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Compelling history of Gateway to the Klondike after Soapy Smith's death

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 21, 2015

Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory

By Catherine Holder Spude; University of Oklahoma Press; 2015; 344 pages; $24.95

No Alaska town holds the mythic appeal of Skagway. As the fabled Gateway to the Klondike, Skagway was where thousands of prospectors first alit on northern soil, bound for the gold fields of Dawson. It was also where these would-be Argonauts were famously fleeced by all manner of con men, liquor salesmen and prostitutes who recognized that the real money was found in vice rackets.

These days, Skagway celebrates and romanticizes this past, but the reality of the time was considerably different from popular conception. This is made clear by Catherine Holder Spude in her academic but still lively study, "Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory."

An archaeologist by training, Spude took an interest in early Skagway's social tensions between vice and virtue while digging through a turn-of-the-20th-century garbage deposit for the National Park Service in 1983. What she discovered was the intermingling of trash from a mission and a brothel that apparently sat side by side for a brief period. This sparked a research project that took 30 years to complete.

The book that resulted is an examination of the first two decades of a gold rush town that roared into existence almost overnight and declined nearly as quickly, but never completely disappeared in the manner of so many 19th-century Western boomtowns.

Shifting power centers

What Spude explores here is the shifting power centers in Skagway as the businessmen of the emerging middle class, their wives and the laborers of the working class struggled to further individual agendas, with the town's vice district the ground where many political battles were fought. This is also the story of how purveyors of vice could work their way into middle-class respectability through sheer force of income. Finally, it's an examination of how in just 20 years women's suffrage and Progressive Era social reforms transformed a free-for-all tent city with thousands of transient male residents into a family town where alcohol, gambling and prostitution were essentially driven out.

Given the heady objectives and the author's credentials, this could have easily turned into a work of sociological theorizing with limited appeal beyond the academy. Spude, however, chooses to focus on the story and limit her class and gender discussions to the opening and closing sections of the book. Even there, she doesn't get too deliberative. Her primary focus is on telling the story itself; the conclusions are obvious.

As anyone with a smattering of Alaska historical knowledge realizes, Skagway sprang up in response to the Klondike gold strike of 1896 that prompted thousands to stream north seeking their fortune. While most of the hopeful miners launched their excursions into the Yukon from the small port, plenty of opportunists stayed on the shore, catering to the needs of men pouring into and out of Canada. Spude describes a city of tents and filth where legitimate operations competed for business with a burgeoning underworld of gambling dens, brothels and saloons -- all three often under the same canvas roof.

As buildings were erected and an actual town took form, the tug-of-war between civic leaders and the thriving vice peddlers came to a head with the gunning down of the infamous con man Soapy Smith, who had created his own fiefdom in Skagway.

After Soapy Smith

Most accounts of the town's gold rush days end with Smith's death, but Spude takes this as her jumping-off point. What follows is an account of the extended struggle for control of the city's destiny, with several distinct sides and sometimes shifting alliances.

Atop the town as the 20th century dawned were its middle-class businessmen, who owned much of the property and supported the political structure. With Smith out of the way, they preferred to pretend that vice no longer plagued the town.

Contradicting their delusion were saloon owners who offered booze, card games and women to the working-class men who made up yet another element in the power struggle. In meeting the base desires of a disproportionately male population, some of these barkeeps built sizable fortunes and entered local politics, holding seats on the city council.

Above-board businessmen and city councilmen were caught between two competing groups. One was the saloon owners, who were assessed an annual licensing fee, providing the city with income for schools and other development projects. The other was the wives of businessmen, who wanted to see alcohol and prostitution eliminated, both for the safety and well-being of their children and to keep their husbands from temptation.

Were that not enough, the working-class men in town organized themselves into a political party that took control of the government in 1907 and shifted taxation toward personal property rather than land, pushing the city's financial burden more heavily onto its business class.

Amid all this, prostitution was legally confined to one area, inadvertently allowing a few of the madams to consolidate operations and begin climbing the socioeconomic ladder. At the same time, middle-class women were pushing for voting rights and gaining their own power. Meanwhile the territorial and city governments were often at odds about who had authority over what.

The story of how each side dealt with prostitution and alcohol forms the core of this book. In the end, the balance shifted and, Spude writes, "Middle-class married women gained political power while working-class bachelor men lost their most prized social institutions." Bars and brothels were shuttered.

Skagway, it turns out, was even more lively after the gold rush than during. Who knew?

Catherine Spude has dug up a fascinating story here. Our knowledge of pioneer-era Alaska is richer for it.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

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