Skagway's next fork in the road

Historic city struggles to predict the future in economic uncertainty

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Road Series

Skagway - It's just after the lunch rush on a sunny winter afternoon, and Monday business at the Sweet Tooth Cafe is momentarily slow.

There's a party of six near the wall. Most of them have no interest in talking about a proposed road from Juneau to Skagway.

Owner Colette Hisman, on the other hand, has time to talk. She's lived in town since 1977 and favors the state's proposed 68.5-mile connection to Juneau's Glacier Highway. Her family is split on this point, and she says the town is too.

"It's more 50-50 than anything else, but the people against the road are the ones that people hear, so it appears to be more like 75-25," she said.

The anti-road crowd is vocal in Skagway. At the state's public hearing Feb. 24 at the Skagway City School, 33 testified and only seven supported the road. The pro-roaders, mostly long-time, year-round residents, may be a silent force. But they're out there, and many of them think they have no political power in a town that's been painted as anti-road.

"I didn't make it to the meeting, and if I had, I don't know that I would have stood up in a room that I thought was loaded with people that were very much, not just against it, but adamantly against it," Hisman said. "The road to Whitehorse didn't hurt the economy. So I don't see how a road to Juneau would hurt the economy."

Tucked into the end of Lynn Canal, Skagway sits 95 air miles - a 45-minute commuter flight - northwest of Juneau, six road miles south of Canada and 108 road miles south of Whitehorse, Yukon. Haines is 14 miles southwest by ferry.

During the summer tourist season, Broadway, Skagway's historic main street, is packed from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Last year, the town drew 722,905 cruise-ship visitors, almost 24 times the cruise load of Haines. Skagway also saw 134,500 independent travelers and reaped $4.9 million in sales tax revenue. Tourists flock to the town to see traces of Alaska's Gold Rush past.

Winters are a different story. The population dips below 500, and many of the downtown shops are boarded up. As in Haines, this winter was particularly harsh. The fast ferry Fairweather was pulled from service Jan. 23, and Skagway was left with the plodding Matanuska on Fridays, the Malaspina on Mondays, and one late-month glimpse of the LeConte.

The Transportation Department has cut overtime road maintenance pay. There are no 24-hour services on the Klondike Highway to Canada, and the road has been closed more than usual.

Skagway businessman Chris Valentine, owner of Sergeant Preston's Lodge, watched his business suffer as customers struggled to get to town. Like others in town, he believes the inadequate ferry service is a political ploy by the Murkowski administration to make the road seem a necessity.

"It's all politics, but they're playing with people," Valentine said. "We're just barely hanging on, and what are they doing? They're taking the last little pieces from us."

"They start putting the road in, it's going to take 10 years to get it here," he said. "Between that time, we're going to die on the vine.

Skagway has been forced to resurrect itself before.

During the Gold Rush of 1897, the population boomed beyond 20,000. Thousands of stampeders took the precipitous Chilkoot and White Pass trails to the Yukon River. The 1898 construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, the first railroad in Alaska, ensured there was an economy remaining when the party ended in 1900.

In 1982, the Anvil Gold Mines in the Yukon closed. The railroad was forced to follow suit, because it had provided transportation and freight to the mine. Many moved away. Those who stayed wooed the cruise-ship industry until Skagway was a destination. Nowadays, the resurrected railroad carries more than 400,000 tourists a summer.

This isn't the first time Skagway has debated the merits of a two-lane connection. The 98-mile South Klondike Highway, connecting Skagway to Carcross, Yukon, was completed in 1979. It linked to the section of highway between Carcross and Whitehorse, opening Skagway to the Interior, Canada and the Lower 48.

"This is absolutely the same issue," said Doug Hulk, a retired Douglas native who has lived in Skagway since 1956. He's the guy who made the famous or infamous black-and-white bumper sticker, "Build the road - Juneau to Skagway."

"They said the businesses would all close in Skagway. None of them closed," Hulk said. "And the very same people that don't want the road to Juneau are the people that were on (White Pass) this weekend, snowmobiling, snowboarding, snowshoeing and going to Whitehorse to go grocery shopping."

"I love the ability to hop in my car and go up to Whitehorse and get specialty olives, or special cheeses or pick up whatever the newest gadget is," said Eleanor Davenport, a Skagway resident who lived in Juneau for 20 years. "Canada's getting all my surplus dollars, when I would be happy to spend it with my friends at (Juneau's) Fred Meyer or Costco. How connected are we to Alaska, versus how connected economically we are to Canada?"

