Skagway has a plethora of ghosts – perhaps it’s the stark amount of violence and illness that sent many to early graves during the gold rush. Join The Skagway News for a brief tour of Skagway ghosts, with three stops.
Lydia: The Red Onion’s
Skagway’s most famous ghost, Lydia, resides at Red Onion Saloon on Second and Broadway, a 10-minute walk from all three cruise ship berths.
Stories of Lydia’s footsteps, pranks and temper fill the restaurant/brothel museum, built in 1897 and moved to its current location in 1914. Originally used as a dance hall and brothel, the restaurant walls are adorned with antique bed pans and vintage pictures of barely covered bosoms.
“Lydia is like a spiritual hum that is constantly here,” explained Liz Lavoie, general manager and Red Onion employee since 2002. “I’ve never seen her physical form. It’s a mojo, you know, it’s an awareness that you’re not alone.”
Many have heard Lydia’s heeled footsteps upstairs in the brothel museum when the second floor is empty. Some have actually seen the deceased sex worker, known in her day as a “soiled dove.” Cori Giacomazzi, Skagway resident since 2002 and Red Onion museum curator/costume designer, has witnessed Lydia’s physical manifestation multiple times.
“I don’t tell people what she looks like,” Giacomazzi said. “So that way, if they think they see her, they describe her. They can’t fake it.”
Lydia demands respect, something she didn’t receive in her lifetime. Legend states Lydia’s face was branded after she contracted a sexually transmitted infection. She subsequently committed suicide – an act of desperation, perhaps better than starving.
“You have to acknowledge Lydia when you walk into the brothel,” Giacomazzi said. “If you don’t acknowledge her, she can make the rest of your day a little bit difficult. We have that big safe at the back door downstairs in the bar. An employee came in one morning trying to get the money out of the safe. And the damn thing wouldn’t open. And then she realized she forgot to say good morning to Lydia. And the minute she did, the safe opened … she never forgot again.”
Red Onion employees show Lydia immense consideration. Lavoie said in the winter, when she’s alone, she sings to the spirit and often speaks to her. Sometimes Lydia gets fan mail, particularly after a Red Onion documentary airs. Lavoie or Giacomazzi will read the mail out loud. Once a man sent Lydia a teddy bear as a comfort item. The two women left it upstairs in the brothel museum for Lydia to see.
Occasionally, Lydia will become upset. Lavoie described a time the cook was playing loud music early in the morning. She and two other employees stood by the bar, considering how to ask him to turn the volume down when suddenly, the iPod flipped off the shelf and disconnected from its cord. Seconds later, three jars of hot sauce were tipped off the bar counter, one by one.
There are a handful of accounts of Lydia giving men slight pushes down the stairs. Former Red Onion Head Madame, “Madame Spitfire,” outlined to NPR’s podcast Snap Judgment: Spooked (S2 E12), a time when a man was aggressive to his wife in the restaurant. Mysteriously, his chair flew out from under him and a boot print appeared on his shirt.
Server Don Nelson told a more lighthearted tale. A woman was at lunch in the Red Onion’s secluded upstairs room with two of her friends. When Nelson presented the bill, she recognized him from the night before when the Red Onion hosted a strip show. She jokingly turned around and put cash behind her back for Nelson to take. He retrieved the money and watched the receipt on his tray mysteriously rise up and slip between the woman’s fingers.
“Oh my god, are you a magician?” the friends asked.
Nelson replied “yes” and skedaddled.
“I just took the credit for that. I had nothing to do with it,” he said.
How does the Red Onion staff react to tourists who don’t believe in ghosts or are skeptical of Lydia?
With respect of course. But most staff members leave space for the inexplicable.
“I think it would be real hubris to think that because we haven’t experienced it ourselves, it doesn’t exist. Clearly, we are all still learning,” Lavoie said.
Young soul demands poetry:
Just across the street from the Red Onion is Skaguay News Depot & Books, an establishment that houses a lesser known Skagway spirit.
The historical building is leased from the National Park Service. The shop features artifacts from bygone days of old newspapers and printing. It peddles books unique to Alaska life such as preserving salmon and fictional murder mysteries that take place in the Arctic.
Denise Welch, sales associate for the bookstore since 2000, thought the store was haunted from almost the beginning of her tenure.
“I suspected probably the second year that I was working here,” Welch said. “It kind of felt different sometimes.”
While Welch “never felt anybody here, really,” the problem was with moving books.
Welch often played a CD the store stocked, Robert Service poetry performed by local character, Buckwheat Donahue.
“I got to noticing that if I didn’t play the tape at least once a day, that books would fall off the shelf occasionally,” Welch said. “And it always seemed to be a Robert Service Book. It just was one of those weird things that it never failed to be a Robert Service book.”
“I’ve moved bookshelves around since I’ve worked here. And no matter where the Robert Service books were, that was what fell,” she added.
Welch said the phenomenon continued for five or six years, until the Park Service refurbished the wood floors around 2012.
“After they redid all the floors, I never had books drop. It just doesn’t happen anymore,” she said.
According to Welch, during the goldrush the upstairs apartment was home to a family that had a young boy that was sick. She theorizes that like many in the time period, he didn’t survive to adulthood.
“Rumor is that he liked Robert Service’s poetry,” she said.
Visitors can find a selection of Robert Service books at Skaguay News Depot. Reading a portion of his poems out loud certainly wouldn’t hurt the ambiance.
The Ornery Days of ‘98 Ghost:
Three blocks farther north on Broadway and Sixth sits the Eagles Hall. It’s home to The Days of ‘98 Show, the longest running theater production in Alaska (1923), and a more malignant spiritual presence.
Built in 1899, the building smells of old wood and fresh popcorn. During show hours, the hall bustles with can-can dancers, catchy tunes belted across the stage and tourists leaning forward, eager to learn more about Soapy Smith, Skagway’s most notorious bad guy.
When the lights are turned off and visitors go home, there’s a different feel. The wind assails the aged structure which creaks and groans as the velvet stage curtains sway, and the sounds from the nearby Eagles bar feel distant. This is the atmosphere where show co-owner Charity Pomeroy does most of her behind-the-scenes work.
Pomeroy first appeared in Skagway in 2001 as a new cast member. She witnessed Jim Richards, former Days of ‘98 owner, habitually buying a shot of whiskey for the resident ghost.
“I thought it was all hogwash,” Pomeroy said. She rolled her eyes at the tradition, until she had her first experience with the entity.
She was in the back of the empty dim theater, headed to the stage to reset her props for the next day, when she saw a migrating mass of darkness she couldn’t explain.
“I just looked at that upstairs corner of the backstage area and it was extremely black – like Vantablack – and then the blackness moved,” Pomeroy said. “The blackness itself just slowly moved straight across the theater. And then I could see back in that [original] corner. It was still dark, but it wasn’t pitch black. It was so bizarre. I stood there trying to figure out how is this happening, and what’s happening. I just felt all the weird, crazy, horrifying feelings when you can’t explain something … It was enough that 20 years later, it still makes me shake a little bit.”
Today, Pomeroy sometimes feels unsettled when she’s alone in the upstairs office. She described a “bizarre sensation that comes out of nowhere.”
“I can be listening to an audiobook and all of a sudden I feel this pressure,” Pomeroy said. “It always comes from the theater and it comes from the same direction. It feels like when you hold your hand up next to your head and you talk, and you can hear the difference. It feels like this crazy malevolent feeling of, ‘Get out!’ It’s not words. It’s just a feeling. And it’s terrifying.”
Pomeroy said that even though she pays rent for the Eagles Hall, when she feels this particular sensation, she packs up and leaves.
“I can’t work through it,” she said.
One day last year, Pomeroy shut herself in the office to repair costumes. When she turned around, her arm loaded with costumes, the door to the theater was wide open. She put the materials down and closed the door again, this time witnessing the mechanisms click. When she walked into the dressing room, she heard the door fly open. She closed the door once more and commenced repairs.
“I sat down, my sewing machine faces that door,” Pomeroy said. “It’s right in front of it. And as soon as I sat down, once again, I swear to you, the doorknob moved and the door slammed open, BAM!” She hustled downstairs to check if it was windy outside, hoping that a draft could be blamed – and to seek out the safety of other humans at the Eagles’ social club. There was no wind.
Pomeroy described the Days of ‘98 ghost as a “malevolent male presence.”
“We are not yet friends,” she said. Pomeroy plans to purchase honorary whiskey shots this season, in an attempt to smooth relations.
This story will appear in the 2023 Skaguay Alaskan.