Skagway, Alaska, population 700. When a cruise ship arrives, the population of Skagway quadruples!
It's hard to believe when you're walking the quiet, quaint streets that during the height of the Gold Rush in 1898, Skagway had 20,000 residents, making it the largest city in Alaska at that time.
Located at the northern end of the Lynn Canal, Skagway is the only city, other than nearby Haines, with a road to the world outside the Inside Passage. Many people use it as a jumping off point to cross through the mountains into Canada's Yukon. It is also the northernmost terminus for the Alaska Marine Highway.
After the Gold Rush ended in 1900, Skagway served as a railroad terminal and port of call. The railroad closed in the early 1980's, to make a re-appearance in 1988 as a summer attraction. Tourism has increased over the years, and is now the town's major economic factor.
We arrived around 7:00 a.m., with a very full day ahead of us. Our shuttle bus took us into town to start our day with a quick narrated tour, including a visit to the historical museum, and ending up at a stage show.
Of all the exhibits at the historical museum, the most fascinating to us was their display about World War II. It was feared that Alaska would be invaded, and the enemy would be at America's, and Canada's, doorstep.
Until seeing this exhibit, this possible aspect of the war had never occurred to us, so it was a real eye-opener. The film footage, pictures and stories of America's defenses in Alaska were spellbinding.
The Days of '98 Show is a 60-minute melodrama, complete with original songs, cancan lines and mock shootouts. It recreates the life of perhaps Alaska's most notorious con man, Jefferson Randolf "Soapy" Smith, along with other colorful gold rush characters.
Having run for 70 years, this is the longest-running production in Alaska. You'll have to see the show to learn how "Soapy" got his nickname. And if you sit up front, be prepared -- you may become a participant! (We sat in the back, having a premonition about this)
After the show we meandered the shop-lined streets for a little while before winding our way to the railroad station to catch the White Pass and Yukon Route train into the mountains.
This narrow-gauge railroad was originally planned to carry gold prospectors and their gear through the White Pass to the Klondike gold country. Construction began in 1898, and it was completed in 1900. Unfortunately, the Gold Rush was over by this time.
Their loss, our gain. The scenery from these turn-of-the-century parlor cars was absolutely breathtaking; especially the parts where we crossed trestles over steep mountain valleys and chasms, affording the brave of heart an incredible view straight down.
At times the tracks were right at the edge of a sheer slope, where we seemed to cling to the cliffs (which also quickened a lot of pulses). Hundreds of feet below we could see the old trails the prospectors used.
Being May, there was plenty of snow in the mountains. Still covered with the white stuff, Summit Lake, near where we stopped to reverse our trip, is by the U.S./Canadian line.
We passed the border station, but no one was home to check on us, probably because the building was buried in snow, with only the roof visible. I think it was because they don't man this station anymore, or at least not in the winter, but the authorities were mum on the subject.
Our trip back covered the same path (obviously), but there was a twist -- all the passengers switched sides! We flipped our seats over so that they faced the opposite direction, and then sat on the other side of the train for the ride down.
This allowed everyone to enjoy both sides of the scenery. It also explains why I took most of my pictures on the return trip, as we were on the mountain-side on the way up.
When we returned to town, the train pulled into the downtown station to drop anyone off who wanted to explore on foot, and then went on to the ship. Pat stayed on the train to go get ready for dinner while I hoofed around the city one last time.
I found myself at a dock way across the way from our ship, which prompted me to take a photo. Docked nearby was the Alaska Marine Highway ferry boat, which was dwarfed by comparison.
With the sun getting lower in the sky, we left Skagway in early evening. Refreshed by the pure mountain air, we were looking forward to our next day's adventure in Glacier Bay.