Local Tlingit Indians lived in nearby Dyea, long before Skagway was a town. They knew a route over the mountains which they used to trade with other tribes who lived inland. They called it the Chilkoot trail and this trail was one of two choices aspiring miners used to make their way over land to Lake Bennett where they built boats they sailed to Whitehorse and on to the Yukon gold claims. The Chilkoot route was shorter and steeper that the route from Skagway over White Pass. As miners poured into the area, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police required each miner to bring a ton of supplies with him so that he wouldn’t starve. Many men didn’t make it past the Chilkoot and in April 1898 an avalanche buried at least two hundred men who were making the climb with their goods on their backs. The local Indians who had earned money assisting the miners with the carrying, warned the prospectors about the danger, but when does the white man listen to the Indian?
As soon as the White Pass & Yukon Railroad was built in Skagway, Dyea went from a town of 10,000 to a town of three. Resourceful recycling types scrounged materials from the buildings and soon there was little in Dyea to show what a thriving town it had been. Today Dyea is a National Historic Park a short drive from Skagway. A hike around the location revealed one remaining wall of a building, a row of trees planted for a boulevard now 125 years tall, and a cemetery where the remains of some of the miners who died in the avalanche are buried. These days those younger and fitter than we, hike the Chilkoot for fun in 4 -5 days.
The Dyea area used to be covered by glaciers, 4000 feet thick. When they melted away the land rebounded after all that weight pressing down disappeared. It's been rising about 3/4 inch a year, very fast in geologic terms. When we walked around what was Dyea, we saw flat grass land which used to be under water. As the land comes up, the sea recedes, so what was a dock area was now a meadow. Amazing!
We have enjoyed our stay in Skagway, despite the cold weather and stiff winds. From our campsite we watch 3 - 4 large cruise ships arrive every day and this little town suddenly has 10,000 new visitors. Down town feels like a pedestrian mall as people wander around shopping and admiring the historic gold rush era look of the old buildings and those built to look old. But it’s easy to get a parking place because no one has a car but us and a few locals. Even many of the folks selling T-shirts and Eskimo ulu knives to the cruisers have been brought in for the season and do not have cars either. Some of them are here in the summer and in the Caribbean in the winter. A nice way to make a living. The National Park Service has a strong presence here and has purchased many of the old buildings and turned them into museums. We attended an interesting presentation given by a park ranger today which focused on detailed and descriptive letters written by a prospective gold miner, accompanied by historical photographs depicting the areas and events he described including that tragic avalanche on the Chilikoot. The gold rush to the Klondike only lasted about two years, but it’s affect on this area makes it feel alive today.