An enormous amount of Alaskan history was compressed into the final decade of the 19th century at Skagway . In August 1896, on the day that George Carmack struck it rich on Bonanza Creek, Skagway consisted of a single cabin, constructed eight years previously by Captain William Moore but only occupied sporadically by the transient pioneer.
News of the Klondike strike hit Seattle in July 1897; within a month 4,000 people huddled in a haphazard tent city surrounding Moore’s lone cabin, and “craft of every description, from ocean-going steamers to little more than floating coffins, were dumping into the makeshift village a crazily mixed mass of humanity.”
Almost immediately, Frank Reid surveyed and plotted the town site, and the stampeders grabbed 1,000 lots, many within Moore’s homestead. There was no law to back up either claims or counterclaims, and reports from the time describe Skagway as “the most outrageously lawless quarter” on the globe.
Into this breach stepped Jefferson Randall “Soapy” Smith, Alaska’s great bad man. A notorious con artist from Colorado, Soapy Smith oversaw a mind-bogglingly extensive system of fraud, theft, armed robbery, prostitution, gambling, and even murder. He had his own spy network, secret police, and army to enforce the strong-arm tactics.
Finally, a vigilance committee held a meeting to oppose Soapy. Frank Reid, the surveyor, stood guard. Soapy approached. Guns blazed. Smith, shot in the chest, died instantly, at age 38. Of Soapy, the newspaper reported, “At 9:30 o’clock Friday night the checkered career of ‘Soapy’ Smith was brought to a sudden end by a 38 caliber bullet from a revolver in the unerring right hand of City surveyor Frank H. Reid . . .” Reid was shot in the groin and died in agony a week later. His gravestone reads, “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”
More recent evidence has been less kind to Frank Reid’s reputation. It turns out that he had been a prime suspect in an Oregon murder, and as a surveyor for the railroad he was deeply involved in the theft of William Moore’s homestead lands. Some locals say both men got what they deserved.
Skagway  was the jumping-off point for White Pass, which crossed the Coastal Range to Lake Bennett and the Yukon headwaters. This trail, billed as the “horse route,” was the choice of prosperous prospectors who could afford pack animals to carry the requisite “ton of goods.” But it was false advertising at best, and death-defying at worst.
The mountains were so precipitous, the trail so narrow and rough, and the weather so wild that the stampeders turned merciless; all 3,000 horses and mules that stepped onto the trail in 1897–1898 were doomed to a proverbial fate worse than death. Indeed, stampeders swore that horses leaped off the cliffs on purpose, committing suicide on the “Dead Horse Trail.”
The famous Chilkoot Trail , which started in Dyea  (die-EE), 15 miles from Skagway, was the “poor man’s route.” Stampeders had to backpack their year’s worth of supplies 33 miles to Lake Lindeman, which included 40 trips up and down the 45-degree “Golden Stairs” to the 3,550-foot pass. This scene, recorded in black and white, is one of the most dramatic and enduring photographs of the Days of ’98. At Lindeman, the stampeders built wooden boats for the sometimes treacherous journey to the gold fields at Dawson.
The late 19th century was a time when the railroad was king, and the sudden rush of prospectors to the gold fields attracted entrepreneurs intent on figuring a way to build a railroad from Skagway over White Pass. Into this breach stepped Michael J. Heney, an Irish Canadian contractor with a genius for vision, fund-raising, management, and commanding the loyalty of his workers. Heney punched through the 110-mile narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railway  to Lake Bennett by July of 1899, and then on to Whitehorse  a year later.
The route, so treacherous to pack animals, was no less malevolent to the railroad builders. They worked suspended from the steep slopes by ropes, often in 50-below temperatures and raging Arctic blizzards, for $3 per day. Completion of the railroad ensured the constant flow of passengers and freight to the gold fields—as well as Skagway’s survival. For the next four decades, the railroad was virtually the only way into Yukon.
During World War II, the White Pass & Yukon Route hauled much of the construction equipment and personnel to build the Alaska Highway. In the 1970s the railroad shifted to hauling lead, zinc, and silver ore concentrate from a big mine in Yukon. The concentrate was shipped from Skagway for processing in Asia. When metal prices plummeted in 1982, the mine closed, and train traffic halted. (One legacy of this mine is the presence of lead and other toxins in the waters off Skagway.)
But just as mining was ending, Alaska’s current gold rush arrived in the form of cruise ships. The White Pass & Yukon Route  reopened for excursion travel in 1988, and it is once again not only Skagway ’s favorite attraction but one of the only operating narrow-gauge railroads in North America. Today, over 300,000 passengers ride the train each summer.