surprised at the opportunities for employment in Skagway. "This is a lot more fun than selling oil and gas leases in Oklahoma."

Every day of the summer, Buckwheat hoists dozens of women into the air and shoos their men into Tent City, a clearing in the woods ringed by canvas wall tents, a log storehouse and several troughs of water by a creek. Dozens of gold pans sit on the wooden railing near the troughs. Though the Klondike goldfields lie 500 miles north, and no one has found much gold near the town, the image of Skagway--of Alaska--glitters with gold fever. Along with every other panning concession in the North, Tent City guarantees gold in every pan. They can do this because they spike or "salt" the pans with a few flakes of gold, ready to be discovered beneath a clump of dirt.

I visited Tent City with a group of tourists who appeared strikingly close to the statistical average age for tourists in wild and woolly Alaska--68. No cross-cultural revelations here. They were too excited about panning for gold to do more than chuckle at Buckwheat's antics. Half the group, in fact, bypassed pastries and cider in order to pan, until Buckwheat herded them back so proprietor Jan Wrentmore, known on the premises as "Madam Jan," could begin the show. A political lobbyist in the winter, the Madam emcees Tent City in the summer. She introduces Dawson, an enormous MacKenzie River husky who knows one trick, shaking paws for a dog biscuit.

Next, Madam Jan announced that Bruce would demonstrate how to pan for gold. "Bruce!" she called. No Bruce. Jan prompted the audience. "One-two-three"..."Bruuuuce!" everyone shouted. Bruce came running, his shirttails hanging out, his suspenders down, his arm around a woman in period dress. He pulled his suspenders up and said, "That's my one trick. I get one a day, just like Dawson."

Bruce Weber has a Ph.D in history--one of Skagway's many "overeducated underachievers," as Skip Elliot--himself an MIT alum--says. (Says Elliot: "We have a bowling team where you've got to have two degrees or a Master's to play.") Weber lives in a log cabin he built in the woods, managing Tent City and tending bar at the Red Onion Saloon. "I always envisioned that once I got my Ph.D I would eventually teach somewhere in the mountains and have that kind of life. It never happened." Instead, Weber wound up in Skagway, deciding that the lifestyle was more important than the job. With a frontier spirit reminiscent of the stampeders, he finds Skagway invigorating because "to survive in the north you need as many skills as possible." Weber's survival skills include chopping wood, tending bar, telling bad jokes, and marketing Tent City to multi-national corporations.

Panning for gold Bruce demonstrated how to pan for gold, tourist style. Rather than dump a shovelful of dirt and mud into the pan, wade into a swift glacial stream, squat down, swirl and wash the pan again and again until all the mud rinses out, and peer into the pan hoping for a glimpse of color against the dingy metal, only to be disappointed but so possessed by the fever that you do it again and again, shovelful after shovelful, ignoring the ache in your back, the chill in your feet, and the gnawing doubt in your mind that this stream bears any gold at all -- rather than that, gold panning in Alaska today involves dipping your pan into a waist-high trough of sun-warmed water, your confidence backed by a guarantee of gold, and washing away a handful of dirt placed on top of a few flakes of gold.

In this way, Tent City sells the thrill of Klondike gold fever but provides an imitation as pale as an Alaskan tan. By watering down the experience while guaranteeing the payoff, it perpetuates Soapy Smith's tactics with an ironic twist. Smith sold the experience and satisfaction of sending a telegram home without anyone receiving it; Tent City sells flakes of gold without the true experience of panning. Stampeders paid for the result, tourists pay for the experience, yet neither get what they wanted. The only real drama is whether you get five flakes and your spouse gets seven, or vice versa.

Yet everyone stampeded for the pans once Bruce finished his demonstration. A few white-haired tourists warbled, "Go-o-old!" when they saw their flakes, but most simply washed the dirt away and carefully inserted their gold into the tiny vials provided by Bruce and Buckwheat.

Buckwheat brought the group back to the benches so he could read--reenact, really--a Robert Service verse. Service, the de facto poet laureate of Alaska and the Yukon, wrote such poems as "The Cremation of Sam McGee" ("There are strange things done in the Midnight Sun/By the men who moil for gold") which is perversely funny in a schoolboyish way--a pinnacle in kitsch poetry. But as kitsch, familiar since high school English, it lacks the shock value it once held.

Unless you're used to haiku. Already ruffled from their initial encounter with Buckwheat, those Japanese tourists found scant comfort in his rendition of "The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill." Their translator related the narrative of the poem, though the meter undoubtedly suffered. As Buckwheat described sawing off Bill's frozen limbs to fit him into his coffin, the Japanese tourists' eyes widened in wonderment and horror: "These westerners are strange people."

Madam Jan wrapped up the program with stories of early Skagway prostitutes. Tales of her own Red Onion Saloon were amusing even as they disturbed me. Customers could check the availability of their favorite prostitute by looking at the tin dolls arrayed behind the bar. If their choice was sitting upright, then head upstairs. If lying down, "well, have another drink and wait your turn," as a 1988 newspaper article put it. Jan Wrentmore defends her interpretation. "I'm not trying to romanticize the occupation," she says, "only to show it for what it was; a difficult way to make a living, something that required a tough breed of woman to survive." But bowdlerizing the context, the rough and violent world of the gold rush, reduces that necessary toughness to merely a knack for playing the boys' games: Is the tin doll on her feet or on her back?

