May 11th. This morning Carnival Spirit docked in Skagway, light snow is falling and it’s freezing. A very amusing guide mentioned that Skagway is the sunshine capital of Alaska…..looking at the bleak skies and the grey, snow-capped mountains surrounding the ship. The trees standing meekly in the gloom, devoid of leaves, it’s very hard to imagine Skagway bathed in the warm glow of sunshine.
Our day commenced with breakfast at a bordello, namely the Red Onion Saloon circa 1897. Who could resist such an invitation, a look at an essential part of town life, essential is probably the wrong word, so maybe it should read “necessary part”. A town burgeoning with itinerant men focused on finding their own gold nugget and, hopefully, their fortune but who still took the time to seek out the women working in the oldest profession in the world. So curiosity, if nothing else, deemed we should have breakfast at the bordello.
Apparently the Red Onion Saloon (Heritage listed) was the most exclusive brothel in Skagway, the saloon served alcohol on the first floor, as it still does today, so nothing has changed on there. They even have trivia nights once or twice a week! Whilst the floor above quenched a different thirst. The Saloon had a unique way of checking which girls were “busy” and which were available – the bartender had a number of dolls – one doll represented a girl. When the girl was available the doll was standing but when the girl was unavailable her doll was laid down. That way the bartender kept an eye on the girls and the prospectors knew which girl was available. Another innovation we saw on our tour of the upstairs rooms was the copper pipes that fed from the rooms to the bar below. The girls would place their payments in the pipe under the floorboards and the money would drop into the cash register below.
Around 1899 the Red Onion’s business took a dive as the railway came to town and towns closer to the goldfields sprung up. Gold was never found in Skagway it was a “through” town on the way to the goldfields. Dawson had become one of the main towns with bigger saloons and casinos so the Red Onion eventually closed. However, the building had several other uses, these businesses appreciated its previous history and didn’t make many changes. It was restored in 1980’s, approved for a liquor licence and reopened as a saloon.
Oh, I know, get on with what we had for breakfast enough about the history…..right o!!
We met at the entrance to the saloon by the madam (would you expect otherwise?) and presented with a garter…red with black lace. Once in the bar we chose a table and sat down ready for whatever was going to happen next. A musician sat in the corner between the stairs and the bar playing guitar. He, as with the girls, dressed the part with his scraggy beard, hat and typical clothing of the late 1800s.
We were offered straight orange juice, no vodka in the orange juice, or a bloody mary, before having a dish of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages placed before us….oh, and a biscuit…..can’t forget the biscuit!! The biscuit was in fact a scone….we have learnt over past visits to the US that when a biscuit is offered with dinner it is a scone….but no ordinary scone. It looks like a scone, tastes like a scone but is hard as a rock…I’m sure it could give somebody a nasty injury if it was thrown at them. After the meal the madam offered plain coffee or coffee with an added liqueur – similar to Bailey’s. Of course I chose the latter, have you tried the filtered coffee generally served in the US?? Who cares if it’s only 8am…as Jimmy Buffett says in his song..”it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” so hand me that drink. They weren’t stingy on the Bailey’s either….a very tasty drop. During breakfast the brothel members regaled us with tales from the past. Of ghostly madams and girls with names such as Klondike Kate (one the most famous whores, “with flaming red hair and amazing green eyes”), Pea Hull Anne and the belle of Skagway, Kitty Faith, to name but a few. Stories told breakfast finished it was now time for the upstairs tour.
The rooms were tiny, as were the beds, we have to remember that 100 years ago we human beings were also shorter! But still there wouldn’t have been much room for 2 – they were mostly single beds! Even though the ravages of time had affected the upstairs rooms the original wallpaper could still be seen. Cabinets held some of the girls’ possessions, including hair curling irons, hair clips, garters, lipsticks and so on. Several dolls were still there too, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead….hmm, the black-haired doll was lying down – did here living doll go missing? They had withstood the ravages of time…I wonder how the live “dolls” held up?
Breakfast and tour completed it was time to head back to the ship to ready ourselves for the next tour. However, before I mention the next amazing tour of the day I really must note the interesting characters on this tour. There’s always one that makes you cringe and he was on our bus this morning. He was an elderly gentleman who thought he had a fabulous sense of humour and insisted on making silly comments or asking dumb questions each time the guide told us about Skagway or the tour. Everybody would groan when he opened his mouth to put one or both feet in it. We decided to stay clear of him and so chose a table at the other end of the room for breakfast, unfortunately they found their way to our table and sat down. He continued to heckle and carry on through breakfast to the point that the actors used him as their scapegoat. He still didn’t get it!
Although it was the gateway to the Klondike, apart from brothels and no gold Skagway had nothing much to offer the prospectors. It pitches itself to tourists these days as a place where the romance and excitement of yesteryear is found on every street. I have no doubt that’s true, it’s a wild, desolate place with wide streets and mostly, neat, timber cottages in various colours. The last census listed the population as 900 – more in tourist season. Sheer cliffs surround the town, which was once a city, making for a very picturesque scene. It’s just so cold, so quiet and so far from anywhere!!
