Thursday, 17 December 2015

Wild night at the Red Onion

The bus from Whitehorse rolled into Skagway late afternoon. It was knocking on the end of September, and the small city's streets which, I presumed, would over the summer months be thronged with tourists disembarking from the cruise liners docked at the quays, were largely deserted. I did not mind this, and rather relished the opportunity to walk the wooden sidewalks unjostled.

Skagway became the place it is thanks to the gold rush, where it was a vital stopping post for prospectors, en route to the gold fields in the Yukon. I had read Pierre Berton's lively history of the gold rush ("Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush", which I would recommend to anybody), and already had a vivid image of the place back in its lawless gold rush days, over a hundred years before.

The modern Skagway was an odd combination of clean parodies of its own history and general tourist tat, and it was with some surprise when, after quite a bit of searching, I finally found Jeff "Soapy" Smith's Parlor (a grand name for an abandoned wooden shed) on Second Avenue. "Soapy" Smith acquired his nickname by being the master of a particular confidence trick - you sell cakes of soap, wrapped in paper, and demonstrate to the punters that you have wrapped dollar bills - sometimes up to a hundred dollars' worth - under the paper of some of the bars. You then sell perfectly normal soap for a dollar a piece, with the punters hoping to get one with the money. Except that the one with the money is never available to the ordinary punters, only to confederates, who demonstrate their "successes", to urge others to buy in.

In the early, lawless, days of Skagway, "Soapy" Smith realised that there were easier ways of making money from the gold rush than by the hard work of mining for gold, and set to work mining the prospectors, instead. To this end, Jeff. Smith's Parlor offered, for a premium, to send messages back to the loved ones left behind. The only problem with this being that "Soapy" Smith's Parlor did not have a connection to the telegraph lines - at the time, there wasn't one, this far north. Before he reached is inevitably bloody end in the summer of 1898, gunned down on Juneau Wharf, "Soapy" Smith was in charge of his own militia. When I visited it, his Parlor was boarded up, in an overgrown yard behind a wire fence, a somewhat sorry memorial to a dastardly, yet undeniably colourful individual.

That evening, having found some food in one of the few restaurants that was still open, I wandered back towards the quay, where the ship that was to take me back south down the Inside Passage was waiting, and sat in the bar of the Red Onion Saloon. As it boasted, albeit in a slightly coy way, it had been a brothel, back in the city's "glory" days, but it had obviously become the contemporary city's local.

Over a beer or two, I watched the summer workers, who would also be joining the ship heading south, as they celebrated their last night in town. It felt like the end of term, as kids who had made friends whilst they worked the summer season said their goodbyes to one another. They partied with a slightly sad air; former strangers who had been thrown together for a time, had fun, maybe even fallen in love, but who knew that they might never see each other again.

In the gent's, somebody had written a short poem of Emily Dickinson on one of the walls. Later, from the bow of the ship, as I watched the city's lights fading off into the night, it seemed to me to match perfectly the wistful mood of the evening:

So set its sun in thee,
What day is dark to me—
What distance far,
So I the ships may see
That touch how seldomly
Thy shore?

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