Skagway is a community at the mouth of the Skagway River, near the head of Taiya Inlet, about 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Juneau and 16 miles (26 km) north-northeast of Haines, Alaska. The town is named after the Skagway River that leads to White Pass. The name Skagway or Skaguay is derived from shԍagéi, a Tlingit idiom that figuratively refers to rough seas in Taiya Inlet that are caused by strong catabatic winds descending from the Coast Mountains. The Tlingit people have lived in this area for thousands of years and the historical village of Dyea at the mouth of the Taiya River was the terminus of an ancient trade route over Chilkoot Pass. The Tlingit traded with Athabaskan people of the interior and later acted as middlemen in trading between the Russians and the interior people. Chilkoot Pass was off-limits for non-Tlingits until 1879 when Commander Lester A. Beardsley of the U.S. Navy was able to reach an agreement with the Tlingits which allowed Euro-Americans to use the pass. This agreement became significant when gold was discovered in the Canadian Klondike.
In 1887, William Moore joined the Canadian government boundary survey party headed by William Ogilvie, a Canadian Dominion land surveyor, to establish the location of the boundary between the Yukon and Alaska on the 141st meridian west. The party was in Chilkoot Pass when Moore heard tales of another route from the coast to the Yukon River, and with Keish of the Tagish First Nation, also known as Skookum Jim, started up the Skagway River and went over the 45-mile (72 km) long pass, meeting up with the Ogilvie party at Bennett Lake. When Ogilvie heard of this new route, he named it White Pass, after Thomas White who was the Canadian Minister of the Interior. Moore heard speculation that gold would soon be discovered in the Yukon and that White Pass could be the preferred access route. He went to Juneau and loaded up with supplies and swiftly returned through Lynn Canal to the mouth of the Skagway River where he preempted 160 acres (65 ha) for a homestead and built a log cabin, a sawmill, and constructed a wharf. He named the settlement Mooresville. In 1891, he asked the U.S. Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble for a contract to build a road through White Pass, but this request was ignored, so he built a primitive trail over White Pass. In 1894, the Canadian North-West Mounted Police arrived at Dyea and Mooresville on their way to Fort Selkirk. In 1896, when Moore was 74, he won the contract to deliver mail on the 600-mile (970 km) long route from Juneau to Forty Mile, Yukon. On one mail trip, he met George Carmack, who had just staked a claim on a small creek named Rabbit Creek, soon to be Bonanza Creek, just off of the Klondike River. On 29 July 1897, the mail steamer SS Queen would be the first of the gold rush flotilla to dock at Moore’s wharf, followed by SS Islander and the collier Willamette. Mooresville became a boomtown overnight, and the stampeders took over. In August, the first group of prospectors hiked up Moore’s crude trail and over White Pass. The trail ended at Bennett Lake, where the prospectors built or purchased rafts or boats to float down the Yukon River to the Klondike gold fields near Dawson City. Moore did not anticipate the numbers of gold seekers and they soon pushed Moore aside and took over ownership of his land. Mooresville was soon resurveyed by Frank Reid as Skagway. Moore’s crude trail was made into a toll road by George A. Brackett, and the North-West Mounted Police guarded the passes and briefly maintained a post in Skagway, which Canada still claimed. In 1897–98 the gold rush enormously increased the population of the general area, which reached 30,000, composed largely of Americans. Some 100,000 fortune seekers moved through Alaska to the Klondike gold region. Due to the harsh climate, grueling conditions, and length of journey, novice travelers on both the Chilkoot Trail and White Pass suffered from widespread starvation and reputedly made meals of the hundreds of dead horses found along the trail.
The White Pass trail was an easier route to Bennett Lake than the Chilkoot Trail, but it harbored a criminal element that preyed on gullible gold seekers. These gangsters and con artists were believed to be members of the infamous Soapy Smith gang who controlled most of Skagway and Dyea. In 1898, Smith was killed at the famed Shootout on Juneau Wharf and his gang was run out of Skagway. In 1898, construction began on the White Pass and Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge railway 325 miles (523 km) long that paralleled Moore’s trail through White Pass. Three separate companies were organized to build the rail link connecting Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon. A 3 ft (914 mm) gauge was chosen by the railway contract builder Michael J. Heney. The narrow roadbed greatly reduced costs since the roadbed had to be blasted from solid rock. Even so, by mid-February 1899, 450 tons (408,233 kg) of explosives had been used to reach the summit of White Pass at an elevation of 2,885 feet (879 m) and only 20 miles (32 km) away from Skagway. The railway reached Bennett, British Columbia on July 6, 1899. In the summer of 1899, construction started north from Carcross to Whitehorse, 110 miles (177 km) north of Skagway. The construction crews working from Bennett along a difficult lakeshore reached Carcross the next year, and the last spike was driven on July 29, 1900, with service starting on August 1, 1900. By then much of the gold rush fever had died down. Today, Skagway is connected to the road system via the Klondike Highway, completed in 1978, allowing access to the Yukon and the Alaska Highway. Skagway is an important terminal for the Alaska Marine Highway ferries servicing Southeast Alaska and is a popular stop for cruise ships. Read more here and here. Explore more of Skagway and Taiya Inlet here: