The Traveling Steve's

Skagway: Alaska’s Wild West and Gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush!

The next stop on our 10 day Crown Princess Alaska cruise was Skagway. Skagway is traditionally our favorite stop on an Alaskan cruise; it reminds me of an old Hollywood wild west movie set with a wide main street (Broadway) full of old buildings just brimming with secrets of the past. You can almost imagine a duel taking place on the street there back in the late 1890s, with onlookers coming out of the saloons to watch.

Skagway in fact was a Wild West and lawless town back in its heyday of the Klondike Gold rush; circa 1896 when gold was discovered in the Yukon of North Western Canada, some 600 miles away. Thousands of potential prospectors (almost entirely men) fled to Skagway, which was considered a pathway city to the Yukon, and the Skagway population in the late 1800s grew exponentially. The Gold Rush era was short-lived, however, due to its treacherous and remote location and gold being discovered in other parts of Alaska and Canada, basically fizzling out the Skagway gold rush era by the turn of the Twentieth century, only 4 years later. One leftover vestige of the city, however, (in addition to the historic buildings), was the amazing White Pass Railroad that was built during that era; more on that in a moment.

On this cruise, there were 4 ships in port (the gigantic Ovation of the Seas (RCL), the Millennium (Celebrity) , one of the Regent Seven Seas ships, and our ship the Crown Princess, which together swelled this small town’s day population by well over 10,000 passengers, plus hundreds of crew members eager to go ashore. This made for quite a busy port day and crowding, especially on the main street, but as we’ve been here several times, at least we knew our way around town, and had seen or done many of the attractions previously, so we didn’t feel like we had to re-do things.

The mammoth Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas, which carries over 4,200 passengers, double occupancy, with a maximum of 4,800 passengers plus 1,300 crew.

Docked next to us was the Celebrity Millennium, a “smaller” ship we have taken previously with a capacity of 2,200 plus passengers, double occupancy.

The small luxury ship to the left of the Ovation of the Seas is one of the Regent Seven Seas ships.

We were fortunate that our ship, the Crown Princess, (3,060 to 3,600 passenger capacity) was able to dock at the main dock, which is the closest to town. This was significant, as Skagway had a major rock slide a couple years ago, which closed one of the other docks still to this day, forcing alternative docking arrangements for ships, or even tendering for some, including other Princess ships on some days.

As seen from our dock area, the rock slide (bare strip of dirt going down the mountain) rendered one of the docks unusable, and a temporary dock was added further back where one of the Seven Seas cruise ships and Ovation of the Seas are docked.

Skagway offers a load of tours and excursions, and the White Pass Railroad is a must if you’ve never been before. DOS and I have taken this railroad excursion previously, and we highly recommend it for it’s breathtaking views, ease of travel, and just the sheer wow of how it came to be built during the gold rush days, not to the technology of the day, severe weather conditions, and cost for such a limited market at the time. The White Pass Railroad’s history dates back to 1898 when construction began during the peak of the Gold Rush. As we walked off the ship, the White Pass Railroad was parked very near the dock and was quite a long train; much longer than we remembered it when we took it years ago. I think because of all the ships in port they added some cars, and even a bit of track to bring it closer to the docks vs walking further into town to catch the train.

Today Skagway has a local population of around 1,000 people, however in the peak summer months, it easily doubles that with seasonal workers, college kids, and others who come to work at this tourist attraction city. In fact on the White Pass Train, shortly after it departs, you can see what we called “tent city” where a lot of the “kids” camp out while they work in Skagway for the summer. I can only imagine what Skagway is like in the evening after all of the cruise ships have left; it must be party-central for all these young workers in the “Wild West”! LOL!

As Steve (DOS) and I walked into down, we were amazed at how long the White Pass Train was, as it was parked near our ship, and seemed to go on for a mile or so into town. I asked one of the train employees if they had added new cars as I don’t remember it being anywhere near that long. The woman train agent said there were 14 cars connected today, as there were 4 ships in port. They have a couple different train excursions with different times, and I noticed on the web site you do not need your passport as the train just turns around in Canada and doesn’t stop there briefly like it did years a go when we went.

Skagway was quite busy the day we were there, so we didn’t do a couple of our usual activities such as stopping in the Skagway Brewing Company, or the infamous Red Onion Saloon, where the line was outside the door (like the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau). The Red Onion Saloon was actually a dance hall, bordello, and pub in its heyday of 1898, and has quite a history to it; wow if these walls could talk!

