Saloons, Prostitutes and Temperance in Alaska: a book review

In my years as curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City, I learned one thing: that gold rush stereotypes are difficult to overcome. Take the frontier brothel, for example.

In my years as curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City, I learned one thing: that gold rush stereotypes are difficult to overcome.

Take the frontier brothel, for example. One summer we polled visitors who looked at the window displays in various historical buildings scattered around Dawson. Several of the people we interviewed were men who, I noted, had their wives photograph them standing on the doorstep of Ruby’s Place, a former brothel now designated a national historic site.

When interviewed about the content of the window displays at Ruby’s Place, the people didn’t seem to receive the messages presented in the display. Instead, they imposed their pre-established notions about prostitution on the frontier.

Similarly, Catherine Holder Spude, in her new book, Saloons, Prostitutes and Temperance in Alaska Territory notes that when visitors arrive in Skagway, they aren’t exposed to the authentic prostitute in a shapeless muslin gown or well-dressed dance hall girls. Instead, they see (and believe them to be genuine) women dressed in costumes more fitting to Barbary Coast saloons.

Spude can speak with authority on the saloons, gambling and prostitution in the coastal Alaskan town of Skagway. She was introduced to the topic through her work there as an archaeologist when, in 1983, she was assigned to excavate a trench to the Peniel Mission, a building constructed in 1900 on Sixth Avenue. Later that year, she entered graduate school, which eventually led to her conducting statistical analysis of the collection of artifacts from the site to determine how much of the remains could be related to saloons and prostitution.

What followed were years of study of newspaper accounts, genealogical sources and a rich collection of old city records. The result is Saloons, Prostitutes and Temperance, which is rich in the story of vice and reform told through the lives of the “individuals who lived, worked, exploited, profited, used, benefited or lost their fortunes in their interactions with saloons, restricted districts, politics and reform.” Further, Spude describes how vice in Skagway led to women obtaining the right to vote.

Skagway came into existence as an entry port to the interior when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896. Its survival was assured when the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad was completed to Whitehorse in 1900. Skagway’s transient population spiked at 7,000 to 8,000 – predominantly men – during the stampede. By December of 1898, there were no less than 89 saloons in operation.

The tiny port city witnessed the reign of con artist Soapy Smith and the subsequent concentration of prostitutes’ cribs in a red light district along an alley between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Changing demographics and social and political events led to the relocation in 1901 of the cribs to a “restricted district” on Seventh Avenue, farther from the curious eyes of children attending Union School on Fifth Avenue.

In 1906, gambling was prohibited in Skagway. In 1909, the restricted district was relocated again. The vote was granted under the Women Suffrage Act of 1913. June 6, 1916, the City of Skagway refused to renew the licenses of the four remaining saloons, bringing that era to an end, and in 1917, the restricted area was closed for good. All of these events are connected.

Saloons, gambling and prostitution were at the centre of social change in Skagway in the first decades of the 20th century. Skagway, because of the labour force building, and then later operating the railroad, had a high proportion of single working-class men. Spude details the cultural divide between the middle class and management on one side and the labouring class on the other. The balance of political power shifted back and forth between the two elements for several years.

The middle class merchants and power brokers eventually realized that their wives, who embraced the temperance movement had common shared interests. Gold rush Skagway had an imbalance of men that outnumbered women by a factor of at least four to one. The working class labour-based male population was disposed to drinking, gambling and prostitution.

The middle class was more inclined toward what today would be called “family values” – temperance, attending church, accumulating wealth, pursuing education and self-control. Giving women the vote would double middle class electoral power in the polling booths and tip the scales away from the labour ticket. It’s an intriguing interplay of forces masterfully articulated by Spude in a readable fashion in her introduction to the book.

The main body of the book, excluding the opening and closing chapters, is an interesting and informed narrative of the people and the events surrounding vice in Skagway. Using an impressive volume of information, Spude fleshes out the characters, making them very human indeed. She tracks their antics, their disputes and their interests over the period from the gold rush and over the following decades.

It is revealing to learn that prominent citizens of Skagway were the landlords of the very profitable cribs that they rented out. Revenues from licenses and fines financed the schools and teachers in Skagway.

In the final chapter, Spude tracks many of the personalities from her narrative and describes their fates after they left Skagway. John Troy, the newspaperman who stirred up local affairs for many years, went on to become the governor of Alaska. One of the prominent prostitutes, Kitty Faith, gave up her life of vice and moved to a quiet suburb of San Francisco with her carpenter husband Chris Wandsted. Others lived long and comfortable lives; some were less fortunate. Whatever the case, knowing their eventual fates provides an interesting closure to the detailed narratives.

Saloons, Prostitutes and Temperance in Alaska Territory is one of the best books to address the topic of vice before and after the gold rush that I have read. It wipes away many of the often repeated myths and misconceptions about the subject. It is a good read and I think that readers will enjoy it. And I shall never regard the Red Onion in Skagway the way that I did before.

Saloons, Prostitutes and Temperance in Alaska Territory, by Catherine Holder Spude, is published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It is 326 pages long, and contains 25 pages of end notes, 11 pages of bibliography and an index. There are 25 black and white photos 3 maps and three tables.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net