By Melinda Munson

Hundreds of people turned up to Shoreline Park April 19 to mark the end of the 55-year lease of Skagway’s waterfront, and to participate in a town photo with friends and families stretched across the entrance to Broadway Dock.

The Municipality of Skagway’s (MOS) lease with Pacific & Arctic Railway & Navigation Company (PARN) and White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (WPYR) ended at midnight March 18, transferring responsibility and revenue opportunity to the municipality. 

The lease end negotiations were sometimes tense, with the MOS eventually agreeing to release PARN/WPYR from environmental  remediation of the Ore Dock Basin (up to $15 million), in exchange for WPYR leaving infrastructure and improvements in place.  

However, the mood was celebratory on dedication day, 24 hours after Skagway welcomed its first ship to a municipality controlled port.

“Today we gather as a community on our own waterfront, your waterfront, the Port of Skagway,” Mayor Andrew Cremata said. “Getting here was not easy. When this community overwhelmingly voted down a lease extension just eight years ago, our path was forged. We were on a clear path to own and operate our port for the first time in our collective history.”

Cremata then outlined the ensuing pandemic and rockslides that crippled the town’s economy.

“But we persevered,” he said. “And we are all here today. My fear throughout all of these challenges that we dealt with over the past three years was that the community would lose its resolve in regard to taking control of our waterfront. But those fears proved to be unfounded. Every one of you stayed the course. You remain determined to be in control of our collective destiny. It’s the proudest I’ve ever been of this community. Accomplishments like this don’t happen because of government. This is not an accomplishment of the Skagway Assembly. This is not an accomplishment of the borough manager and it’s certainly not an accomplishment of a mayor. This is the result of community working together with one harmonious voice – resilient, and strong.”

Steve Hites gave a poetic history of Skagway and then led the crowd in the Alaska State Song with the help of Sheryl Dennis. Braving the wind, Mayor of Whitehorse, Laura Cabott, addressed the audience and Port Director Cody Jennings outlined the port redevelopment project which includes a new Ore Dock that holds a very large cruise ship (VLCS) and incorporates a marine service platform for the exportation of mineral concentrates.

Professor X́unei Lance Twitchell gave his speech in Tlingit, then in English. 

The speaker’s podium was staged in front of the new Shoreline Park restrooms which display the most prominent Tlingit artwork in Skagway, Northwest Coast formline eagles constructed of metal.

“If you look way over that way, look way over that way, way over that way, you look right here – It’s all Tlingit land,” Twitchell said as he gestured full circle around the valley. “We never gave it to anybody. Nobody ever purchased anything from us.”

“But Skagway has a long and complicated history with its indigenous peoples,” he continued. “So as you dedicate this dock today with joy, I want to issue a challenge. And that challenge is to let go of anti-indigenous sentiments that exist here today, that existed when I was born here.”

He explained that this historical moment will feel different for Native people.

“But you do have to keep in mind for the indigenous peoples who are from here, it’s sometimes difficult to watch people take your land and give it to someone else right in front of your own face when they don’t recognize what’s been lost and what’s been taken from the indigenous peoples who have lived here. And who caused no one harm.”

He encouraged residents to learn about indigenous history, pointing out that Soapy Smith, “a guy who scammed people out of buying soap with money in it, is more famous than any single Native person who has ever lived here.”

Twitchell referenced the former Pius X Mission Catholic Resident School for Native Children, where Garden City RV is now located, owned by the municipality. He challenged the audience “to give the land back. Even if you just start with a little chunk, land back is a wonderful initiative.” 

“There’s a lot of wonderful things that happen in this community,” Twitchell said. “I think it has come a long ways from when I lived here. And I think we can still go farther by listening to each other, by seeing each other, by learning and committing to the complex histories that sometimes still contribute to erasure.”

After the dedication, Twitchell and his family participated in the town photo, which was organized chaos as residents crowded around a Skagway Volunteer Fire Department fire engine and Liz Lavoie, chair of Ports and Harbors Advisory Board, cut the oversized blue ribbon with giant scissors borrowed from Juneau.

Following the photo, much of the town headed to the Red Onion Saloon for a beer.