Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park owns a number of historic buildings within the Skagway Historic District. Most of these buildings have been fully restored and leased out to private residents for their businesses or are used by the park for exhibits or office space.
Before the National Park Service (NPS) actually starts restoring an historic building a lot of preliminary work has to be done in order to ensure the historical accuracy of the restoration. Historical architects carefully examine and document each building in order to assess its condition and determine what needs to be done to the structure to insure its continued long-term survival. Historical archaeologists excavate under or around the building in order to preserve the archaeological record that would be damaged or destroyed by the actual building restoration process with the construction of foundations, utility lines and the like and to get a better understanding of what life was like in Skagway that has not been mentioned in the history books. Last but not least, historians research the history of the building itself in order to, among other things, determine the time period the building should be restored to and to ensure that the restoration is historically accurate. Historians also dig into the history of the people that built and operated these buildings and try to tell their stories.
In late February 1978, the NPS acquired a small unassuming historic building on the east side of Broadway between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, just north of the alleyway that divides the block. Historians soon found out that the building was originally owned by Frédérick Verbauwhede, who operated a cigar store and confectionery and lived upstairs with his family. Research on the history of the building was considered complete in 1983 and the building was restored to its 1899-1904 period of significance in 1985-1986. It has been rented to the private sector ever since.
A few years back, however, Roger Verbauwhede, grandson of the original owner of the building, contacted me through an email from Belgium and we began a delightful conversation about his grandfather’s adventures in Alaska during the great Klondike Gold Rush. What follows combines the history uncovered by park service historians years ago and the family stories of life in Alaska with which Roger’s grandfather regaled him as a child in Belgium.
Frédérick Verbauwhede was born in February 1850, in the city of Warenghem in Flandre, Belgium. Flandre today refers to the Dutch speaking northern portion of Belgium. Warenghem is located about 31 miles northeast of the French city of Lille. In 1871, when he was 21, Frédérick left the family farm. By 1878 he was a sailor on the steamer Rotterdam which travelled between the cities of Rotterdam and New York. It was at this time that Frédérick started to dream about America. On May 21, 1880, he married Nathalie Van Leyseele in Avelghem, Belgium. Nathalie was born in January 1851 and had a brother living in Philadelphia at the time of her marriage. In 1889 the couple immigrated to Philadelphia, where Frédérick became a member of the Philadelphia mounted police. His grandson, Roger, still has Frédérick’s badge labelled “Special Police” and his gun from that time.
Both Frédérick and Nathalie became naturalized American citizens in 1890. They had three children: Sadie (Sidonie) Marie, born July 1890 in Philadelphia and died November 1933 in Belgium; New York clock and watchmaker Alfred, born in Philadelphia January 1892; dental surgeon Henry, born March 1894 in San Francisco, though he moved to Roubaix, France (close to Lille). He was imprisoned by the Germans during World War II but survived and died in 1967.
In 1894 the Verbauwhede family moved to San Francisco and Frédérick started working in a gold mine. When word filtered out of the vast quantities of gold in the Klondike, like many others, he headed north. He arrived in Skagway in February 1898. Apparently he acquired an important gold claim near Skagway but sold it cheaply when he was drunk one night. Little gold has been found in the Skagway area, so his depression at this act might be due to the fact that the White Pass & Yukon Route railway apparently bought the claim for its right-of-way shortly after he had sold it. He soon realized, however, that merchants earned much more than gold prospectors and being in a trade was a lot easier than digging for gold in the permafrost of the Klondike. Therefore, soon after his arrival, Frédérick opened up a cigar store in the part of town known as “French Alley.”
Originally prostitutes were found all over Skagway, but in 1898 the city council tried to confine them to the alleyway between 5th and 6th Avenues. “Paradise Alley” was the first part of that alleyway, running from Broadway west to the mid-point of the alley. “French Alley” was the second part of the same alleyway, running from approximately mid-alley west to State Street. “Yokohama Row” was located on the same alleyway but between State and Main Streets. The names of the alleyways were apparently partly related to the nationalities of the women who worked in the alleyways. Those locations later changed.
The Verbauwhede family soon followed Frédérick and arrived in Skagway in May 1898. As the stampede waned and Skagway’s business district shifted toward Broadway, Mr. Verbauwhede bought a thirteen-foot wide lot fronting Broadway on September 11, 1899. He erected a small, two-story, false fronted, wood framed building shortly thereafter.
From the first floor of the new building, Frédérick, along with his wife Nathalie, sold a large selection of cigars, tobaccos, and cigarettes as well as candy, nuts, and fruits. Apparently they also sold equipment for trappers. Among his customers were Native Alaskans who often traded pelts in exchange for ammunitions, food tins, and alcohol. Frédérick weighed the gold he received from gold miners while his wife Nathalie sold candy to the town’s children. Upstairs were furnished rooms rented to transient lodgers. The 1900 census lists six: a traveling salesman, two brokers, a miner, a sailor, and a cook, which is a lot of people to squeeze into such a small building, especially if you add in the five members of the Verbauwhede family as well. In 1902, Mr. Verbauwhede moved two one-story structures (cribs) from “French Alley” down to behind his store on Broadway. The crib closest to the store served as the residence for the family while the other crib was also rented out to lodgers.
