New book reveals early Skagway

Captain William Moore was tough as nails. He had to be. At age 71, the Canadian old-timer was still mushing dog teams into the Yukon.

Captain William Moore was tough as nails. He had to be. At age 71, the Canadian old-timer was still mushing dog teams into the Yukon. Having just delivered Canadian mail to the mining camp at the mouth of the Fortymile River, he was caught by circumstances, and was trapped in the interior the fall and early winter of 1896. He returned to the Alaskan coast over the winter snows in January of 1897.

While he was in the interior, he saw the birth of Dawson City and realized that something big was about to happen. Moore had foreseen the gold rush by 10 years and had staked 75 hectares near the mouth of the Skagway River, at the head of the Lynn Canal. He reasoned that the White Pass, which had a lower summit and an easier grade to the top, would make an excellent route to the interior if gold was ever discovered.

Yet despite all of the time, labour and money invested in this property, he lost it all in just two weeks once the gold rush stampede commenced. Why it happened, when it happened and how it happened are the questions asked in the book The Founding of Skagway, by Alaskan historian M.J. Kirchhoff, which has just reached Whitehorse bookstands.

In this tightly written account of the early days in Skagway, Kirchhoff traces the genesis of the gold rush portal. The book recounts the arrival of the earliest boats at Skagway after the news of the gold discovery in the Klondike broke Outside. What followed was a stream of heavily overloaded ships carrying men, women, animals and supplies to the head of the Lynn Canal. There, they had to decide whether to get off at Skagway, and go over the lower White Pass, or cast their fate with Dyea and attempt the precipitous climb over the Chilkoot summit.

This book recounts the horrors of the Dead Horse Trail, yet does not fall back on Jack London’s colourful description to do so. Instead, it includes passages from less well known sources. The author lightens the tone of this chapter of his book by concluding with some stories with happy endings.

At first, the White Pass trail was not very serviceable, and the new arrivals piled up along the shore and into the future town site. Chaos reigned. There was no leadership to steer the development of the community. Self-interest, greed and crime were the guiding elements in the early days. Among the first arrivals in the new town was confidence man Jefferson Randoph “Soapy” Smith.

Smith set up his shell game and started bilking unsuspecting passersby, until a vigilance committee sent them packing out of town to Liarsville, six kilometres away. In just three weeks, he cleared $20,000, but he was quickly driven out of the country and didn’t return for several months. Meanwhile, another Smith arrived on the scene to capitalize on the frenzy and chaos that was Skagway in the early days.

John U. Smith was the first government official to arrive in Skagway on July 30, 1897. He was paid a salary of $1,000 per year, plus any fees that he collected – and that’s where he made his money. Every time he sold a lot in the town site, he received a fee of $5, so he issued title for the same lots several times over, collecting more fees each time. He so outraged the transitory citizenry by his shenanigans that he eventually had to move to Dyea, the competing port, to avoid the heat. And he practiced the same shady dealings in Dyea that he had in Skagway.

The stampeders at Skagway turned to a journalist named Sylvester Scovel, who proposed to improve the White Pass trail to make it more passable.

But when his employer, the newspaper The New York World, discovered what he was up to, they reassigned him elsewhere, and there was no one else to fill the vacuum.

There was a fierce competition between Skagway and Dyea, and in the early stages of the stampede, it appeared that Dyea was going to come out on top. One vessel, the Williamette, arrived at Skagway with a load of lumber, but Skagway appeared to be dying; instead the lumber was sold in Dyea, where a new tramway was under construction.

On Aug. 6, the claim jumpers started staking land on the flats at the mouth of the Skagway River. Soon the mob was too big to stop, and the Moores could no longer keep the jumpers off their homestead. “You can’t fight City Hall,” they say, but in this case, there was no city hall, and the only government official in town was only too happy to sell the same lots to someone else, and collect another fee.

In the end, Kirchhoff summarizes what happened to all the key players in this story, not all of whom have been named in this review. You will learn the fate of Captain Moore and his stolen land, what happened to both of the Smiths, and what happened to the town of Skagway.

What is refreshing about Kirchhoff’s book is that it takes a new look at the events that unfolded in the earliest days of the town. All too often, contemporary writers resort to a retelling of Pierre Berton’s classic gold rush narrative. Here, the author has sought out new material that imparts a new perspective upon the well-worn story of Skagway.

And if The Founding of Skagway succeeds in answering the questions posed at the beginning of the book, I think that its real strength lies in fulfilling the title by explaining how events unfolded in the early days of the gold rush and how the town of Skagway came to be.

There is new material here that readers of gold rush history would find interesting and informative, and I personally recommend it.

The Founding of Skagway, by M.J. Kirchhoff, is published by Alaska Cedar Press, of Juneau. Included within its 102 pages are 24 illustrations, including newspaper headlines, hand-drawn sketches, cartoons and photographs from the period. The images are well chosen, and though not the clearest, they are easily enjoyed.

Kirchhoff also chose to include three maps reproduced from the era, rather than create a contemporary graphic. The book includes a three-page bibliography and 15 pages of explanatory end notes.

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.

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