This afternoon we’re taking a train ride along the White Pass and Yukon route. The railroad is a historic civil engineering landmark and was poo pooed as an impossible task. It took 26 months to build and rises over 2800 feet taking it into northwest Canada. This White Pass and Yukon railway became the main transport link between the port of Skagway and the goldfields of the Yukon. This train was in service until the early 1980s when the mining industry in the Yukon collapsed. It was resurrected as a tourist trail in late 1988 and has become the number one tourist attraction in Skagway…except for the jewellery shops!!
Our tour was due to start at 1pm and the weather was deteriorating so after lunch we went to our cabin and added our thermals to our winter attire…..thermal pants, thermal tops and thermal socks..gloves, ear muffs (love those ear muffs) – felt a bit like the Michelin man…..probably looked like him as well!! Fully dressed and barely able to walk properly due to all the extra clothing we headed down the gangway for the bus which would take us to the railway station. People had already boarded the bus but we certainly weren’t the last – still 10 minutes before the bus was due to leave. Our guide is apologetic, says we have a schedule to meet and we’re already 10 minutes late….we’ll wait 5 more minutes then we have to leave. Doesn’t get any argument from all of us already on the bus – we agree with her. It was 10 past 1 and we’re still waiting for 6 passengers. Ahh, here comes 4 of them and it’s only 1.15….our guide closes the door behind these late comers and we leave – guide says we must leave for the tour.
As we leave the dock and head through town the bus radio jumps to life although we can’t make out everything the operator has said to the guide we do get the idea that there is a problem with the train. We drive around several streets with the guide giving us little insights into what we’re seeing. Then we’re told there has been a snow storm at White Pass and the train before us had to turn back. We’re now waiting on confirmation that the snow cat will be able to clear the tracks for our train ride. The guide was requested to take us on a tour of Skagway whilst we wait further information. We drive slowly around the same streets, stop at a lookout which gives a view of Skagway and it’s harbour, return to the bus and the bus moves off slowly. The guide says ” I’ve shown you all I can of Skagway as buses are only allowed in 4 streets, there’s nowhere else to go so I’m going to call into the depot for any news and I hopefully there is good news because I don’t know what else to do with you”. We pull in at the depot, no news yet….we wait, what now? Minutes pass by then the radio comes to life…..”track is clear, train will be leaving”. Our bus pulls out and we head to the railway station to board the little old train. We hear our driver/guides’ sigh of relief.
As the train departs the station the conductor comes in to tell us about our journey and gives some historical facts. At the end of his delivery he asks if there are any questions, a man puts his hand up and gives us the quote of the day “Are there snacks on our tour?” he asks in his best drawl……”no” is the quick reply. It’s a 2 hour journey do we really need snacks……
We are slowly making our way along the tracks and the steep grades, the scenery in Skagway was a little like a washed out green olive , spindly trees had a tinge of yellow and lots of rocks, small rocks. As we progress up the mountain the scenery changes, there are more pine trees, large boulders, steep cliffs and we’re starting to see a smattering of snow on the ground. The cliffs are very steep and the train is travelling on the edge of these cliffs most of the time. This leads me to wonder how on earth they built a railway in this harsh and foreboding landscape. My thoughts then go to the pioneers, those prospectors that had no railway, who came to Skagway by boat with their supplies and gathered horse or mules to carry their good and chattels along these dangerous mountain trails. The large numbers of men and animals that were lost as these prospectors, heads filled with stories of gold and vast riches, made their way gingerly along cliff edges in freezing conditions in the quest for a better life. We pass Dead Horse Gulch and hear the tales of the horses that toppled off the edge fully laden most of the time with way too much for a pack animal to carry. On one hand I take my hat off to these men for their spirit and resilience through all kinds of adversity , although I’m sad for the way they treated their animals.
Oh dear, another person asked for snacks….Ty had a packet of mentos in his backpack and we were just opening the wrapper to take one when a woman asked about snacks. We could have offered one although I have the feeling a single mentos would not suffice for this hungry woman….best hide the mentos and chew very quietly. We didn’t want to get rumbled for a small pack of mentos.
