Railways have a way of making - or breaking - a community. Such was the case for the boom and bust town of Dyea, near Skagway. This summer, I stood at headwaters of the Taiya Inlet where Dyea once stood and tried to imagine what was once a town of eight thousand people.
Today there is nothing to show for it but, in 1898, the town had lots of hotels and restaurants, twenty saloons, busy freighting companies and a makeshift dock where countless thousands of tons of goods bound for the Klondike were unloaded. After a journey up the Inside Passage in any boat that would float, the Klondike Stampeders ended up on the mud flats of the Taiya River, and gazed upward toward the awesome Chilkoot Pass that would take them to the interior and on to the goldfields near Dawson City.
Dyea was busy in the summer of 1898. The local native people were willing and able to pack goods up and over the Chilkoot Pass.
The Tlingits of Dyea had controlled the Pass for years as they traded with the people of the interior. It was supposedly off-limits for non-Tlingits until 1879, when a United States Navy Commander L.A. Beardsley reached an agreement with the coastal Tlingits that allowed white people to cross the pass. On the coast, near Dyea, was the tiny community of Skagway, situated at the foot of the White Pass. In 1898, competition for Klondike business between the two was intense. Only one town would survive. The winner would have the best transportation system across the coastal mountains. A single project turned the tide in Skagway's favour. That event was the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway.
Although they had built aerial tramways up from Dyea across the worst part of the Chilkoot Pass and a railway was on the drawing board for that community, the first White Pass train to leave Skagway, on July 20, 1898, signaled that the race for survival between the two towns was over.
Today, standing on the silent grass-covered mud flats where Dyea once prospered, there is little to show that a town existed at all. There is cemetery in the woods beyond the flats that marks the final resting place of about sixty-five Klondike stampeders who died in the Chilkoot pass avalanche that occurred on April 3rd, 1898. Nearby, the Taiya River has washed away the old townsite, including the main cemetery. Any other indication of the once-bustling community is gone.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin