For more than a century, entrepreneurs of young and old have ventured to Skagway in search of riches. Fortunes have evolved throughout the years, with capitalists finding gold in cruise ships rather than shimmering creek beds, but the yearning for wealth remains constant. Those lucky enough to amass great sums expect it to be protected inside a vaulted safe deposit box, and today that expectation is fulfilled. But securing your money on the streets of Broadway wasn’t always so easy. Banking in Alaska has had an evolution all its own.
In “Banking on Alaska,” Terrence Cole and Elmer E. Rasmuson tell the tale of the monetary turmoil that weaved its way through the pockets of Alaskans from the early 1900s until 2000, focusing on the National Bank of Alaska, a branched banking system founded in Skagway.
But before the days of national banks and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Alaska operated on a wilder, every-man-for-himself kind of banking. Until 1913, Southeast Alaska banking was done via a merchant system, void of any regulations. Shop owners set up portions of their store with a pen, ledger and a sign reading BANK, and welcomed anyone with pocketfuls of money.
Characters like Frank “The Money King” Keelar, set up shop on the streets of Skagway, dealing with anything that screamed money.
The First Bank of Skaguay opened its doors on Dec. 21, 1897, in what would later become Soapy Smith’s Parlor. In the spring of 1899, The Skaguay News reported, “The First Bank of Skaguay has been a pillar of financial strength and an aid in building up the city.” Unfortunately, the pillars did not last, and the bank closed three months later with outstanding debts of more than $15,000.
But the town was not without its tellers. The Canadian Bank of Commerce had established a Skagway branch in 1898. The bank was the most important throughout Alaska and the Yukon during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, and issued $2 million worth of bank notes in Dawson City. By 1899, the Canadian bills were the most used currency in Nome, and by 1902 gold dust was out of circulation.
It was inside the Canadian Bank of Commerce on Fifth Avenue that Skagway’s first and only bank robbery took place in 1902. On Sept. 16, The Daily Alaskan reported that an unidentified man approached teller George E. Wallace and held out a stick of dynamite.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s dynamite,” Wallace answered.
“Well, I want you to give me $20,000,” the unknown man said, pulling out a gun. “Now be quick and give me $20,000 or I will blow up this building.”
Upon seeing the gun, Wallace made a run for it. Three shots were fired and then the bank exploded, the dynamite catching fire from the gunshot.
The bank’s interior suffered extreme damage, but amazingly, the robber himself was the only casualty, dying an hour after the explosion.
“The victim of his own depravity is lying in People’s undertaking room, mangled and burned almost beyond recognition,” the Daily Alaskan reported.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Historian Karl Gurcke said the robber had planned to escape over the Chilkoot Trail and had inquired about hiring a boat to take him to Dyea.
“They never found out who he was,” Gurcke said. “It would be very complicated to escape from Skagway.”
The unknown man never did escape. According to “Banking on Alaska,” a photographer used the skull in a series of photographs that became popular among tourists. Accounts of the head’s final resting place differ: some say it ended up in Martin Itjen’s Skagway museum, while others say it stayed at the bank until it closed in 1910. Today, its whereabouts remain a mystery, but its tale lives on in infamy as the only bank robbery in Skagway.
Banking in Alaska changed drastically when the Territorial Banking Act was passed in 1913. Merchant banking was finished and all territory banks were brought under government regulation for the first time.
At the same time, a very moral and righteous man named Andrew Stevenson was meeting one “Colonel” W. L. Stevenson, who claimed to be Andrew’s cousin. Skagway had found itself in a financial depression, but the Colonel promised to bring it back to its days of glory, and brought Andrew along with him.
Andrew Stevenson brought branch banking to Skagway with the incorporation of The Bank of Alaska on Feb. 4, 1916. “Banking on Alaska,” said stock was set at $50,000 and divided into 500 shares at $100 each. Andrew was made president.
The bank first opened its doors on March 20, 1916, at 10 a.m. at its temporary location inside the old Canadian Bank of Commerce building. Local dentist Dr. L.S. Keller opened the first bank account in town, and the first savings account was given to the Skagway Public School Savings Fund. The first and only loan given on opening day was to Harriet Pullen, a 90-day note for $200 with a standard rate of 10 percent interest.
