Breaking molds in a Gold Rush boomtown
By TOBEY SCHMIDT
“There is no use trying to discourage them, our wills are strong and courage unfailing,” Annie Hall Strong wrote in The Skaguay News in 1897, according to the National Park Service.
She regularly wrote advice to women headed to the Klondike Gold Rush.
“It takes strong, healthy, courageous women to stand the terrible hardships that must necessarily be endured,” Strong wrote.
This year the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park rangers added another walking tour in town – Women of Skagway.
The walking tour focuses on women who were here in the late 1800s – on their lives and stories.
Skagway – both in its history and today – is filled with women who have broken molds, taken leadership roles and undergone risks.
This first report will focus on early Skagway history – a second article in the Aug. 25 issue of The Skagway News will focus on prominent women of Skagway in the present.
During the Klondike Gold Rush and decades after, Skagway seemed to be ahead of its time in terms of women and their societal roles. Marriage and careers were often mutually exclusive for them. If a woman were married, she was most likely denied any other opportunities other than caring for their house and family at home.
In the late nineteenth century and early to mid-twentieth century, the rest of the country was a tough place for women to break the mold of being exclusively housewives or mothers.
Apparently, the mold was not quite as strict in Skagway.
“This was an opportunity for housewives to become hotel owners or the unemployed to become entrepreneurs, and the strictness of Victorian social norms – that you will be a mother or a housewife and you will have this very narrow women’s role – women challenged that once they got here,” said Cassie Anderson, lead interpretive park ranger for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. “It wasn’t like there were no rules or expectations, but this was a place to push them a little bit.”
The slate was not clean, Anderson said, as many Skagway women still dealt with hardship. While there were many women who took on roles of being business owners or seekers and packers in the gold rush, there were also many who were forced into prostitution.
Women were kidnapped, brought to Skagway and forced into sex slavery. Anderson said that while some women chose that line of work, it might have been because many other doors were slammed in their faces.
According to the NPS, there were about 250 women in the sex industry in Skagway during the gold rush.
“So many women wore so many different hats,” Anderson said. “Someone who is a mom is also an entrepreneur. Or someone can look at her as an entrepreneur and she’s also a prostitute.”
If a woman wasn’t in the sex industry, but she wanted to make more than 25 cents a day cleaning hotel rooms, she might start her own business.
Harriet Pullen, who arrived in Skagway in 1897, was an entrepreneur who became a prominent businesswoman during the Klondike Gold Rush.
“I only had seven dollars to my name. I didn’t know a soul in Alaska. I had no place to go,” Pullen is quoted as saying, according to the NPS. “So I stood on the beach in the rain, while tented Skagway of 1897 shouted, cursed, and surged about me.”
Pullen began in Skagway by baking and selling apple pies, and cooking for stampeders.
She then brought her horses up from Washington and ran a team of them over the White Pass Trail, hauling freight for miners.
Soon after, Pullen bought a grand home from Captain William Moore and turned it into one of Alaska’s most luxurious hotels, according to the NPS. She had gardens and a dairy farm out in Dyea.
Skagway helped Pullen make a successful businesswoman of herself, something she might not have been able to achieve in another town.
After the Klondike Gold Rush and into the mid and late 1900s, it was very common for men to work for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, while the women stayed in town and ran the businesses.
Jan Wrentmore, who has been the owner of the Red Onion since she came to town in 1978, said that she thinks women were always prominent in the business community.
“I think it was a unique situation.” Wrentmore said. “When the railroad closed down those businesses were very important. They were the sole support of the family.”
The railroad closed down from 1982 to 1988.
Before the railroad was built, the White Pass Trail was one of the two trade routes that stampeders used to get from Skagway to Lake Bennett, along with the Chilkoot Trail. Mollie Walsh, who arrived in Skagway in 1897, worked along the White Pass Trail.
More than a century later, there is a statue of Walsh and a park in her name in downtown Skagway.
Walsh opened up a primitive “grub tent” café along the trail beyond the Canadian border where she served home cooked meals to freighters passing through. She was known for her meals and her cheerfulness, according to the NPS.
After the railroad replaced the trail, Walsh moved to Dawson and opened a restaurant there.
She married one of her suitors and moved with him to Seattle, where she was tragically murdered a few years later.
“Women overcame challenges and here they had the added challenge of sexism and many of them overcame that in really tenacious, creative, hard-working ways,” Anderson said. “And those are lesson and traits that everyone today, men and women, can admire and relate to.”