One of the stories Roger Verbauwhede heard was of an attempted robbery. A bandit wanted the cashbox and came into the store and threatened Frédérick with a gun. From her kitchen in the back, Nathalie had the presence of mind to take a cast-iron lid from the top of the stove and throw it at the robber with all her strength. She had a deadly aim and the gun dropped to the floor as the lid broke the robber’s arm. It was then easy for Frédérick to overcome the man while Nathalie roused the neighbors. When the police arrived, they congratulated her, for the robber was considered very dangerous and did not hesitate to shoot when in a fight. This was not the first or last time the store was broken into. In the summer of 1901, $800 was taken from the till. Then in January 1902, another thief broke in. This time, they left some blood on a broken window. The Daily Alaskan of January 7, 1902 notes that after the burglary:
“…a search for cut fingers among the suspicious characters of the town was instituted…Barney Burns…was found in his cabin, between the wharves, at the foot of State street, and [was] immediately herded to the government bastille by the federal marshal and the municipal watchman. Barney claims his digits were gashed when the [steamer] Dolphin cleared a week ago, but medical authorities aver that the gore on his pants, shirt, coat, and towel, is freshly shed and that the cuts to his fingers are very recent. Night Watchman Hartman has been doing considerable sleuthing in the case and will not impart all the clues he has run down to convict Barney of the crime.”
As an old man in Belgium, Frédérick used to tell his grandson that at night, bears would come down into town from the surrounding mountains in order to rummage through garbage cans. Some of the bears were more than six feet tall and very frightening, he said. Women and children were forbidden to go out at night and men were always armed. Several times Frédérick found himself face to face with one of these bears. They were mostly inclined to flee, but accidents did happen. He also related that at certain times of the year, harpoon fishing for salmon was great entertainment for young and old alike. Ice-skating was popular in the winter. Several early photographs of Skagway taken from the eastern hillside show what appears to be an ice rink constructed directly across the street from Verbauwhede’s store, near where the Golden North Hotel is now. Frédérick was also a member of the Arctic Brotherhood, and the family still has his gold AB pan pin as proof of membership.
On Sept. 14, 1904, the Verbauwhedes sold their store to James D. Steinebaugh, owner of the Principal Barber Shop, for $800 and went back to San Francisco. The Principal Barber Shop, by the way, still stands on the west side of Broadway between 5th and 6th Avenues. In 1906 the family, homesick for Europe, went back to Belgium and then to France. Frédérick died on Nov. 12, 1933. Nathalie followed him the same year.
Steinebaugh, who arrived in Skagway Oct. 1897, bought the former Verbauwhede building for summer rental space. During the time he spent here, he was a barber. Exactly who rented the former Verbauwhede building between 1904 and 1910 is still unknown. However, in May 1911, Emil Richter opened a jewelry and curio shop in the building. Two or three years later, Richter moved into a larger building a short distance down Broadway and closer to the waterfront, where Richter’s Curio is today. The former Verbauwhede store may have been vacant from then until July 1, 1916, when Steinebaugh sold the building to James F. Greene, a gunsmith. Incidentally, Michael Steinebaugh, a descendent of James Steinebaugh, recently donated to the park a very nice collection of historic images of Skagway.
In addition to his gunsmith business, James F. Greene, who was born in England in 1846, advertised himself as an outfitter, guide, handyman, and second-hand dealer. After he died in 1924, his heirs sold the building to Frank Suffecool in 1925. Suffecool opened the Alaska Transfer Company, an express delivery and taxi service, and ran the business for almost 15 years.
In 1944, Kenneth and Christine Lamoreux and William and Dorothy Dewer purchased the building and business and continued to run the Alaska Transfer Company out of the building. By this time, the store had undergone some changes in appearance and the new owners installed a gas pump out front, as well as making other changes. Malcolm Moe purchased the building in 1965 and added liquor as a sales item. He later moved his Alaska Liquor Store down to the northeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Broadway. Atlas Travel rented the building from 1973 to 1977.
The NPS acquired Verbauwhede’s Cigar Store and Confectionery and the cribs behind it for $30,000 and immediately began stabilization efforts. Restoration of the building started in April 1985 and completed in November 1986 at a cost of $350,000, which included the two cribs. The exterior of the building was restored to its 1899-1904 appearance with the interior adapted for contemporary use. The building is currently part of the Historic Property Leasing Program at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. It is also a contributing element to the Skagway Historic District and White Pass National Historic Landmark. The story of this little building on Broadway spans two continents, an ocean and several generations and families.
Information for this article came from the Historic Structure Reports for Ten Buildings by Catherine H. Blee, Robert L. Spude, and Paul C. Cloyd (1983) and Legacy of the Gold Rush: An Administrative History of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park by Frank Norris (1996). Additional information was supplied by Roger Verbauwhede (Frédérick’s Grandson), a Daily Alaskan article published on January 7, 1902, digital census and death records held at the park and a Wikipedia article on Belgium. I wish to thank both Roger Verbauwhede and Michael Steinebaugh for their kind donations to the park. An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.