Tiny Skagway hosts 450 cruise ships
Thursday, 09 August 2012
Story and photos by Bob Schulman
Things haven’t changed much in Skagway, Alaska, over the past 115 or so years.
For one thing, the little northern Pacific port used to be jammed with ships, mostly steamers from Seattle and San Francisco full of miners heading to the Yukon gold rush. It’s still packed with ships from Seattle and San Francisco, only today they’re giant cruiseliners.
Skagway was the gateway to a long, arduous journey to the gold fields way up north in Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory. To get there, the miners had to first trek a 33-mile pass from Skagway to the banks of the Yukon River, where they rented a boat (or built one) to take them nearly 400 miles over the river’s choppy whitewater rapids to Dawson.
It’s said close to 100,000 miners dropped by Skagway’s bars and brothels for a little R&R on their way to Dawson. A hefty number of them didn’t make it back, having either frozen to death or otherwise died on the trail, some at the hands of robbers roaming the region.
Still, between newcomers to town and the lucky few who came back from Dawson with gold dust in their pokes, upwards of 15,000 miners typically could be found moseying around Skagway’s 70 saloons and dancehalls on a given day. Ready to take the lads to their “cribs” were 300 or so shady ladies, who described their trade as “mining the miners”
Fast-forward to today, and chances are you’ll still see as many as 15,000 people wandering around the city.
Like the miners, they mostly got here by ship, only tonight they’re going to get back on one and sail away.
“It’s not unusual to see as many as seven cruise ships in port at a time,” says Skagway resident Meridith Schmidt. “Perhaps 2,000 passengers get off each ship to see the sights around these parts.”
So what makes Skagway such a popular port of call. “Mainly,” says Schmidt, “it’s to get a taste of what things were like around these parts back in the old days.”
Besides city tours stopping at carefully restored Victorian saloons, shops and museums, visitors can choose from a list of two dozen outings ranging from vintage train rides to freshwater fishing.
By late afternoon, places like Skagway’s famous Red Onion Saloon are packed with thirsty tourists, worn out by a tough day of sightseeing and shopping for locally made jewelry, miniature totem poles and Eskimo dolls.
After that it’s time to go back to the ship and perhaps a little fling in an onboard casino while sailing on to the next port.
Most of the miners got out of town in 1899 after the gold fields around Dawson petered out and a new bonanza was found way up the Alaskan coast at Nome.
For the record: Hosting 450 cruiseliners during Alaska’s prime season (spring to fall), Skagway is rated as the world’s 16th most-visited cruise port, right up there with top spots in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
Other ports of call on Alaskan cruises typically include the state capital at Juneau, the “world salmon capital” of Ketchikan, Anchorage and Nome. Just about all the major cruise lines serve the Alaskan run.
More info on Skagway: Visit the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.skagway.com.
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