We had lunch at the Red Onion Saloon last year when Skagway was not nearly as busy, (and the weather was much nicer) although we have yet to do the bordello tour they offer on the upper floor! The Red Onion Saloon was actually a bordello in the late 1800’s, and did very well obviously as the population was mostly men who were prospecting for gold, and were gone for months at a time. As I didn’t post many photos last year on our Alaska cruise due to my heart issues and medical evacuation, I’ll post a few photos from our Skagway lunch at the Red Onion in September 2022. I look all smiles and healthy in the pics, but this was the last port of call on the Grand Princess cruise last year before I was admitted to the ship’s medical center prior to reaching Ketchikan and being airlifted to Bellingham, Washington.

DOS in front of Red Onion Saloon in September 2022.

The stairs inside the Red Onion Saloon leading upstairs to the “bordello”, now a tour.

Beers on tap, and women for your pleasure back “in the day”; i.e. late 1890’s.

All smiles here: DOS, our waitress, and me in the Red Onion Saloon September 2022; my last port of call on the Grand Princess before I was admitted to the ship’s hospital prior to my medical evacuation in Ketchikan.

DOS in the Red Onion Saloon in September 2022 buying a couple hats and
souvenirs after having lunch there.

Skagway offers the usual tourist shops, and on this trip in September 2023, we didn’t buy anything as we have so many souvenirs from previous trips, including a couple hats and souvenirs from the Red Onion Saloon shown above we bought last year. We did walk down the main street (Broadway) for some exercise, and chatted with a few other passengers from the ship we encountered.

We haven’t done it yet, but one day on one of these Alaskan cruises stopping in Skagway, we will go to the “Days of 98 show“, which is located in a theater near the end of the main street. I have funny memories of walking past this theater years ago when my parents took the family on an Alaskan cruise for their 50th anniversary. I was walking with my Mom, and we look up and there are two women dressed in late 1800’s garb, sitting in the far left and right windows on the top floor of the theater, loudly chatting back and forth to each other, and yelling down to the people passing by (us and others!) to come by and get to know us (i.e. see the show); all spoken in character of the time. I can only imagine what the show must be like! On this trip we saw a couple of the “character women” standing on the street by the theater, but not up in the windows like on our visit years ago with my parents.

Spirit of ’98 show theater on the Main Street (Broadway) in Skagway.

Theater ladies dress in 1898 clothing, at the entrance to the Days of ’98 show. (Not sure if they had Styrofoam coffee cups back then though; perhaps an anachronism like in movies sometimes?)

Skagway is a fun port of call to visit for the day, and normally we would have lunch in town, and/or a couple brewskis at one of the pubs there, but this day was a bit to crowded due to the many ships in. The Quantum of the Seas cruise ship alone holds over 4,200 passengers plus crew. As it was nearly the end of the season, a lot of the stores had “end of season” sales, although as the season is short, the prices were quite high to start with on the many locally crafted items. There were plenty of tourist trinkets though to add to your collection if you so desired; I like collecting caps!

After a couple short hours of walking around Skagway, we headed back to the ship for a relaxing afternoon, taking a couple last minute selfies with us and the ship on the way.

Heading back to the Crown Princess in Skagway.

One more selfie before we get back on the ship!

While we didn’t take the White Pass Railroad again this trip, I do have an old video I posted on You Tube way back in May 2008 showing the ride on the train and the high elevation it climbs, providing breathtaking views. Mid to late May is one of our favorite times for visiting Alaska as the season is fresh, and usually there is snow still on the mountains as seen in this video. While the video is over 15 years old (sorry for the shaky footage in places and especially at the beginning, and only fair picture quality using my old camcorder, pre iPhone), it captures the essence of Skagway, with some Juneau footage, as well. In all honesty the Alaskan ports haven’t changed much since then, although the ports are much more crowded now due to the large cruise ships sailing there. This video was a Northbound Alaska cruise we took on the Celebrity Summit (twin ship to the Millennium show in port earlier in this blog) which ended in Anchorage. Towards the end of the video there is another train we took (where I’m waving at the camera with the cabin attendant and there’s also some dome car footage), which is the train we took onward to Anchorage at the end of that cruise. So long for now, Skagway!


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