By Jeff Brady
Skagway bustles today in the summer like the boomtown it was in 1897-1898, but a few miles away, and a couple of valleys over to the northwest, lies a place that local residents and visitors cherish for its quiet beauty.
This place is Dyea (pronounced Di-eee) and for a short time it was just as big and booming as old Skagway.
Dyea’s history as a settlement actually is much older than its rival gold rush city. At the foot of the Chilkoot Trail, Dyea was established several centuries ago as a summer camp by the Tlingit from more populated villages down the inlet near present-day Haines. These Chilkoots built the trail over the mountains to facilitate trade with Yukon and Alaska interior First Nations tribes. Dyea and Taiya are really the same word (Deiyaa) in the Tlingit language, meaning “to pack.”
The Tlingit’s camp on the Taiya saw its first visitors from afar after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. The U.S. Navy had exerted control in the area and convinced the Tlingit to allow others over the Chilkoot Pass. George Holt was the first documented white man to cross it in 1874, and Alaska Natives began a commercial packing operation a few years later. Westerners John J. Healy and Edgar Wilson established a trading post on the site in 1884, while other coastal and interior tribes vied for control of the trade. It culminated in a Native packers battle in 1888 that resulted in the deaths of two chiefs and a truce of sorts. More and more white people kept crossing over the next decade.
Dyea had a post office by 1896, the year Tagish trader and frequent Dyea visitor Skookum Jim discovered the Klondike gold 600 miles from here. Nearly a year later, in July 1897, the first ships of stampeders arrived, and a city of 10,000 went up among the spruce and hemlock forest at the edge of a long tidal flat, connected by two mile-long wharves to the ships in the inlet.
During its year-long heyday, Dyea boasted 150 businesses, including 19 freighting companies , 48 hotels, 47 restaurants, seven real estate agents, and two newspapers. Taverns outnumbered churches 39 to 1.
But as quickly as it boomed, Dyea suddenly dwindled and almost disappeared. Two events played into its doom: an avalanche on the Chilkoot Trail in April 1898 that killed more than 60 stampeders, and the start of construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad out of Skagway in May of that year. Dyea had boasted its own tramline and a future railroad of its own, but in 1899 the WP&YR owners bought it and shut it down. Business owners from Dyea flocked to Skagway, taking many of their buildings with them, and by 1900 the city of 10,000 was a mere village again of 250.
Three years later, there were just six people living in the Dyea valley.
Dyea did not go away. Original homesteaders Emil Klatt and William Matthews lived and worked there, and Harriet Pullen ran a dairy farm in the valley for her hotel in Skagway for many years. A few braved the Chilkoot Trail, even scouting it for a film in the 1920s. But what was left of the old gold rush buildings gradually crumbled into busted foundations by the middle of the century.
Dyea became a destination again after the valley was connected by an eight-mile-long coastal road from Skagway in 1947. It became a favorite recreation area for local residents, and a few more residents built cabins there. The tourists came too.
In the late 1970s, much of the Taiya River valley was absorbed into the Dyea-Chilkoot Unit of the new Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The historic trail was restored, as were some of the trails through the woods where the Dyea townsite once stood.
Today visitors can take a walking tour through the old townsite and to the Slide Cemetery, where many of the 1898 avalanche victims were buried. There also are a limited number of commercial tours operating in the valley, but for the most part Dyea is there for the independent traveler to explore and photograph.
Wild irises bloom in mid-June on the Dyea Tide Flats, and fireweed join them in July and August. Currants and cranberries are found as well, when in season, and blueberries at higher elevations on the Chilkoot and Lost Lake trails or up West Creek Road (remote old logging road, 4WD vehicles only).
Birding is very popular on the Flats, especially when the eulachon (pronounced hooligan, a tiny smelt) run in the Taiya in May and during the arrival of pink salmon in Nelson’s Slough and other valley streams in August. Eagles, great blue heron and other birds seek the spawning fish along with the occasional grizzly and black bear, but keep your distance from them and pack your bear spray if you go on a hike. Also be mindful of the changing tides, which can catch an unobservant hiker or parked vehicle off guard on the Flats if you are not watchful.
If you are looking for a spot to spend the night and see Dyea at its best in the early light, the Dyea Flats area, managed by the Municipality of Skagway, has its own campground. Another campground, located in a wooded area along the river at the entrance to Dyea (and closer to the Chilkoot Trailhead), is managed by the National Park Service. For those who want a bed and meal cooked for them, there are nice cabins to rent at the outpost at the entrance to Dyea.
The main thing about enjoying Dyea is not to rush through it. Those days were left behind in 1898.
• Skagway: City of the New Century, The True Story of Skagway, Alaska including the White Pass, Dyea and the Chilkoot Trail. Jeff Brady, ed., Lynn Canal Publishing, 2013
• Dyea, Alaska: The Rise and Fall of a Klondike Gold Rush Town. M.J. Kirchhoff, 2012.
• Legacy of the Gold Rush: An Administrative History of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Frank Norris, 1996.
Jeff Brady is an author/historian, editor/publisher and bookstore owner who writes from his cabin in Dyea.