Branches were eventually opened in Anchorage, Wrangell and Cordova. The bank was successful, but Stevenson and bank directors wanted more. Director Z.S. Freeman was quoted as saying, “I want to have the building made a ‘thing of beauty’ and permanently attractive, to be pointed to as the one most beautiful building in all Alaska.” And so construction on Skagway’s current bank at Sixth and Broadway began, with Colonel Stevenson at the helm.
Through his Hargraves Engineering Company, the Colonel quoted Stevenson $15,000 for a one-story, concrete office building: the first concrete commercial building in Alaska. In an effort to further diminish any fire hazards, all wooden shacks and buildings were moved to other parts of town.
Gurcke said the Mondamin Hotel was relocated to Fifth and Broadway, where it and the Pacific Hotel were joined to make what is now the Eagles Hall.
Unbeknownst to Stevenson, the Colonel was a swindler, and the bills rose rapidly. At the time of completion on March 20, 1917, the bank had racked up $40,000 in costs. At 5,000 square feet, it was more than six times the size of the Anchorage office and one of the most expensive office buildings constructed in Alaska. Stevenson cut off the Colonel’s credit and found that he had a number of other fraudulent deals, and was not in fact his cousin. After making death threats to Stevenson, the Colonel disappeared from Skagway in 1916, leaving a wealth of confusion in his wake.
The bank couldn’t recover from the great debt on its own, so Stevenson urged stockholders to help the bank back onto its feet. H.D. Walbridge loaned the bank $60,000 and attorney Edward Rasmuson stepped in to untangle the web. But the bank continued to deteriorate, and so too did Stevenson’s health. In 1918 he resigned from The Bank of Alaska, and Rasmuson was named president.
Wells Fargo Museum Assistant Walter Van Horn said Rasmuson started as a teacher. He was made a U.S. Commissioner and began taking correspondence courses in law. After passing the bar exam, he moved to Skagway in 1915 and became the Bank of Alaska’s attorney. He was quickly named president, and over the next few decades dedicated his life to the bank.
“I’m sure there were a lot of times he regretted that decision,” Van Horn said. “The workload was horrendous.”
Rasmuson spent large amounts of time in Anchorage and Wrangell, but very little time in Skagway. And still, the bank had its highs and lows.
Depression racked the state after World War I, and the economy of the rail belt went into decline after 1923. Citizens were encouraged to purchase Liberty Bonds for $50 or $100, effectively withdrawing their money from the banks. Van Horn said Rasmuson worked 18-hour days to keep the bank open.
But even with such a workload, Rasmuson ventured into politics and was elected Skagway’s mayor in 1921 and later a Republican National Committeeman.
Such work took its toll. His health began to decline, and in 1943 son Elmer took over as president and brought the bank into a new era. The economy was on the rise and banking laws were changing. In 1950, the Bank of Alaska became federally accredited and changed its name to the National Bank of Alaska. It would become the largest bank in the entire state.
In 2000, the Rasmuson family decided to sell the bank to Wells Fargo, a decision, Van Horn said, was due to leaving a legacy to Alaska.
“[Elmer] intended to do that by providing a large sum of money to what is now the Rasmuson Foundation,” he said. “If he had been the owner of the bank at the time of his death, the tax situation would have been devastating to this intent.”
The bank was sold for more than $400 million, with virtually all funds going into the foundation, Van Horn said.
“It’s a major source of philanthropy within the state.”
After 100 years, the bank still sits on the corner of Sixth and Broadway, with the Bank of Alaska logo prominently on display. Over the years, it has gone through renovations and expansions. The first three teller cages are original to the Canadian Bank of Commerce, while the three facing Broadway are recreations. An antique desk sits in the manager’s office, and the original 6,000-pound steel safe still protects Skagway’s money. And though it hasn’t been seen in more than a century, perhaps a certain skull resides somewhere in the floorboards, hidden away from time.
“Things are a lot less harem skarem than they were,” Van Horn said.