SKAGWAY, Alaska — The wind howls across the mountains of Western Canada, screams through snowbound passes, and gives the little town of Skagway a cold slap before heading south to spend its fury along the Inside Passage.
The last outpost on the way to the Klondike, Skagway is full of the ghosts and spirits of Gold Rush days--the days of that final, frantic push of desperate souls with impossible dreams.
Their cries can be imagined in the wailing of the wind, those men who drove themselves mad in the winter of 1898, who flogged their pack animals to death on the frozen Chilkoot Trail, who left behind wives and children in Kansas City or Chicago or St. Louis to search for gold in the Yukon Territory.
There are other voices, too--of the women who danced for them in the dark bars and took them upstairs for further pleasures, of bad guys like "Soapy" Smith who relieved them of their grubstakes in a variety of devious ways, of the cooks and crooks and horse traders who followed the frenzy with their secondary hopes.
Skagway's Golden North Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Alaska, claims to have a ghost in residence. She is Mary, a young woman who came to the Gold Rush town in the winter of 1898 to marry her man. But he died instead, along with dozens of other victims in a tragic rock slide along the Chilkoot Trail. A small cemetery at the edge of town holds their remains. Mary died disbelieving, though, and she still waits for him in Room 24.
Each of the 33 carefully restored rooms contains turn-of-the-century furniture that once belonged to local pioneer families--four-poster, canopied and brass beds, mahogany highboys and oak dressers. Hallways and public rooms contain tintype photographs, gilt-edged mirrors and porcelain pitchers. The hotel has a restaurant and lounge too.
The main action in town is in the Red Onion Saloon, where tourists and locals belly up to a 19-foot-long polished mahogany bar or sit at round wooden tables, listening to or shouting over live jazz, folk music or whatever else a hired musician happens to play. "Anything but hard rock," says the owner, Jan Wrentmore, 38.
She bought the plank building that dates from 1897 five years ago when it was a gift shop, but her heart was in its frontier history as a bar and brothel, so when a liquor license became available, Wrentmore decided to restore the old place and play the part of "Madam of Skagway."
With feathered hat and velvet frock, the pretty woman trots down to the pier on summer days when the cruise boats come to Skagway and makes sure the passengers know where to go for a good time.
Back in the Gay '90s, a row of dolls lined that long mahogany bar, each named for one of the prostitutes in residence upstairs. It was no secret in those days that if a doll lay on its back, Lulu or Grace or Hattie was otherwise occupied. If it stood upright, that meant she was available.
Upstairs in the cubicles by each narrow cot was a hole in the floor connected to a chute down which chunks of gold slid to the bartender for safekeeping. Recent renovations have also uncovered a couple of holes in the floor that didn't connect to the bar. No doubt a few gold pieces never got tallied in the total.
Also upstairs at the Red Onion, renovation has uncovered old garters and pieces of lace, opium pipes and seltzer bottles, Wrentmore said.
But today, the action is strictly limited to the saloon on the first floor, even though one can look up from the street and see scantily clad mannequins beckoning from the upstairs windows.
Action was pretty lively in the old days at the Skagway Inn too. But the cute old inn has long since been moved, lock, stock and water barrel, from the waterfront to a sedate location four blocks up the street.
Each of the 15 rooms is named for the prostitute who occupied it in its heyday. I listened for ghosts in Mimi's corner room and all I heard was a soft silence that cushioned the tick-tock of a grandfather clock in the hallway.
The floors creak. Baths are down the hall. The front desk, halfway through the building, seems like an afterthought once you've already made yourself at home. The place is plain, simple, clean. No ghosts here. No weathered prospector standing in the hallway, chunk of gold burning a hole in his dirty pocket.
Skagway is named for a Tlingit Indian word, skagua , that means windy place. It is an uncertain wind that blows in town today. The very survival of the hardy settlement has come down to its one remaining source of income: tourism.
Not many miles away is Dyea, once another route to the Klondike, and now nothing more than a pile of rubble beyond reconstruction, even beyond recognition. Dyea is as dead as a town can be. The mortal blow came in 1900 when the town was bypassed by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad that was built between Skagway and Whitehorse. And now that same railroad, which kept Skagway alive from the turn of the century until 1982, is shut down.