Skagway’s Sex-Workers and Specters

I recently found myself in the very tiny town of Skagway, Alaska. While there are only about a thousand full time residents, the summer months bring nearly a million tourists (the local paper estimated 900,000 in 2014). To support the tourists a temporary work force comes in each season.

Any quilters or knitters want to run away to Alaska for the summer?

Any quilters or knitters want to run away to Alaska for the summer?

All those people only staying for a few hours, plus nearly a thousand people coming for a few months, in a town that’s only a handful of blocks seems like the perfect recipe for mystery. Within a few hours of touching its gray weathered shores, I knew I wanted to set a novel there. Thick ropy clouds loomed above me while halfway-to-hurricane-force winds tried to knock me over. It was perfect. Thankfully, the town is also filled with ghosts, I learned about them on a “Ghosts and Goodtime Girls” Tour put on by the Red Onion Saloon.

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The Red Onion Saloon built in 1897 when Skagway a lawless town described by police as “little better than a hell on earth”.

Skagway boomed during the Gold Rush in 1896. At the time there were two ways to get it rich: you could mine for gold or work the miners. The town offered all of the illegal indulgences someone could want. Drinking establishments, dance halls, and brothels made up most of the businesses. Skagway never developed a condescending attitude to its sex workers. Most women worked for about two weeks, using an assumed name to allow them to return to their normal lives untainted. It wasn’t unheard of for a brother or a husband to set his wife up in a ‘crib’ and allow her to work in safety.

That’s a pretty surprising idea but my tour guide, a lovely lady named Rosy Peaks, insisted that in the bleak frontier town people were too busy surviving to worry about morals. The town did have a few shocked folks who attempted to curve the sinful ways, but efforts were often meant with sly derision. Sex workers would often advertise themselves by sitting near the windows of their rooms only partially dressed. To stop the practice morality laws decreed all windows had to have curtains. Lace and sheer curtains became all the rage almost immediately.

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My tour guide stands in front of a stored historic “crib” where women would have posed in the large window.

But even an open permissive atmosphere can’t stop ghosts. My tour guide was more than happy to take me to the corridor where phantom footsteps ran away from police more than a hundred years after the brothel was closed down. Local wisdom says the runner is a prostitute named Lydia, who never left her workplace. A block away another girl, who died from tuberculosis, can still be heard coughing through the night. Not all of the town ghosts are former sex-workers though. Mary, who haunts the Golden North Hotel, died of a broken heart when her gold miner fiancée never returned to her. She’s still looking for him today, usually by checking the beds of the hotel guests.

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Coughing still rings through the halls of this building which was been everything from a social house to an orphanage.

I’m sorry that I only got to visit Skagway for a day. After speaking with everyone at the Visitor’s Bureau, the local town historian, and my tour guide, it became obvious that the locals didn’t think there was anything remarkable about their town. I’d love the chance to explore its history more closely, and discover more fantastic stories waiting to be told.

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As a quilter I couldn’t resist a photo of this crazy quilt made up of the girls’ fancy dresses over a hundred years ago. It’s currently on display in the upstairs Brothel Museum at the Red Onion Saloon.

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