Tales from Alaska’s Gold Rush Towns

Adventure, hardship and a string of bordellos

Creek Road, Ketchikan. Photo by Richard Varr

Creek Road, Ketchikan. Photo by Richard Varr

Alaska’s and the Yukon’s gold rush in the late 1890s led to the creation of several Wild West-like towns, often with lawlessness, saloons and of course brothels. Most flocking there with dreams of getting rich were instead met with extreme hardship – thieves, rugged trails and perhaps most deadly, the minus 50 degree temperatures in winter. With the gold rush, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Dawson City, a picturesque town with dirt streets all the way up in the Yukon near Alaska’s eastern border, started to flourish. They were all included as stops on the 12-day Holland America Land+Sea Journey.

Dawson City, Yukon. Photo by Richard Varr

Dawson City, Yukon. Photo by Richard Varr

Red Onion Saloon, Skagway, brothel tour. Photo by Richard Varr

Red Onion Saloon, Skagway, brothel tour.
Photo by Richard Varr

In Skagway, I visited the Red Onion Saloon and toured the former upstairs brothel. Along Ketchikan’s Creek Street is Dolly’s House, once home to the town’s most popular lady of the evening, but now a museum. Other such buildings there are now shops and restaurants. What’s most interesting about Creek Street, however, is that it’s not really a street but actually a boardwalk over a salmon-filled creek.

Dawson City, Yukon. Photo by Richard Varr

Dawson City, Yukon. Photo by Richard Varr

Dawson City, Yukon is well preserved with many buildings still standing from the gold rush days. I took a tour of century old buildings there that have been restored, and viewed the ghastly tradition of downing a shot with a human toe in the glass – a way for visitors, who don’t experience the frigid winters, to show how tough they are. NO, I didn’t do it!

Panning for Gold and the Gold Dredges

Panning for Gold at Gold Dredge No. 8. Photo by Richard Varr

Panning for Gold at Gold Dredge No. 8. Photo by Richard Varr

It took a while, but my wrists became quite agile as I tilted my dirt-filled pan at just the right angle to shake out loose gravel and soil. The idea was to eventually eliminate all of the dirt and hopefully find a bit of gold. Gold is heavy, and if done just right, will remain in the pan. I was successful, and when my tiny gold nuggets were weighed, they were worth only $9.

This was actually a fun time when I visited Gold Dredge No. 8 outside Fairbanks. A gold dredge is a behemoth machine that scoops up the earth to extract gold. Gold Dredge No. 8 was used in the early 20th century and ceased operating in 1959.

Gold Dredge No. 8. Photo by Richard Varr

Gold Dredge No. 8. Photo by Richard Varr

Native American Heritage in Anchorage and Ketchikan 

Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan. Photo by Richard Varr

Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan. Photo by Richard Varr

Ketchikan is known for its Totem poles and has a few attractions with multiple keenly carved poles on display. I met a master woodcraftsman in Saxman Totem Park recreating the weather-beaten poles of 150 years ago. Each pole, with multiple figures of animals and warriors, has a tale to tell.

Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, has the Alaska Native Heritage Center with several displays of native villages from all over the state. The Anchorage Museum has an extensive collection highlighting the state’s ancient through modern history and Native people.

Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan. Photo by Richard Varr

Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan. Photo by Richard Varr

For more information:  http://www.HollandAmerica.com

 

 

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