"You want a pot roast?" Hulk said. "Try finding a rutabaga in this town."

Barb Kalen, 80 and a regular at Juneau's annual Alaska Folk Festival, owns Dedman's Photo Shop on Broadway. She is known as the oldest person born in Skagway who is still in town. Kalen thinks a road would wreck Skagway's hillside and be too treacherous in the winter.

"There's people that want the road so they can go and shop at Costco," Kalen said. "Whoop-de-doo.

"This recent election that we had (in October), there were a lot of people that were against the road, the incumbents, and there were a lot of candidates for progress that wanted the road," she said. "Guess who won?"

In that same municipal election, voters were asked if they favored a road or "improved ferry service." The vagaries of the wording in the advisory vote sparked some debate.

"Who wouldn't vote for 'improved ferry service'?" asked Kathy Hosford, the manager of The Chilkoot Trail Outpost in Dyea, and one of the most vocal pro-road advocates around Skagway. "The ferry system will always need to exist in Southeast Alaska. But the time has come, if we don't get better transportation in our community, we're going to lose."

Improved ferry service won, with 347 votes to the road's 212. The total number of votes, 559, also created controversy.

Over the last 10 years, most municipal elections in Skagway have averaged approximately 350 voters. Pro-roaders suggest that a poll of year-round Skagway residents would have garnered a split decision. They say the vote was skewed by a high number of seasonals registered to vote in Alaska.

Voters can register in the state after living here for a day. After 30 days, they're eligible to vote in municipal elections.

"From my take, more people are for (the road)," said Dave Mielke, 33, a railroad employee who has lived in Skagway for most his life. "You walk down the street in January, there aren't 500 people here.

"The people that live here during the summer, I know a lot of them do vote, and it's their right. But it seems like a lot of time they can make up which way we go on a vote."

Ed Fairbanks, 73, has owned the Fairway Market, the town grocery store, since taking the business over from his father in 1960. His business is profitable eight months out of the year, he said. On Sunday, March 6, the market recorded $2,000 in sales - below the break-even point.

The market contributes $10,000 to $11,000 a year in property taxes, collects $170,000 in sales taxes, pays half a million dollars in wages and $60,000 to the power company and is the largest shipper of freight in town, Fairbanks said.

"That road will eventually be the death of this business," he said. "Now you'll be able to drive from Juneau to Whitehorse in about four hours. Why would anybody stop here?

"You go all through this country where roads have bypassed little towns and see what's left of those towns. Nothing.

"You build a community where you spend your money. And there's a lot of leakage that goes into Whitehorse. The road will be another outlet. Eventually there will be none left."

Karla Ray's opposition to the road is environmental and economical. She and her husband, Duff, own Klothes Rush, Broadway Video, a branch of Radio Shack and the Kone Kompany. They started with a laundromat and a dry cleaner in 1982, the year the mine closed.

When Wal-Mart opened four years ago in Whitehorse, Klothes Rush lost 10 percent of its Christmas business. The store now carries many of the same brands available at Fred Meyer. If the road opens, she'd have to come up with new sales, convert into a tourist shop or close in the winter.

"People like choice. That's why they like malls," she said. "They're going to go to Juneau, where there's a lot more choice."

Paul Benner, a bookkeeper and operations manager in town, was delivering supplies Monday out of his Skagway Inn shuttle van. He's lived in town since 1993. The proposed highway will run one block from his house, on the north edge of town.

"If you steal a car in Skagway, you have to go across the border," Benner said. "My car gets stolen, that's the first place I call.

"Right now we don't have any homeless people," he said. "We don't have any regular crime. The people that normally might rob a house, or steal a car or deal drugs, they can't get here right now."

Benner and other anti-roaders fear a road will reduce port traffic. They think cruise ships will dock in Juneau, and bus tourists up the highway rather than sailing up Lynn Canal.

Carving artist Jack Inhofe moved to Skagway 20 years ago, looking for a safe, quiet community where he could raise his two daughters.

"I didn't move here to be a little spot in the side of the road, like a truck stop," said Inhofe, walking his dog down Broadway. "I moved here to get away from exactly what Juneau's all about.

"The people here that are active (and) like having winter to ourselves," he said. "The road would end all that. I'm totally against it, but it ain't gonna matter. You can't fight regress."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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