Skagway

Mike Davis
Thursday morning and we are at Skagway. The Tlingit name for this place is Skagua. As we step on to the quayside, I tell my wife the name translates as: ‘Where the north wind blows’. Her tart reply has that sort of off-the-wall feminine logic which is utterly unanswerable: “And no place for short skirts and frilly undies”. As it so happens, she is wrapped in more layers than a large onion. We board one of the splendid, reproduction coaches of the White Pass & Yukon Railway for the 8.20am departure to the summit of White Pass. This is a journey we have eagerly anticipated, and it does not disappoint. The morning is cold but clear as we move off at a gentle pace. The train’s conductors are smartly dressed in old-style railway company uniforms complete with waistcoats, (American’s would say, ‘vests’) all fastened with bright, brass buttons, and topped with shiny peaked hats decorated with fine, gold braid. Commentary for the journey is provided by train ‘guide’, Kate - who relates the story of its construction. She advises to watch out for the track-side ‘mile markers’ – each of which has its own unusual tale to tell, for there is absolutely nothing along this route that can ever be described as, ‘ordinary’. No, sir! For this was railway engineering of an altogether different order, where thirty-five thousand men, using four hundred and fifty tons of explosive, risking – and often, losing - life and limb, expended their blood, sweat and tears to drive these narrow-gauge rails up from sea-level at Skagway to the summit 20 miles distant, at an altitude of three thousand feet. And, astonishingly - in overcoming some of the most hostile terrain and weather conditions ever faced by railway constructors - they did all this in just twenty six months. We can but pay thoughtful homage to their fortitude, tenacity and courage as we ride these hard won rails on this crisp June morning. This is not a journey for the faint-hearted, and certainly not one for those with a morbid fear of heights. To say, that for the greater part of the ride, the track clings to the mountain sides by its ‘finger nails’ is hardly to exaggerate. Indeed, at times, the views looking down can reasonably be described - on a verbal scale, at least - as beginning round about, ‘Good grief, that’s steep’, and ending somewhere just about at the point of, ‘Aaaaaaargh!’ And what’s the best bit? Well, that comes at the summit where the three giant, green and yellow diesel engines are unhooked from the front and re-connected at the rear, because then you get to go all the way back down again. To ensure equality of viewing opportunity, all passengers are obliged at the summit to do ‘The White Pass Shuffle’ – whereby all the hinged seat backs are swung into reverse, and passengers swap sides from right to left and vice-versa, before the return journey. Some folks might describe this as ‘Socialism in Action’ – but this is no place for politics and so I’ll move swiftly on. The snow and ice still lie deep up here, but Kate warms us with a string of very funny tales about the old days when gold fever was the principal infection in these parts. She relates how some innocent, newly-arrived prospectors in Skagway, were sold bicycles by unscrupulous salesmen, “So’s you can take a leisurely ride up to the gold fields.” Or, better yet, a few of the more gullible were actually persuaded to buy gopher’s which had – according to the sales pitch - “been trained to sniff out gold”. So is this where the catchphrase, “Go-pher Gold” originated? On the way back into town, we pass Skagway’s Gold Rush cemetery in which lie the remains of some immortal frontier characters, chief among whom was Jefferson ‘Soapy’ Smith, who must rank as one of history’s most admirable swindlers. Were he alive today he’d probably be CEO of a major American corporation. Soapy’s demise is celebrated with an annual commemorative wake by the townsfolk. (And if it isn’t celebrated in riotous style, then it darned well ought to be). Here too lies Frank Reid, who shot Soapy dead in a gunfight, and who also died as a result of the event. The inscription on Reid’s tomb declares: “He gave his life for the honour of Skagway” Just a few short steps away is the grave of another, less celebrated contemporary: one of Skagway’s good-time girls. Her inscription is not as worthy as Reid’s, but far more treasurable as, with a neat twist, it proclaims: “She gave her honour for the life of Skagway”. Also interred here are the unnamed - but somewhat less than complete - remains of a man who entered the local bank armed with a pistol, and with sticks of dynamite strapped under his coat. As he made his bold demand for an immediate withdrawal, the lady clerk panicked and ran screaming towards a back door. Our bank robber pulled his pistol in a vain attempt to shoot her. Unfortunately, he pulled the trigger just a little prematurely and thus blew himself, firstly into an unanticipated deposit all over the walls of the building, and secondly, straight into the golden pages of this legendary town’s history. We liked Skagway – very much as it happens. Yes, it’s a tourist trap – and deservedly so, because its townsfolk have had the good sense to steer clear of a surfeit of Las Vegas-style glitz and glamour in favour of allowing the natural, unvarnished pleasantness of the place to surprise and delight the visitor. In truth, I for one think Skagway could stake a reasonable claim to be declared a World Heritage Site. Not least for its magnificent setting, but more especially for the manner in which so many of its unpretentious, but lovely old clapboard-fronted buildings have been nurtured and preserved. This place breathes living history. Its fine boardwalks are a pleasure to tread, and its citizens have every right to be proud of their manifest determination to preserve its splendid character and charm. The W.P. & Y.R. is a brilliant peacock feather in its hat, and were it possible to bottle atmosphere, then Skagway would have a sure-fire winning export on its hands. The only disappointment I suffered here was when the battery on my digital camera expired, and I was unable to take as many photographs as I wanted to, but then as I had taken so many shots on the rail trip, I have no right to whinge. We depart Skagway and move off down the Lynn Canal. The weather is beautiful and the sun gradually sinks to a multi-hued, golden radiance behind snow-covered peaks to provide a lovely ending to the day.

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