False-front wall is only remnant of gold rush-era Dyea still standing
The townsite of Dyea (from the Tlingit word Dayéi, meaning “to pack”) sits at the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail. During 1897/1898 it was a fierce competitor with neighboring Skagway, just five miles away. Chilkoot Pass out of Dyea and White Pass out of Skagway were both gateways to the Yukon River, and thousands of goldseekers poured through the towns during the Klondike Gold Rush.
News of the Klondike gold strike reached the U.S. West Coast in July 1897 and within a few weeks boatloads of goldseekers began arriving at Dyea and nearby Mooresville (quickly renamed Skagway).
When those first argonauts arrived at Dyea they found only a trading post and seasonal Tlingit village. Intent on reaching the goldfields, few lingered at Dyea. Speculators surveyed a townsite in October 1897, but little development followed. Not until winter closed in did Dyea blossom.
Laid out along the Taiya River’s west bank, the orderly townsite was eight blocks long and five blocks wide. By the end of 1897 its boasted two wharves and numerous warehouses, stores, restaurants and saloons. There were also two breweries, two hospitals, two telephone companies, two newspapers, a sawmill, and a church. In addition, businesses were strung along the trail heading out of town.
Dyea had a short life. In April 1898 an avalanche along the Chilkoot Trail killed 70, tarnishing the trail’s image and diverting travelers to alternate routes. Construction of the White Pass Railroad in 1898, coupled with the end of the Klondike Gold Rush in about 1903, sealed the town’s fate. Dyea’s population plummeted from an estimated 10,000 in February 1898 to a half dozen by 1903.
The townsite was replaced by homesteads providing agricultural products for Skagway. Most of Dyea’s buildings disappeared – moved, torn down, lost to the encroaching Taiya River, or victim’s of time and the elements.
Except for ruins, the building remnant shown in the drawing is all that is left at the Dyea townsite. The false-front began as part of real estate agent A.M. Gregg’s office, which stood on the west side of Main Street, between Fourth and Fifth Avenues.
Little is known of Gregg. Ensconced at Dyea by November 1897, by spring 1898 he had moved on, probably over the Chilkoot and on to the Klondike.
Based on early photos and archaeological investigations, the building was a one-story gable-roofed structure — 10-feet-wide by 20-feet-long. A 2017 article in the Juneau Empire states that the building was probably used at least until the 1940s, perhaps as a shed by a later owner. The roof, sides and rear of the building gradually collapsed and by the 1970s only the front wall remained. During the winter of 1975-76 it too fell over, but a group of Skagway residents rescued it, propping the wall up and nailing it to two trees that happened to be on either side.
Portions of Dyea are now part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. In 1997 park employees undertook preservation measures on the false-front. Workers treated it with fungicide and preservative, replaced boards that had fallen off, repaired the sill and improved site drainage.
One of the two trees supporting the wall had died before preservation work began. It was carefully removed, replaced with wood bracing. The stump was left since it supported a wooden gate – the only remaining part of a fence shown in early photos.
NPS archeologist Jonathan Flood told me that the Taiya River continues its westward shift, and, once several hundred feet away, it is now within 120 feet of the old false-front. If the river continues eating away its west bank it may eventually threaten the last-standing piece of Dyea.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
“Chilkoot Trail and Dyea, National Historic Landmark Registration Form.” Frank Norris. National Park Service. 1987
Conversation with Jonathan Flood, archaeologist for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. 2021
“Dyea’s 120-year-old false-front tells a story.” Karl Gurcke. In Juneau Empire. 11-14-2017
“Legacy of the Gold Rush: An Administrative History of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Chapter One, A Brief Gold Rush History.” Frank B. Norris. National Park Service. 1996
“Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Frank Norris & Bonnie Houston. National Park Service. 1990