Editor’s note: This book review is one in a series about unsung or forgotten Alaskan histories.
Skagway occupies a strange place in Alaskan history. A gold rush town without gold, it sprung up in southeast Alaska in 1897 to facilitate thousands of Yukon-bound stampeders on their way into the Klondike. While most headed for the gold fields, many new arrivals remained on the coast, peddling overpriced supplies, alcohol, games of chance, and women’s bodies to those passing through. Briefly a rollicking haven for crime and iniquity, it was the birthplace of modern Alaska.
Then in 1898, gold was discovered on the beaches of faraway Nome. Prospectors immediately rerouted to the Bering Sea, and Skagway’s population plunged. Yet unlike so many boomtowns, Skagway hung on. But the chaotic community needed to tame itself to survive. That’s the history Catherine Holder Spude takes up in Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory (2015, University of Oklahoma Press).
In the early 1980s, Spude was working as an archeologist for the National Park Service in Skagway. While sifting through a gold rush era refuse dump, she found detritus from both brothels and a Christian mission. This piqued her curiosity. How had the inevitable social conflict between these opposing camps been resolved, and how did this help the town persevere?
These are the questions Spude explores in a book covering Skagway’s development during the first two decades after miners moved onward. The business establishment that had sprung up created a small cadre of entrepreneurs who wanted social stability. This meant cracking down on drinking and prostitution, objectives unpopular with the predominantly male and working-class population and the barkeepers and madams who catered to them.
It was a struggle primarily waged by women, Spude shows. Skagway’s consolidation into a permanent town coincided with the Progressive Era, when women’s influence on American politics rose dramatically, and societal reform was a national goal. Many of the Americans who arrived in Alaska during this period brought these ideas with them.
Most of the women in Skagway who weren’t prostitutes were either married to businessmen or were themselves establishing above-the-board enterprises. They were putting down roots. Thus by 1900, families were becoming the core of the nascent community’s social fabric. This led to calls for schools, public safety, and an end to the freewheeling vice that had overrun the town during the stampede. Women led the charge.
Women gained even greater sway when the territorial legislature formally recognized women’s right to vote in 1913. A decade-long tug-of-war between reformers and working-class men wanting to keep their pleasures had dominated Skagway’s politics, but the sudden influx of ballots from women tilted the scale solidly to the side of those who wanted to shutter the bars and brothels.
Reformers triumphed, Spude writes, and the wild side of Skagway was subdued. “Middle-class married women gained political power while working-class bachelor men lost their most prized social institutions.”
What happened along the way is a lot livelier than many might think. It’s also far from what Spude was anticipating when she launched this project. “When I began my research for this book, I thought I would be telling the personal stories of scandalous women,” she told me. “Instead, I uncovered a far more compelling narrative of the power struggle between men and women in the first two decades of the last century.”
From a historical perspective, the early 20th century Skagway found in Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory is both more interesting and more significant than in its gold rush days. This is where a frontier boomtown was remodeled into a permanent community. This is where modern Alaska truly took form.