The Port of Skagway is the most northern port on Alaska's Inside Passage at the end of the Lynn Canal off Chilkoot Inlet. The Port of Skagway is 74 nautical miles (124 kilometers or 76 miles by air) north-northwest of the Port of Juneau and just 13 kilometers (8 miles) west of the US border with Canada. The 2000 US Census reported a population of just over 860 people in the Port of Skagway, the vast majority of whom are white.
The ice-free Port of Skagway is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, the state ferry, and railway and bus tours. In fact, around a million cruise ship passengers visit the Port of Skagway every year. It is one of three communities in southeast Alaska that is connected to the State's road system. The Port of Skagway is connected to the lower 48 States via the Klondike Highway. The Port of Skagway is also a busy stopping point for the Alaska Marine Highway. While tourism is the driving force in the Port of Skagway economy, transshipment of freight, fuel, and lead and zinc ore is important. The modern Port of Skagway is trying to create a more diverse economy.
The Tlingit people inhabited the Port of Skagway area for thousands of years, fishing and hunting and trading with other indigenous people in the region.
While on an 1887 boundary survey expedition, steamboat captain William "Billy" Moore and his son made a 160-acre homestead claim at the mouth of the Skagway River. Moore believed that gold would be discovered in the Coast Mountains, and he thought White Pass was the most direct route to the gold fields of the Alaska panhandle. Expecting gold prospectors in the area, Moore constructed a wharf, a sawmill, and a log cabin on the homestead, giving birth to the future Port of Skagway.
The US-Canada boundary along the Alaska Panhandle was hotly debated during those years. Overlapping claims resulted from the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. In 1896, however, gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory in Canada. The first boat of prospectors, the steamer Queen, pulled into Moore's wharf in 1897.
Many ships followed the Queen, and the thousands of prospectors that arrived on them created a new town on Moore's homestead as they stopped at the Port of Skagway to prepare for the 800-kilometer (500-mile) trip to the Yukon gold fields. Unfortunately for Moore, his land was overrun and stolen by lot-jumping prospectors who then sold it to others.
By 1898, the Port of Skagway was home to about eight thousand people, and about one thousand hopeful miners passed through the town every week. The Port of Skagway was now Alaska's biggest city. Many prospectors recognized the miner's needs for supplies and services and stayed in the Port of Skagway to establish businesses that included stores, offices, and saloons.
Typical of a boom town, the Port of Skagway was filled with people who offered very expensive services to the miners. A group of miners formed a short-lived town council in an attempt to protect the miners; however, as they moved north, unscrupulous people and groups who stayed in the Port of Skagway took control of the town.
In 1897 and 1898, the Port of Skagway was a lawless town dominated by liquor, fighting, and prostitution. The notorious Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith was well known as a con artist who saw himself as a benefactor to the poor. While running a gang of thieves, he donated funds to widows and prevented lynchings. He charged five dollars for sending a telegram anywhere in the world, but the Port of Skagway didn't have telegraph service until 1901. Smith controlled the town through the local newspaper, a network of spies, a private militia, and the Deputy U.S. Marshall. In July 1898, Smith was killed in a gun fight known now as the "Shootout on Juneau Wharf."
It was a long hard trip from the Port of Skagway to the gold fields near Dawson City some 550 kilometers (342 miles) to the north across White Pass and up the Yukon River. Other prospectors followed a Tlingit trade route through Chilkoot Pass to reach the gold field lakes. To be sure incoming prospectors didn't starve in the hard winters, the Canadian government required that each miner bring one ton of supplies with him on his journey.
To help the travelers and their pack animals, a 22-kilometer (14-mile) steam aerial tramway was built on the Port of Skagway side of White Pass. While expensive, the new tramway eased the burden of carrying a ton of supplies. A second tramway was soon installed in the Chilkoot Pass.
In May 1898, work began on a narrow gauge railroad in the Port of Skagway. The White Pass and Yukon Route railroad depot opened in December, giving the Port of Skagway the advantage of being a deep-water port with a railroad. By 1900, schools were opened in the Port of Skagway.
By the turn of the Century, the Gold Rush was waning, and the Port of Skagway economy slowed dramatically. The Port of Skagway was the first city in the Alaskan Territory to be incorporated. Though the Gold Rush days were over, early Port of Skagway residents found ways to keep the town going.
Martin Itjen started a historical bus tour and led efforts to preserve the gold rush cemetery. He bought Soapy Smith's old saloon and used it to display artifacts from the early community, creating the first museum in the Port of Skagway. President Warren G. Harding visited the Port of Skagway during his 1923 tour of Alaska.
Today, the Port of Skagway boasts the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and a historic district containing some 100 buildings from the gold rush period. The narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route still operates during the summer months, primarily for tourists, but it also carries copper ore from the interior to the Port of Skagway.