Like most tourist attractions in Skagway, Tent City whitewashes the brutality of the past, painting over it the bold brushstrokes of nostalgia. It succeeds despite my qualms because of a collective yearning for a past which never existed; the myth seduces because the facts repel. The depth of this self-deception struck me only after another tourist told me he hoped to stay in the Skagway Inn with his wife. "I hear it used to be a cathouse," he confided. Instinctively I countered that my hotel had been one too, before realizing how ludicrous my response sounded. That either of us would find romance in the ghosts of frontier prostitution suggests how warped our view of the wild west has become.

Tent City epitomizes the effort townspeople have made to soft-spoon the harsh realities of early Skagway, steering away from any true revival of the gold rush. Even such a staple of the frontier as gambling raises controversy here. Though the issue passed in a local referendum, opposition to even city-run tourist casinos has held sway. (In contrast, little debate surrounded the creation of a casino in Dawson City, Yukon--destination of the gold rush and another tourist town. "This is a gambling town," City Treasurer Henry Procyk told me simply. "People love it.")

Decrying Skagway's sanitized version of history would be absurd, however, had I not discovered a remarkably accurate recreation of history behind the false fronts. Soapy Smith has endured as Skagway's paterfamilias; his superficial propriety hid a scheming money grubber just as Skagway's current facade hides a desperate struggle for the tourist dollar. Townspeople get the history wrong but the commerce right.

Duff Ray, an affable man with an open manner, laughs at the mania rampant on Broadway even as he finds himself caught up in it. Like a gold rush merchant trying to snag the business of transients, Ray cut an enormous ice cream cone from a piece of wood and hung it above the door of his Kone Kompany ice cream parlor. The cone stuck out over the street, catching the attention of anyone on Broadway. Ray thought it was perfectly in tune with historic Skagway. Signs then, he says, were "real visual. Big letters, big objects."

In modern Skagway, however, it was a controversial sign. Taking advantage of the modern notion of zoning, a rival ice cream parlor pointed out the sign and the regulations it violated to the City's Historic District Commission. Fighting for his historically accurate sign with historically accurate fervor, Ray dug up photographs from early Skagway of iconic silhouette signs--a teapot for a tea room, a shoe for a cobbler. He presented them to the Commission and won the right to display his Kone. And the thought of unleashing a citywide revival of authentic but unsightly signage spurred the Commission to complete its comprehensive sign ordinance.

Facades are easier to regulate than interiors, however, be they physical or emotional. The intense three-month tourism season, which accounts for 70% of the City's tax revenues, inevitably prompts a cut-throat business climate much like that of the gold rush. Anything which disturbs the precarious economy is resented--even if it happens to be, in the summer of 1988, the reopening of the railroad. Everyone I spoke to recalled somebody grumbling that the railroad would take tourists away from the shops on Broadway. Much of this fear drew from memories of the late 1970s, and early 1980s, when tourism was thin and few visitors lingered in town after their train trip. Comparisons to the past are misleading, however, because the number of visitors to Skagway increased fivefold between 1982 and 1988. Nevertheless, Steve Hites, whose right hand competes with his left, admits that business for his own Skagway Streetcar Company is down 38% because of the railroad's reopening. But he believes that his success with the railroad will trickle down to his Streetcar Company. "Thanks to the White Pass reopening, we have driven a nail in this end of the Lynn Canal," and cruise ships will have to "hit the nail" to make their tour of Southeast Alaska complete.

Such confidence is common along Broadway, yet a fearful undercurrent pervades conversations with merchants. The history buffs in town (which is to say, almost everyone) know that "Boom and Bust," Alaska' leitmotif, has swayed every economic windfall since white people arrived in the land. Townspeople would rather not repeat this aspect of the gold rush, and they boast of evidence which suggests they may not have to. Every year between 1982 and 1988, Skagway attracted 20% more tourists. With nearly 300,000 tourists in 1988, the town is right on track of the rising curve of tourism postulated by a 1970s study, which predicts one million visitors to Southeast Alaska in 2000--twice the population of the entire state. And the train, which many see as crucial to the town's future prosperity, may make more money hauling tourists than it ever did hauling lead-zinc ore.

What's more, tourists are a renewable resource. "You can deplete the oil and you can deplete the minerals," says former mayor Bill Feero, "but you can't deplete tourists. They go home and tell all of their friends to come."

In 1898, Skagway provided what stampeders wanted--a route to the gold. Contemporary Skagway provides what tourists want. "This sounds crazy," admits Mike Sica, the town's radio reporter, "but when terrorists start blowing people away on ships in the Mediterranean, no one's happy about that, but the silver lining is that it's better for Skagway tourism." The town is appealing precisely because tourists believe that Soapy Smith now resides not in Skagway but in the Middle East.

But behind the carefully raised facade of this spotless Frontierland, brimming with blithe prostitutes and guaranteed gold, Soapy's legacy thrives. Cabbies, often the first locals who tourists meet, have been known to jump into a competitor's cab and tell the startled passengers: "These people are ripping you off. I can do it cheaper. They're not real Alaskans."

Faced with such vulgar opportunism, irritated tourists are likely to complain, "We didn't come all the way up here just to visit a tourist trap." But of course, they have.

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