When journalist and history buff Jeff Brady first arrived in Skagway in 1974, one of the first things he noticed, along with its beauty, was that this was a town steeped in stories.
Over the next 35 years, Brady immersed himself in those stories — as editor of The Skagway News, as co-owner of the Skaguay News Depot and Books, and as publisher of the bookstore’s in-house small press, Lynn Canal Publishing. He’s read and written hundreds of pages about this unique town in Southeast Alaska’s northern corner, and listened to and researched hundreds more.
And he has yet to run out of material.
Now, he’s gathered many of those stories into one volume — a hefty one — called “Skagway: City of the New Century.” At 450 pages, the work is a comprehensive look at the history of the town, as told through news articles and the words of more than 30 journalists and writers.
Brady will be in Juneau Monday to give a presentation on the book at the Mendenhall Library from 6:30-8 p.m. He’ll be accompanied by Kathy Cooney, a former Skagway resident and artist who designed the cover of the book based on artwork from the front page of the Daily Alaskan as it appeared on the first day of a new century: January 1, 1900.
The artwork reflects not only the book’s content, which draws heavily on historical newspaper articles, but also Brady’s longtime job as editor of the Skagway News and as publisher of a visitor guide styled as a gold rush newspaper called the Skaguay Alaskan. He hand delivers the latter to tourists on the docks.
“We still go down and meet the ships with our visitor guide,” Brady said. “I’m a paper boy every morning.”
Feature stories from the Skaguay Alaskan, researched at libraries around the state and written by Brady over the past 35 years, form one of the anchors for the new book. Each one focuses on a different aspect of Skagway history.
Brady said his main purpose in pursuing the book project was to give the community a single volume of the town’s history.
“It was mainly for the community, so it would be a record of things that happened,” he said. “I wanted to collect all the articles into one book.”
The book begins with some lesser known stories about the area from the perspective of descendants of Tlingit residents of Dyea, a nearby settlement. Skagway itself didn’t host year-round residents, probably because it was too windy, Brady said.
Among the Native voices in the first chapter is Juneau’s Lance Twitchell, assistant professor of Alaska Native languages at UAS, who was born in Skagway and still has family in the area. Twitchell translates the name Skagway as Shgagwéi, “bunched up or roughed up water.” (Dyea he translates as Deiyaa, meaning “to pack”, a reference to the area’s traditional — and current — role as a place to begin the long trek into Canada via the Chilkoot Trail.)
From these stories about Dyea and its history, Brady moves into the story of Skagway itself, a city that basically sprang up overnight following the arrival of Captain William Moore and his son Bernard, who built a cabin on the site in 1887.
In an article on Captain Moore, written by former Skagway resident Rand Snure (who encouraged Brady to do the book), Moore is described as a man of “tenacious character”, who had been “chasing rainbows most of his life.” Though Moore put down roots in the 1880s, the first boatload of prospectors didn’t arrive until 1895, according to Snure. A couple years later, the area was overrun as Skagway quickly took shape as a busy gold-rush town and gateway to points north.
Brady said the prospectors were a rough bunch; despite this, they laid the groundwork for a city that was surprisingly advanced for its time.
“It was a hard life, but yet you have these cities springing up out of nothing and they were quite modern,” Brady said. “Skagway was one of the first communities in the United States that had electric lights and hydropower.”
In one of the book’s articles, “City of the New Century,” Brady wrote that the city grew into the largest town in Alaska, with a population between 10,000 and 20,000. Despite its size, the realities of life in Skagway were often grim.
Brady wrote: “The world’s greatest gold rush was a blessing for those few who got to the gold fields first and became rich and successful. For the many more who squandered their riches in saloons, it was a different story — a nightmare of endless suffering.”
Soapy Smith, famous for doing his part to add to this suffering, is the subject of several articles in the book, as are the lawmen who tried to keep him out of trouble. The railroad, an important development in the town’s history, also figures prominently.
The second half of Brady’s book traces the post-gold rush development of the town, with chapters on community, prominent female residents, the military, tourism and restoration, among many other things. The book takes readers all the way up to Skagway’s 100th birthday party in 2000 (and, in the afterward, up to 2012).
Though a huge undertaking, Brady said technically the book isn’t done in his mind. There’s one more chapter, but he decided including it would make the book too long, so it that extra chapter will be published as its own book.
“It will be called ‘Skagway’s Centennial Characters,’” he said. “It’s profile pieces of people I interviewed ... and those pieces are 75 percent done.”
In researching the stories of long-time Skagway residents, Brady was also able to draw on his own family: His wife Dorothy, is the descendant of a “gold rush gambler” and part of one of the oldest families in town. She’s also co-owner of their business, Skaguay News Depot & Books.
Brady is currently considering selling the newspaper part of the business so he can focus on his books full time, and on his publishing business, Lynn Canal Publishing. Upcoming titles include a collection of award-winning writer Andrew Cremata’s “Fish This!” columns and a book by Catherine Holder Spude, author of “That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith in Legend” on saloon life and prostitution in Skagway. (Find out more here: www.skagwaybooks.com/lcpreadings.html.)
He’s also busy with the North Words Writers Symposium, which he founded four years ago with Buckwheat Donahue and Dan Henry. This literary event draws writers and participants from around the state; this year’s faculty included Juneau writers Lynn Schooler and Dave Hunsaker, among others. (Find out more here: www.nwwriterss.com).
Brady is also currently working on a new project with his wife, setting up an artists’ and writers’ retreat called Alderworks. He expects it to be open in 2015. (Stay tuned for more on this story.)
Asked if he felt overwhelmed by all the literary projects he has his hands in, Brady laughed.
“No,” he said. “I have my hands in just enough things.”
"Skagway: City of the New Century," is distributed by Epicenter Press and available locally at Hearthside Books. For more, visit www.hearthsidebooks.com/product/skagway-city-new-century.
Know and go
What: Booksigning and presentation with Jeff Brady and artist Kathy Cooney
When: Monday, Aug. 12, 6:30-8 p.m.
Where: Mendenhall Valley Library