Our train was heading to Fraser in British Columbia. When we reached Fraser we would alight and return to Skagway by bus. The weather was closing in now, the cloud becoming lower and the cold was biting but I just had to stand at the back of the caboose and marvel at the ever-changing scene as I took photos. My hands were numb with the cold, every other part of me was warm – the thermals were working a treat. Oh, well, my face was a little exposed to the elements so I had the runny nose happening….I had plenty of tissues at hand so no worries there. The guides would wander from caboose to caboose giving out pieces of information and they would pass me as they moved between carriages. On one of those passing moments, as the snow was falling heavier than before and visibility was almost nil, one of them commented “you’ve been out here the entire trip in these freezing conditions you’re very keen”she said. “Or very silly” I replied. How could you sit in the warmth of the carriage to view the scene? Outside was the only place to be – luckily no-one else thought the same thing as there was barely room for Ty and I out on the back landing. Although he wasn’t outside the entire journey. We had climbed higher and higher heading into this amazing landscape of pure white with blue tinges, the pine trees almost hidden by the snow and the occasional massive boulder encircled by snow. I’ve seen masses of snow before but none so dense that it was blue. The scene was different to what I had seen in the Finnish part of the Arctic Circle, there the pine trees held the snow on their branches, here they were sometimes covered by the snowdrifts with just the top few branches visible. Beautiful…..
We reached the Canadian border and had to hold our passports up near our face whilst the customs officers walked through each carriage. This took about 10 minutes then the train was off again. By the time we reached White Pass summit we were in a snow storm and nothing was visible past the edge of the caboose. Another short while and came to a stop, we were now in Fraser and had to alight the train and return to our bus. The driver/guide had driven from Skagway to Fraser to meet the train. The drive back to Skagway was a little scary, we drove back into the snow storm and the road disappeared, the bus slowed to a walk and everyone was quiet. Funny how that happens at times like this, isn’t it? Just as people started to chat again the driver explained how the area we were coming to was in an earthquake zone and had at least 3 earthquakes a day. The driver told us they only found that out because many years ago they built a bridge over the gulch and within a month it fell down, so they built 2 more and each time, after a month,the same thing happened. Eventually they decided to employee a geologist before commencing the next bridge and he discovered the problem. “We’re about to cross that the bridge shortly” she said “as we do cross take a look down and to the side and you’ll be able to see the splits in the rocks from each earthquake”. Great, yes, really needed to know that right as we’re heading for the bridge…..silence on the bus again – I’m sure we were all thinking “had they already had the 3 earthquakes today”???
What a day this had been and it wasn’t over yet. It was around 5pm when we returned to Skagway. We had a choice of staying on the bus and returning to the ship or getting off the bus, exploring the shops and walking back to the ship. Naturally being the shoppers we are we chose to get off and wander the streets.
We wander up one side and down the other side of the “ain drag” or main street of Skagway. There are a number of gift shops, selling all manner of souvenirs and clothing appropriate for a frozen Alaskan winter. The number of jewellery stores doesn’t go unnoticed either. We have to have a peek….there are stores on the ship but only one that sells jewellery so there isn’t much choice for comparing prices. We look in several and there is a ring that takes my fancy. It has two rows of white diamonds with a row of blue diamonds in the centre. Now, this was not on my list of purchases for this trip so do we move on? No, certainly not, we go ahead and haggle, hmm, still not sure so we move on – to the next jewellery store and see a similar ring. “How much is that ring?” “Ahh, is that your best price?” we receive a discounted price. “Hmm, not sure, it’s still quite expensive”. “Just a moment I’ll speak to the manager to see if we can better the price”. Ok, thank you. We’re given the amended price but it’s still not as low as the guys up the road. We say thanks and wander off to buy some souvenirs, we discuss the ring, it’s getting late, the shops close at 7pm…it’s almost that now. “What do you want to do?” Ty asks as we stand in the middle of the pedestrian crossing discussing where and whyfors…..it’s ok, we’re not going to get run over a car hasn’t passed for an hour at least. “well, I really like the ring and it does seem a reasonable price” I said. “Ok go back and get it then….so I do. Along with the valuation certificate and the managers email address. Don’t know what good the email address will be if I’ve bought a dud, like that’s going to help!!! I now have a couple of weeks of doubt before heading home to get it valued!!! The customer representatives in these stores told us that most of the jewellery stores in these towns are only open during the tourist season and the cruise companies own them. Can you imagine what these towns would be like in winter – ghost towns all around with shops shut up tight. No fear of graffiti it would be too cold for the spray cans to work!!
A few interesting snippets about Skagway….
- There is no doctor in town only a clinic run by nurses.
- They had electricity before New York
- Jewel Gardens are the pride of Skagway – they’re the only organic garden in US
- Skagway has at least 17 hours of daylight in May. During the cruise it was daylight from 5am and not dark until after 10pm.
After the shopping experience we headed off to the ship, sleet was tumbling down again and so cold we walked as quickly as our layers of cold would let us. After spending all that money I was starving!!!! Ty was amused probably because he didn’t have to pay for the ring. So to pay for his amusement I had him stand on the dock in front of the ship so I could take a photo….he was very reluctant because, even though we’d walked half an hour back to the ship, we hadn’t warmed up at all. “Too bad, it will take one second….just stand there” I said. The picture turned out quite nicely and he’s glad he stood there now!! A man should know that his wife generally knows best and on that note it’s time to go.
Tomorrow we arrive in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Hopefully the weather will improve but Murphy’s law says it won’t!!