By FRANK NORRIS
What’s in a name? As the following glossary suggest, plenty. The place names that dot the landscape are living reminders of who has been before us, along with some of their attitudes, legends and whimsy. You’ll soon find that the people who gave Skagway its names were a lively, humorous and patriotic bunch.
This is the large mountain located just north of Skagway. As you may know, the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, one of the town’s most prominent buildings, is located on Broadway between Second and Third. When the A.B. Hall was constructed in the spring of 1899, a workman on the roof noted that the snow on the south slope of the mountain showed the letters “AB.” Deep, narrow gullies on the mountain retain snow for up to a month longer than the surrounding area. Using a little imagination, observers today can witness this for themselves between April and June.
The Chilkoots, a branch of the Tlingit nation, used this pass as a trading route for hundreds of years before whites entered the area. Russians heard rumors about the pass during the 19th century, but not until the 1870s, when miner George Holt sneaked through, did Europeans begin using it. Frederick Schwatka, who took an expedition over the pass in 1883, called it Perrier Pass, and others called it Dyea Pass or (mistakenly) Chilkat Pass. Abandoned after 1900, except by occasional hunting parties, the pass reopened as a recreational trail in 1961 and is maintained by U.S. and Canada park services.
Dewey Lakes/Twin Dewey Peaks
Skagway emerged from a homestead to a full-blown city during the 1890s, a time of American history known primarily for the Klondike Gold Rush and the Spanish American War. Popular as the gold rush was, the coming of the war in April 1898 pushed the rush off the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Nowhere was the patriotism of the war felt more vividly than in Skagway. When Admiral George Dewey’s fleet smashed the Spanish at Manila on May 1, the town responded by naming several lakes and mountains (elevation 5,300-6,300 feet) in his honor. They are accessible by a trail system east of town.
This Tlingit word has had a whole host of spellings, including Dyaytahk. Even its meaning is somewhat disputed; while most suggest it means “to pack or to load,” other say it means “place to look down to.” Both are appropriate enough. Dyea, on the Taiya River, was the rival town to Skagway — a rough-and-tumble port where miners got off the Inside Passage ships and started the long trail up the Chilkoot Pass.
When surveyors came through the area in 1898, this peak west of Skagway was named Parsons Peak. Locals, however, preferred to call it The Sphinx, Gnome Mountain or, more often, Face Mountain. Sure enough, those who look at it from below may be able to recognize the etched features of a human face. Elevation is 6,600 feet.
Glacier Station, Laughton Glacier
This site of an old station, 14 miles up the White Pass railroad from Skagway, was one of several stations along the route south of White Pass. It is named for Laughton Glacier, just three miles east of the station and named for John Laughton, a commander of the U.S. forces in Cuba during the Spanish American War.
Heart Mountain/Sawtooth Range
The huge ridge five miles north of Skagway and east of the U.S. border station is known as either Heart Mountain or Sawtooth Mountain. The latter name comes logically enough from the serrated appearance of the ridge. Heart Mountain is so named named because of a large heart-shaped patch on the south slope, which supports no trees.
One of the most successful early businessmen in Skagway was jeweler Peter Kern. Shortly after the rush, he built a mountain retreat in the woods above Lower Dewey Lake. It operated only a few years, burning down in a 1912 forest fire. Only a few rock walls and metal fragments remain.
Visitors will notice another bit of Kern’s handi work – the pocket watch clock on the mountain wall at the east end of Fourth Avenue, first painted during the gold rush, and now maintained by Kirmse’s Curios, which bought out their competitor and changed the advertisement.
This spot two miles north of Skagway is now site of the Tent City show. During the gold rush it was a large, impromptu campsite, the last place to stop before the rugged climb up White Pass. During the early part of the stampede, scores of reporters descended on Skagway, eager to gather accounts of trail conditions. Not wishing to hike it themselves, however, they collected here. Returning stampeders, of course, were free to say whatever they liked, or whatever they felt the reporters wanted to hear.
This peak north of A.B. Mountain is the highest in the Skagway area with an elevation of 6,605 feet. It was named for George Washington Carmack, co-discoverer of the Klondike gold. Carmack knew the area well, having crossed the Chilkoot as early as 1887.
President Warren G. Harding was the first and only president to visit Skagway. He arrived July 11, 1923 on board the U.S. Navy vessel Henderson and remained long enough to give a speech at the Pullen House and to be initiated into the Arctic Brotherhood. Harding died three weeks later in San Francisco. The following July 4, local resident George Rapuzzi climbed the peak across the bay from Skagway and raised a flag on its summit while members of the Skagway Alpine Club officially named the mountain in Harding’s honor. It’s also known as “Witch Mountain” for the image of a witch on a broomstick below the glacier in summer.
This gold rush town was the largest along the Chilkoot Trail between Dyea and Lake Lindeman. It was named in the late 1880s because of the mountain sheep (actually goats) overlooking the area. A temporary campsite until the mid-1890s, it exploded into prominence in late 1897 and by April 1898 had a floating population of 8,000. It “ghosted” in spring, 1899.
Few have agreed on how our town should be spelled, or what the name means. Originally a Tlingit word, it has been variously spelled Shgagwéi, Skaguay, Schkague, Shkagway, Skagua, Schkawai and even Cquque. Most suggest that it means “home of the north wind,” but others say it means “spirit of the cruel wind,” “end of the salt water,” or “rough water.” Still others, using supposedly authen
tic sources, suggest it means “lady relieving herself on a rock” or “sound a sled runner makes when it breaks loose from the snow and ice.” The town erupted from a homestead to a full-size city during the winter of 1897-98, witnessed the building of the railroad from 1898-1900, and has been here ever since.
This small bay, one-half mile west of town, is presently a city park. Sixty years ago a homestead existed there. Many think its name dates back to the Prohibition era, but its name actually came into existence decades earlier. During the gold rush, the importation of liquor into Alaska was prohibited, and with customs agents situated in Skagway-Dyea, the cove was doubtless a popular place to land illegal cargo.
This pass was known to the Natives before whites began to encroach into the area, but it was ignored in favor of the nearby Chilkoot Pass. The first known traverse of White Pass took place in June 1887 when Capt. Moore and Tlingit guide Skookum Jim ascended it as part of the William Ogilvie expedition. The pass was named for Thomas White, Canada’s Interior Minister and Ogilvie’s superior.
Frank Norris has a doctorate in Geography and is a retired National Park Service historian from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He formerly worked at Klondike Gold Rush NHP in Skagway and as the Alaska region historian in Anchorage. His books include Garden City of Alaska and The Chilkoot Trail.