Prior to the Goldrush, Skagway -- and its sister city, the now-ghost town of Dyea -- were barely more than a gleam in the eye of the area's first white resident, Capt. William Moore, who claimed a 160-acre homestead at the mouth of the Skagway River in 1887. Believing the area was the best route to the potential inland gold fields, he built a log cabin, a sawmill, and a wharf. But when the gold seekers came in 1897 and 1898, the town expanded so rapidly that Captain Moore's original layout and plan was disregarded, and he was essentially driven off most of his own land, primarily by a local land surveyor, Frank Reid, who would later figure prominently in Skagway's most infamous moment.
In the rush years of 1897 and 1898, an estimated (there was literally no local government to count them) 80,000 people passed through Skagway. The semi-permanent population in those years was estimated at 15,000 to 20,000. It was a Wild West boomtown in every sense of the word.
For the prospectors who arrived in town with little savvy, there were myriad ways for the local criminal element to relieve them of money they had brought with them. The most famous of these local "characters" was Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, the most famous scoundrel in Alaskan history. Smith ruled the town with a small army of toughs and con artists. There are a million stories about Smith, most of them probably not true, but he did set up a telegraph office to help the gold rushers wire money home, long before Skagway was even connected to a telegraph line. Most of Smith's scams were probably more pedestrian, but there is no question that he controlled Skagway and separated hundreds of Argonauts from their money.
Finally, in July 1898, the other residents of Skagway had had enough. A vigilante committee led by Frank Reid confronted Smith and several gang members. A shootout ensued, and Smith was killed instantly. Reid was also mortally wounded and lingered 4 days before dying. Both men are buried in the Gold Rush Cemetery just outside of town.
For Skagway, the boom was generally over by 1900, but another boom was on the horizon; it would take most of the rest of the century before it arrived in gold rush-type numbers. Even before the end of the gold rush, some visitors were already arriving, not to seek gold, but to seek the seekers, so to speak. On one day in 1903, more than 300 visitors arrived on two ships just to "see" the famous Skagway. Today more than 900,000 people visit Skagway each year on cruise ships. In contrast, the current year-round population is around 900, with twice as many people living in the community during the summer. The downtown area has been largely preserved in its gold rush finery, and many of the visitors ride the White Pass and Yukon Railway up into the mountains to the Canadian border and back.