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The Historic Harbor at Skagway, Alaska

    The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is generally given the credit for starting the rush that would make Skagway's harbor famous around the world, with its headline "Gold! Gold! Gold!" on July 17, 1897. Within hours, ships were sailing from Seattle for the north, particularly for the remote harbors at Skagway and neighbouring Dyea, 1,000 miles north. Men quit their jobs, left their families , and, often ill prepared, began the race to gold fields that they knew virtually nothing about.

    Although Skagway and Dyea were in competition to be the gateway port to the gold fields and they both had trails through the mountains, only Skagway had a deep-water harbor. Captain William Moore had predicted a gold rush in the interior of the Yukon and/or Alaska, and had tried to prepare for the arrival of prospectors by building a wharf and sawmill and making other improvements to his homestead on the beach at Skagway. In July 1897, almost a year after the discovery of gold in the Klondike, ships jammed with people and supplies began to fill Skagway harbor.

    The arrival of thousands of stampeders quickly turned the wilderness river valley into a city of tents and log cabins. During the fall and winter of 1897, the harbor was a wild scene of chaos and confusion, jammed with all manner of ships, scows and barges unloading passengers, equipment, supplies, freight and animals. Hastily constructed rough frame buildings, along with tents and cabins, became stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

    Frank Reid, the city surveyor, platted the new townsite into 360 lots, each 50 feet by 100 feet, with streets 60 feet wide. A city of thousands developed almost overnight, and Skagway was predicted to become "The Metropolis of the North" as well as "The Gateway to the Interior".

    The most pressing need for the stampeders continuing on the the Klondike was transportation, and the hazards of the White Pass encouraged entrepreneurs to dream of new solutions to the transportation problem. By the winter of 1897-98 the Brackett Wagon Road was in business, with tolls charged for using it. The potential for economic development in the north was so great that it caught the imagination of the Close Brothers in England, and in 1898 they decided to fund the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway (WP&YR).

    The White Pass & Yukon Route has been a major force in the development of Skagway's harbor ever since the Gold Rush, from dock construction to the design, construction and operation of two of the world's first container ships, the Clifford J. Rogers, launched in 1955, and the Klondike in 1969.

    Today, Skagway's harbor is still a very busy place for several months each year, and ships still disembark thousands of people every day through the summer. Now, however, it's the Skagway area itself that is the attraction for the vast majority, though some do still make the 600-mile trip to see the gold fields of the Klondike.

Dyea waterfront, 1898 Skagway's main competitor for the stampeder's business was Dyea, 9 miles away. The Chilkoot Trail to the interior started at Dyea, but the harbor at Dyea is shallow, and all freight had to be dropped on the beach until 2-mile-long wharves to deep water were built.
Wharves fill the Skagway harbor in the fall of 1899. To the right is Moore Wharf, with the railroad running along the steep cliffs to it.
Skagway graffiti in about 1930. Starting in the 1920s, ship personnel have commemorated their vessel's visit to Skagway by painting the ship's name, logo and other messages on the cliffs above the Railroad Dock.

Below: recent photos of the "ship signature wall" and the Railroad Dock in the fall by Murray Lundberg

Skagway harbor today, with cruise ships at the Railroad and Broadway Docks, and the Small Boat Harbor between them. The park and walkway to the left was a multi-year development that began in 2005, and in 2013 the Small Boat Harbor had a major rebuild done.

More Skagway History

An Explorer's Guide to Skagway, Alaska