Dyea’s 120-year old false front tells a story

An unadorned false front of weathered wood, along with the scattered, deteriorating boards behind it, are all that remain of the A. M. Gregg Real Estate Office – the only standing false front in Dyea. The building was located on the west side of Main Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, on a portion of Lot 3, Block 22, in gold rush era Dyea. This was a mixed business – residential neighborhood just a bit north of the main business section of town. The Astoria-Dyea Trading Company was located just north of the real estate office, while a residence or school was located immediately to the south. Across Main Street and a bit north was the California House, advertising “Meals at all hours” and bread and pies, while almost directly across the street was the large two-story Ross Higgins & Company store advertising “Groceries, Meat & Miners Supplies.” Ross Higgins also had a store in Skagway during the gold rush.

 

Not much is known of real estate agent A. M. Gregg. We don’t even know his first name. As evidenced by various witness notations in local plat books, Gregg was living in Dyea by early November 1897. He remained in town at least until early March, or possibly until late May of 1898. He was one of seven known real estate agents operating in Dyea at the time. From the fragmentary records available, and given the non-downtown location and small size of his shop, he appears to have been only moderately successful at his trade. Really, his only claim to fame is that he is the only business person in Dyea that we have some physical evidence of his former office.

Gregg was also involved in the criminal justice system during the month of November 1897, first as a plaintiff and then as a defendant. Apparently the first case involved an altercation between him and a Mr. E. T. Casey, also of Dyea. Casey asked for a jury trial and the first jury failed to agree – a mistrial. The second jury found Casey not guilty. Gregg was then charged and found guilty of assault on Casey and fined $10 and three days in jail. We know even less about Casey except that he owned some property located on Water Street in Dyea (lot 9, Block 30) so this dispute may have been about the lack of sufficient or prompt payment on the property.

Along with much of the rest of the gold rush tide of humanity, Gregg probably continued on to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields as soon as he could. The Northwest Mounted Police recorded that an A. Gregg, of Victoria, British Columbia traveled over the Chilkoot Pass on May 31, 1898. Later Canadian government records indicate that an A. Gregg filed three placer mining applications in the vicinity of Dawson. Then an A. E. Gregg left Dawson for Seattle in January 1902, according to Dawson City Post Office records. Unfortunately, without more information, we are unable to tell if these individuals are the same as the owner of Dyea’s only standing false front.

Like the owner, little is known about the building itself. It was a single story, gabled roofed structure, 20 feet long by 10 and one-half feet wide. It appears in two historic photographs, one taken in the spring of 1898 by the gold rush photographer Eric A. Hegg, and the other taken in the summer of 1899, by an unknown photographer. The 1898 photograph shows Gregg’s name and the words “Real Estate” on a sign, but by 1899, the sign was missing and the building’s front had been remodeled.

The two photographs clearly show that the false front had been altered between the two years. That is, in the earlier photograph, the front appears to be composed of vertical board sheathing, while in the later photograph and today, the front is covered in horizontal tongue-in-groove siding, with a framed window and door. In a few places today, the vertical boards can still be seen beneath the horizontal tongue-in-groove siding so it appears that the horizontal siding was simply laid over the original siding sometime between 1898 and 1899. The 1899 photograph also shows that between the two years, a wooden boardwalk had been built in front of the building, several small spruce trees had been planted along the outside of the boardwalk, a fence had been built along the back of the boardwalk on either side of the front, and finally, the building was either still in the process of being remodeled or it had apparently been abandoned because there was a large hole in part of its southern wall. None of these later elements show up in the 1898 image.

Although one of the smaller business buildings in Dyea, it remained standing long after others fell or were torn down or removed, indicating that the building must have been of some use to the later owners of the land. In Skagway, hotel proprietor Harriet Pullen’s 1918 homestead survey map of her property in Dyea, a building labeled “shack” is probably the False Front. It is located at the southwest corner of an oblong fenced enclosure. No trees are shown on the map, although today, an aged rectangle of Sitka spruce trees is located directly behind the building. Cores from the existing living trees in this rectangle suggest that they were replanted here sometime in the late teens or early 20s – possibly as late as 1922, or shortly after Pullen patented the land. Pullen’s use for the building is unknown, although because the false front is still standing, the building may have been in use as late as the 1940s. The side and rear walls slowly deteriorated during the 1950s and 1960s, and by the mid‑1970s, all but the front wall of the building had collapsed. During the winter of 1975-1976, the false front also collapsed. This was discovered in the spring of 1976 by Skagway summer resident Steve Hites, who organized a group of around 10 local residents who were able to lift the front back up and prop it against a well-placed two by four support brace nailed to two trees that just happened to have grown up on either side of the front. Their quick work saved the false front from further degradation, for otherwise it would have been destroyed in short order like the rest of the building. A few feet in front of the false front, the width of the boardwalk, the spruce trees shown in that 1899 photograph are now rotted stumps.

In the summer of 1997 Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park began historic preservation work on the false front. The wall was spotted with rot-inducing moss and lichen, and moisture was soaking upwards from the ground, causing further damage to the base. Conservation measures recommended by the National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry Service Center were carried out, including removing the moss and lichen, treating the wood with a fungicide and preservative, installing a wooden cap along the false front’s top, reattaching elements that had fallen off of the front, treating and repairing the sill, and improving drainage along the front’s bottom. Before this work could start, archaeological excavations were required in order to completely clear the area of any cultural remains that might be damaged or disturbed by this work. Park archaeologists thoroughly documented the remains found in their excavation units on either side of the front and the artifacts collected are now stored in the park’s curatorial facility in Skagway for future inquiry.

In their excavation, the archaeologists found highly deteriorated lumber or timber fragments belonging to the foundation of the building and the adjacent boardwalk. Also found scattered among the wooden remains were other artifacts, including a great quantity of nails, spikes, glass and ceramic shards, a leather shoe sole with a maker’s mark, and the partial upper of another small shoe, a six-inch length of 1/2-inch (inner diameter) threaded steel pipe, a few cut animal bone fragments, and a key type can opener. Glass finds included window pane glass, white milk glass, and brown, green, clear, and manganese bottle glass, including several base and neck or lip fragments. The archeological excavation trenches were filled in with gravel after the excavation to assist with the false front’s drainage.

One of the two trees supporting the front was dead and so the brace supporting the front was carefully removed, the front temporarily set aside, and the dead tree carefully cut down and removed. The stump was left behind because it was supporting a wooden gate – all that remained of the fence shown in the 1899 photograph. The front was then carefully repositioned and long wooden braces, running from the back of the front to the ground, were attached to the front in order to support it. Several times since this work was done, the front has been cleaned and treated with a fungicide and preservative to maintain it. With the help of many individuals, Dyea’s only intact false front from the Klondike gold rush is still standing after more than 119 years and, with help, we hope it will be standing many more years.


• Frank Norris and Karl Gurcke are historians with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.This report was originally researched and written by Frank Norris, park historian from 1983 to 1988, as part of a series of historical studies of selected ruins found in Dyea and along the American side of the Chilkoot Trail. The archeology was conducted by Eve Griffin, lead park archaeologist from 1996 to 2001. Gurcke has added to, revised, and updated the text to include the additional information. He wishes to thank Frank Norris, Eve Griffin and her archaeological crew, the park’s maintenance crew, and Steve Hites and his crew for their help in preserving this relic of the great Klondike gold rush. An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.


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