A mannequin of Soapy Smith drinks at the Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum in Skagway. The former saloon now showcases the criminal history of Skagway. (Andrew Seal/Yukon News)

Skagway’s gold rush park offers view of the Gold Rush’s ugly side

New exhibits reveal the history of racism, prostitution and theft during Chilkoot trail era

Skagway has long drawn visitors from all over the world who are hoping to catch a glimpse into the town’s notorious past. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park does more than that. With interactive displays, film screenings, historical buildings and tours, visitors are transported back to an anarchic era.

This year, the park added a new tour to tell stories of the women of Skagway, often overlooked in a town full of determined men seeking gold at the end of gruelling mountain passes and treacherous rivers. Some of the women captured moments through photographs, others baked apple pies for the miners and made a fortune, and some offered dancing and entertainment services. The stories of the courage of men have been retold countless times but the resilience of women hasn’t often been touched on.

Benjamin Hayes, chief of interpretation and education at the park, wants to change that.

“We need to challenge the taboo around talking about prostitution. (Approximately) 150-200 women were in the sex industry in Skagway during the gold rush, and many of them were trafficked here,” he said.

Skagway even had a so-called “Jap Alley,” an exclusive area for Japanese sex workers who were trafficked into the town. Women were only called upon for their services and didn’t enjoy any rights in town.

“Just by being a woman, you didn’t have as many choices with jobs or the ability to do things like going to a bar without permission,” said Benjamin. The park is now looking more into the role of women in the Gold Rush to expand its new tour.

* * *

Another unique tour carried over from last year was the Buffalo Soldiers tour, focused on the African American soldiers who were sent to Skagway to maintain a semblance of law and order. The tour consists of a walk through the city, showcasing Company L of the 24th Infantry, comprised of 112 soldiers led by Captain Henry Walter Hovey. The soldiers, who were instrumental in protecting the town’s citizens from guns, floods and fires, built their barracks on Broadway, where the Lynch & Kennedy building now stands. It was the only building at the time that had blast stoves and plumbing.

However, Alaska wasn’t immune to the racism spreading across the United States during the Jim Crow era. Locals protested when 30 men of the company joined the local YMCA, objecting to a desegregated club. But a letter published in the Skagway News by the head of YMCA at the time, declared “Christianity knows no race” and refused to give in to the demands of the locals. But the black soldiers chose to stay away because they felt they weren’t welcome.

Despite that, the men persevered, joining the local Baptist Church and forming a baseball team that eventually led to a healthy rivalry with the Skagway team, made up of railroad employees and firemen. Three years to the day after they arrived, the company bid goodbye to the town with a ball. But leaving on such short notice meant that the rivalry for the baseball championship cup ended with a tie.

* * *

Last year also saw the opening of Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum. The building was once a saloon that was the home of the notorious “Soapy” Smith’s criminal enterprise. Smith was a con artist and a gangster who controlled much of Skagway with his gang. They operated a fake telegraph office and rigged gambling games, targeting the riches of successful returning gold rushers. The gang paid off the town’s meagre police force so it could run its schemes with impunity.

However, resistance to Smith’s swindling and lawlessness soon mounted. Locals formed a committee and attempted to west control over the town from Smith. After a returning miner had most of his gold taken by Smith’s henchmen, the committee held a large meeting on Juneau Wharf and demanded Smith turn the men in. As Smith tried to approach the meeting a gunfight broke out which left Smith dead and another man fatally wounded.

This was the end of Smith’s criminal empire and his saloon soon fell empty. The building was later used as a garage by the local fire department for a while, but sat vacant for many years. In 1935, Skagway’s tourism pioneer, Martin Itjen, bought the building and renovated it to look just as it had in 1898 and opened the Soapy Smith Museum, one of the first museums in Alaska. Visitors would learn about Smith’s swindling schemes, the history of the Gold Rush, and see other Alaskan curiosities, such as two moose whose antlers became locked in combat. Itjen even installed moving mannequins as part of the experience.

The museum operated intermittently until 1986, after which it sat closed and decaying for over 20 years. It was donated to the National Park Service in 2008, which then began a long, tedious process of restoring the building and saving its artifacts.

“It took eight years of hard work, excavation, and restoration to get the museum open,” said Hayes.

The museum opened in April 2016 with guided tours by park staff throughout the day.

Contact Sharon Nadeem at sharon.nadeem@yukon-news.com & Andrew Seal at andrew.seal@yukon-news.com

 

Paul Sincic Collection/Alaskan State Library Company L of the 24th Infantry marches down 5th Avenue in Skagway for American Independence Day.

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