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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited internet options beginning Dec. 1. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet for some available Dec. 1

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited… Continue reading

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Most Read