Southeast in Sepia: Finding ‘A Day in Skagway’

My column today is how a little bit of the area’s history dropped into our respective laps one day a few years ago and from Australia no less.

 

From 1990 to 2002, I was living in Dyea and drove the Dyea Road to work in Skagway most every day. For those of you who have not yet driven that road, it is very narrow with lots of curves – basically a 10 mile long, 30 minute drive.

One morning in 1994, while driving to work I was listening to the National Public Radio morning news show on KHNS, the local public radio station, as I usually did. I was coming up out of Nahku Bay, otherwise known as Long Bay, when NPR started doing a news story about the Australian National Film & Sound Archives in Canberra, Australia. Apparently the archive was pressed for space and funds and had decided to donate over 1600 American “lost” films to the American Film Institute. The reporter was talking about the holdings that the Library of Congress had recently acquired from them. Apparently this institution has a fondness for travelogues and had acquired quite a few over the years, including this new collection from the Australian film archives and here the reporter started naming the travelogues recently acquired – “A Day in Skagway” – I almost ran off the road. The very first title mentioned by the reporter was “A Day in Skagway” from 1918! Could there possibly be another town in the world named Skagway? Unfortunately I don’t remember anything else about the story.

When I arrived at work around 7 a.m., my office phone was ringing off the hook. Maybe a half dozen people had called or were calling to ask me if I had heard about the news story and the film. Now don’t laugh – for me my phone is ringing off the hook when two people call me in any hour of my work day, let alone six and all calling about the same subject! That has never happened to me before or since in the 34 years I have lived in Skagway.

I contacted the Library of Congress and was directed to a staff person at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Film Collection (formerly the Human Studies Film Archives) who knew all about the film. She indicated that it was a Burton Holmes travelogue distributed by Paramount Pictures and as far as she knew it was indeed of Skagway, Alaska, and taken around 1918. She could not be any more specific because the film’s title and copyright information was missing.

I asked her if I could get a copy of the film and she said no – it was a nitrate based film, which was the main film stock used at the time and that made it unstable, highly flammable and vulnerable to deterioration; they needed to transfer it to a safety based film before they could release it and that would take some time. I asked her how soon that could be done and was told it would take a long time because there was no money in their budget for that project and the film was at the end of a long line of other films awaiting similar treatment. I asked how much it would cost to move the film up to the top of the line and get it transferred fairly soon, and she said $1,800. So the Skagway Museum, KAKM-TV the public television station out of Anchorage, and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park put up $600 each and after a few months, we were each able to get video VHS tape copies of the film.

“A Day in Skagway” is now about 500 feet long which translates to about 10 minutes of running time. I found out later that the original film was 1,000 feet long so we have lost a bit over half of the film since it was first produced in 1918. Actually we’ve lost a bit more because the first few minutes of the film have nothing to do with Skagway and were apparently tacked onto the film at some time in the past just to give it more running time.

The movie is completely silent, of course, and in glorious black and white. The first segment shows several views of a formal garden somewhere in the world, possibly in Australia. Then the next segment is a rather imaginative piece where an artist, recalling a time from his boyhood, envisions a rustic scene in which he is fishing in a remote mountain stream with tall trees and steep mountains all around. He then starts to draw that scene in pen and ink on a white piece of paper. Working faster and faster, the pen is soon flying off the page and within a few seconds the drawing is complete. Then the drawn scene soon fades into real life.

The Skagway scenes start out with a bang. First there is the Fourth of July parade heading north up Broadway and shot from just across the street from the Bank of Alaska building at Sixth Avenue and in front of what was once known as the Nome Saloon during the gold rush (both buildings are still standing today). The scene shows many people walking or in cars and trucks proceeding toward the camera and all waving American flags. The camera pans to the right and we see the Gutfeld Residence (still standing) directly behind the bank building. Then there is a scene of the old Elks Hall on the north side of Sixth Avenue and the mountains above (that building unfortunately burned to the ground during World War II). The next few scenes are views of several foot races by boys and girls also on Broadway, the girls all in white dresses and the boys in their Sunday best are all racing on the dirt street. The next scene is of a boy and girl (Kenneth Blanchard and Evelyn Curtin, I learn later) sharing a large dahlia in one of Skagway’s beautiful gardens, and then, a bunch of kids at the Moore Warf playing with a dog that soon lets them know it prefers not to be played with. The next caption proclaims “in the Scenic Suburbs…” but unfortunately that little scene along with several others were left somewhere in the film’s long history in the outside world. The next two scenes are of the Gold Rush Cemetery and the graves of Frank Reid and Soapy Smith.

We then jump rather abruptly (indicating some additional lost film) to a long pan of the “deserted” village of “Hyndastuky” (Yandeistakye, now the Haines airport) and its lone inhabitant, an Alaska Native boy. Then there is a long segment with views of Charles Anway’s strawberry gardens also near Haines including shots of people picking and eating (and here I quote from another caption) “…the most delicious strawberries in the world.” Then our “visitors” travel back to Skagway on the steamer Peterson with Harriet Pullen entertaining them onboard ship. The next scene shows Mrs. Pullen serving other guests large raspberries on the Pullen House porch in Skagway (the Pullen House has now unfortunately been demolished).

Then there’s a scene with Mr. Yeoman (or probably his competitor since Mr. Yeoman died on Dec,. 22, 1917) with his dog-powered taxi service carrying guests around the Pullen House grounds and down Sixth Avenue. The caption here reads “Barring cat-astrophes, the system is a success.” (That is cats and dogs folks – got that?) After that, another caption mentions what is probably Reid’s Falls but there is no film footage behind the caption. The final scene is of people crowded aboard a White Pass & Yukon Route passenger car getting ready for the train ride of a lifetime.

Further research indicates that this film was part of a series of Alaskan travelogues Burton Holmes produced for Paramount Pictures that year including “The Alaska Cruise,” “Over the White Pass,” “Down the Yukon,” and “The Klondike Today.” Burton Holmes was born in 1870 and died in 1958. He was an American traveler, photographer, and filmmaker, who coined the term “travelogue” in 1904 to advertise his travel lectures with projections of hand-painted glass-lantern slides and early films. From China to the Panama Canal to the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius and to Skagway and Haines, Alaska, Burton Holmes was there.

In the Daily Alaskan, Skagway’s local newspaper from 1898 to 1924, there are several reports of the film crew’s presence in Skagway during the summer of 1918. Finally, on Sept. 5, 1918, under the headline: “Skagway Will See Itself on Screen at [the] P.P.P.” the newspaper announces what I would like to call the World Premier Showing of “A Day in Skagway.” The P. P. P. was the Popular Picture Palace, one of Skagway’s two movie theaters operating at the time, the other was the Nugget. At one time, the Palace was located in the former Red Front Store on the west side of Broadway just south of Fourth Avenue. In 2000, the National Park Service completed construction of a replica of the original structure in the same location.

The advertisement accompanying the Daily Alaskan’s story notes that the main feature film showing with “A Day in Skagway” was Louise Glaum starring in a Triangle Players Presentation of “The Wolf Woman,” written by C. Gardner Sullivan in five acts and produced in 1916. Also E. J. Shaw, the “Four Minute Man,” would be the speaker on Sunday night. The show started at 8:30 p.m. sharp, Saturday and Sunday, and the price of admission was 10 cents or 25 cents. No indication if popcorn was sold but music would be provided (from a violin, a piano, and some drums). Remember this was the era of silent films so music was frequently used to evoke the mood. The P. P. P. also advertised themselves as the only movie house in Alaska with raised seats. Perhaps those were the 25-cent seats while for 10 cents you got a spot on the floor. In any case, the park has copies of “A Day in Skagway” from 1918, now on DVD. We can show the film in our auditorium, with raised seats but unfortunately without the music or popcorn, and so if you are interested in seeing this little historic gem showing what Skagway looked like 100 years ago this summer, direct from Australia via Washington D.C., we would be happy to show it to you at no cost.

To my knowledge, no other copy of “A Day in Skagway” survives in the world. Unfortunately the original nitrate print of this film was destroyed after it was copied because it was in such an advanced state of deterioration that maintaining the nitrate film could not be justified. Many thanks to all the folks and institutions that helped bring this little film back from the dead including the Australian National Film & Sound Archives, the American Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution – National Anthropological Film Collection (formerly the Human Studies Film Archives), National Public Radio, Lynn Canal Broadcasting (KHNS), the Skagway Museum, Alaska Public Telecommunications (KAKM-TV) and the National Park Service – Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.


• Karl Gurcke is a Skagway historian who works at the National Park Service. He can be reached at karl_gurcke@nps.gov.


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