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Skagway

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Skagway, the site of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, retains the finest collection of false-fronted commercial buildings in the state. A gold-rush boomtown, Skagway had several advantages that ensured its survival. Rather than being the site of a gold strike, Skagway was a major entry point to the Klondike and to the head of the Yukon River. Located at the origin of the arduous White Pass trail to the Klondike, the town competed directly with Dyea, 3 miles west at the foot of the steep Chilkoot Trail. Although the Chilkoot was the more popular route for stampeders, Dyea became a ghost town in 1899. With the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad to Lake Bennett, Skagway provided the easiest access to the Klondike. Growing from a homestead in 1896 to a population of 3,117 in 1900, Skagway saw thousands of people pass through the area in a very short time. Most of these travelers needed temporary accommodations and equipment for their journey, and that is what Skagway provided—hotels, bars, supplies, and prostitutes. The U.S. Army stationed several hundred troops here until 1904, when they removed to Fort Seward, near Haines. Although activity in the Klondike soon subsided, for about ten years Skagway flourished with all the excitement and adventure of the gold rush.

Capt. William Moore, the original homesteader who was determined to profit from his fortunate location, staked his claim and built a wharf. He encouraged investors to build a sawmill, which they did in 1897, ensuring that Skagway would be a wood-frame town. The constant traffic of steamboats from Seattle to Skagway provided a steady supply of other building materials. Thus the wood-framed buildings were ornamented with pressed metal, plate glass, and canvas awnings. Although rapid construction resulted in some shoddy buildings, the application of false fronts to commercial buildings was part of an effort to create the appearance of substantiality—in the short term in order to instill confidence on the part of the customer, and in the long term to ensure the survival of the town.

Skagway sits on the flat land at the mouth of the Skagway River, which drains White Pass. Disregarding Captain Moore's prior claim to the land, Skagway's streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Otherwise they were unexceptional, except that Broadway was 80 feet wide, as compared to 60 feet for the others. The White Pass and Yukon laid its tracks right down the middle of Broadway, and they were not rerouted until 1946. Boardwalks elevated the pedestrians off the muddy streets, and commercial buildings crowded the boardwalks. Residential buildings tended to be set back from the street with side yards.

In 1908, after the turmoil of initial growth had subsided, community leaders made an effort to clean up the town by demolishing deteriorating shacks and moving surviving commercial buildings to Broadway, giving it an appealing density of commercial blocks. By this time, Skagway was already attracting tourists, the mainstay of the economy today. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park includes several blocks of downtown Skagway, and the National Park Service has restored, or is in the process of restoring, about a dozen buildings.

Many of Skagway's gold-rush-era buildings survive. Broadway is still the main commercial thoroughfare; false-fronted buildings still line the street. The early commercial buildings ranged in width from less than 10 feet to 25 feet or so, and examples of all sizes survive. None is particularly tall, although the verticality is emphasized by the narrowness of the false fronts and the application of turrets on corner locations. The boardwalk sidewalks add to the turn-of-the-century atmosphere; Skagway's streets were not paved until 1983 (these photographs were taken in 1982).

Residential buildings are located on all streets other than Broadway. Although the impression of spacious lots is new to Skagway—with a population much less than at its peak, vacant lots abound—the houses are true to their gold-rush-era origins. Most are one story, often built in an L-plan, with hipped or gable roofs. Decorative woodwork, projecting bays, and porches add a touch of Queen Anne to the overall appearance. Both commercial and residential buildings in Skagway employ wood expressively, from varied wall surfaces to applied ornament.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Alison K. Hoagland

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