When last we saw the streets of Skagway, it seemed like another world in the misty pre-dawn light; a world halfway between dreams and reality, skewing the boundaries of both. We emerge four hours later with only a slightly less shaky grip on either but with the added urgency (for me) of breakfast.
Preferably something with salmon in it.
In the gray mid-morning light the misty streets of hours before present themselves with more clarity, helping to chase away my lingering dreamlike trance.
Half a block to the east the railroad tracks and steep forested hillside mark the “edge of town”, and half a block to the west is the “center of town”, also known as Broadway.
Nothing but a deserted street before, Broadway now takes on a life of its own. Like a writhing snake, like the circuitous molecular flow within a cell, what was hours before complete deadness has come to twisting, moving life.
It is “The Broadway Shuffle”.
Our approach must be handled with care; timing our entrance adroitly we become two more cells in this living organism, this chain of tourists making the circuit, doing the Shuffle.
“Where did all these people come from?” I think to myself.
Just hours before the brumous streets were completely deserted. Now, up and down the wooden boardwalks, spilling out into the street, a constant stream of people stride steadily in a generally counterclockwise navigation (with a few mavericks daring clockwise) along the shops and restaurants of Broadway, with the occasional bar, post office, or museum sprinkled in the mix.
We pass by the stage door of a small theater, the jangly sound of a honky-tonk piano emanating from within – a “wild west” show in progress, even before noon; a scandalous, scurrilous, and unhealthy thing. Having worked in professional theater for some years, I am suspicious of any call time before noon, and am unhappy with any before 5PM. Theater is rarely something to be attempted in the full light of day.
A few blocks further up we disengage from the Shuffle and head toward the outskirts of town, about half a block to the west, and find a charming little café for breakfast. I have the Salmon Eggs Benedict. Now things are starting to feel just a little more civilized.
It wasn’t always like this. A bit more than a century ago I could just as easily have emerged from my tent into the cloudy dawn and muddied street only to be shot dead on the spot for the boots off my feet.
Hence, perhaps, the Wild West show that now entertains the tourists all these years later.
Today, when you take away all the tourists (read: “winter”) Skagway hosts a population of little more than 800 adventurous souls. In the Yukon gold rush of 1898 more than 8000 slopped through the haphazard, unpaved streets. Almost all were, in one way or another, greedy sonuvabitches that wanted nothing more out of Skagway than a means to get rich on gold.
Not that the gold was in Skagway, or even very near. The gold was further north up in the Yukon Territory, to which Skagway was the gateway and something of a base camp. From there prospectors had a treacherous slog through the mountains over the White Pass trail before they could stake their claim to the gold – or lose their shirts, as the case may be; even their lives if they were particularly unlucky. The slog was made considerably less slog-like with the construction of the White Pass & Yukon narrow gauge railway. Unfortunately, by the time the railway was completed, the rush for gold was mostly played out. The railway, however, is a big hit with the tourists.
The town was run by one Soapy Smith (a.k.a. Jefferson Randolph Smith II) and his gang of cutthroats and conmen – any one of which would probably have been the sort to shoot me dead merely for my boots.
As it turned out, that was the fate of Soapy. Frank Reid led an angry mob that had had enough of Soapy and his gang, and shot him dead on July 8th 1898; just four days after Soapy had stood with Governor John Brady on a podium at Skagway’s first Independence Day celebration. Reid didn’t fare too much better, dying from his wounds a few days later. At least he was given a hero’s funeral and goes down in history as saving the good towns people from the evil doings of Soapy and his gang. Nonetheless, it eventually takes the U.S. army to restore order.
The history of Skagway is of a town that was all about gold. Yukon gold. Today, Skagway is still about gold, if of a different kind: Tourist Gold. Each one of us a little nugget that keeps the town alive, here at the northern end of the Inside Passage.
We aren’t the biggest nuggets of gold, but we do our part, visiting the Skagway Museum, enjoying a hardy dinner at a friendly restaurant (where we have a chance meeting with a cruise ship ventriloquist), and topping it off by attending a presentation given by “Buckwheat”; a reading and “reenactment” of the words of poet and writer Robert Service (best known for his portrayal of life in the Yukon).
Afterwards, I leave Jayne to her bath and go for a walk. The moon casts a ghostly-white glow over the quiet and deserted streets.
Where did all the people go?
I revel in the solitude as I shuffle along Broadway.