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Skagway, Alaska
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The area around present-day Skagway was inhabited by Tlingit people from prehistoric times. They fished and hunted in the waters and forests of the area and had become prosperous by trading with other groups of people on the coast and in the interior.

In 1896, gold was found in the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon Territory. Beginning in the summer of 1897, thousands of hopeful miners poured into the new town and prepared for the 500-mile journey to the gold fields in Canada. This journey began for many when they climbed the mountains over the White Pass above Skagway and onward across the Canadian border to Lake Bennett, or one of its neighboring lakes, where they built barges and floated down the Yukon River to the gold fields around Dawson City. Others disembarked at nearby Dyea, northwest of Skagway, and crossed northward on the Chilkoot Pass, an existing Tlingit trade route to reach the lakes. The Dyea route fell out of favor when larger ships began to arrive, as its harbor was too shallow for them except at high tide.

One prominent resident of early Skagway was William "Buddy" Moore, a former steamboat captain. As a member of an 1887 boundary survey expedition, he had made the first recorded investigation of the pass over the Coast Mountains, which later became known as White Pass. He believed that gold lay in the Klondike because it had been found in similar mountain ranges in South America, Mexico, California, and British Columbia. In 1887, he and his son Ben claimed a 160 acre (650,000 mē) homestead at the mouth of the Skagway River in Alaska. Moore settled in this area because he believed it provided the most direct route to the potential gold fields. They built a log cabin, a sawmill, and a wharf in anticipation of future gold prospectors passing through.

Some prospectors also realized how difficult the trek would be that lay ahead on the route and chose to stay behind to supply goods and services to miners. Within a year, stores, saloons, and offices lined the muddy streets of Skagway. The population was estimated at 8,000 residents during the spring of 1898 with approximately 1,000 prospective miners passing through town each week. By June 1898, with a population between 8,000 and 10,000, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska.

In 1898, Skagway was a lawless town, described by one Canadian Mountie as "little better than a hell on earth". Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on Skagway's streets. The most colorful resident of this period was outlaw Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith. He was a sophisticated swindler who liked to think of himself as a kind and generous benefactor to the needy. He had gracious manners and he gave money to widows and stopped lynchings, while at the same time operating a ring of thieves who swindled prospectors with cards, dice, and the shell game. His telegraph office charged five dollars to send a message anywhere in the world. Prospectors sent news to their folks back home without bothering to look behind the telegraph shack where the telegraph wires ended in the brush. Soapy also controlled a comprehensive spy network, a private militia called the Skagway Military Company, the newspaper, the Deputy U.S. Marshall and an array of thieves and con men who roamed about the town. Soapy was shot by Frank Reid on July 8, 1898. It is agreed by several historians, and the descendants of Soapy Smith, that there was another man who also shot Soapy.

Officials in Canada began requiring that each prospector entering Canada on the north side of the White Pass bring with him one ton (909 kg) of supplies, to ensure that he didn't starve during the winter. This placed a large burden on the prospectors and the pack animals climbing the steep pass.

In 1898, a 14-mile, steam-operated aerial tramway was constructed up the Skagway side of the White Pass, easing the burden of those prospectors who could afford the fee to use it. The Chilkoot Trail tramways also began to operate in the Chilkoot Pass above Dyea. A group of investors saw an opportunity for a railroad over that route. The White Pass and Yukon railroad company began laying narrow-gauge railroad tracks in Skagway in May 1898. The railroad depot was constructed between September and December 1898. This destroyed the viability of Dyea, as Skagway had both the deep-water port and the railroad.

Construction of McCabe College, the first school in Alaska to offer a college preparatory high school curriculum, began in 1899. The school was completed in 1900.

By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway's economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over. In 1900, Skagway was incorporated as the first city in the Alaska Territory. Much of the history of Skagway was saved by early residents, such as Martin Itjen, who ran a tour bus around the historic town. He was responsible for saving and maintaining the gold rush cemetery from complete loss. He purchased Soapy Smith's saloon (Jeff Smith's Parlor), from going the way of the wrecking ball, and placed many early artifacts of the cities early history inside and opened Skagway's first museum.

The Skagway area today is home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and White Pass and Chilkoot Trails. Skagway has a historic district of about 100 buildings from the gold rush era. It receives about three-quarters of a million tourists annually, most of whom come on cruise ships. The White Pass and Yukon Route railway still operates its narrow-gauge train around Skagway during the summer months primarily for tourists. - Wikipedia Article Skagway, Alaska


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