Skagway is located at the foot of White Pass in Southeast Alaska. In 1897, Captain Billy Moore’s farm encompassed much of the region, and when the Klondike Gold Rush began, his property was quickly overrun by prospectors. The resulting tent encampment temporarily bivouacked thousands of Argonauts heading for the goldfields.
Some gold diggers remained at Skagway, and the temporary camp began to disappear that fall, replaced by log and wood-frame cabins and commercial wood-frame buildings. Early buildings were often constructed with mismatched wood and salvaged packing crates, and few of these structures survive.
In the spring of 1898, the fledgling town had a population of 8,000, with 1,000 gold diggers moving in every week. Episcopal and Methodist missionaries arrived in early 1898, and by 1900 five denominations were holding services: Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist-Episcopal, and Presbyterian.
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway (WP&YRR) began laying track through Skagway in the summer of 1898. The completion of the railway in 1899 cemented Skagway’s position as the dominant gateway to the interior and ushered in a period of civic pride, grand commercial buildings and stately homes. .
Many houses built at this time had the Queen Anne style. The WP&YRR has built many Queen Anne cottages for its employees. The National Park Service assumes that many of Skagway’s home designs came from pattern books, but the town had a few resident architects.
It was one of these architects who designed Skagway Methodist Church, built in 1901 at the corner of 5th and Main Streets (see drawing). The 55′ x 38′ wood frame structure was built in the Shingle style. A uniquely American development, Shingle Style began on the New England coast and was a transition between Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles. Retaining many Queen Anne design elements, Shingle Style eliminated the more ornate Queen Ann embellishments and relied heavily on decorative shingles, which sometimes completely covered the buildings. Many Shingle-style structures incorporated design elements that would later become standard in the Colonial Revival style.
Skagway Methodist Church, with its pyramidal corner tower, has retained the steep rooflines and asymmetrical design of a Queen Anne. The exterior decoration consists mainly of wooden shingles on the tower and the gables of the building, as well as on the pediments above the entrances to the church. The lower parts of the exterior are sheathed with clapboards. The design of the church also incorporates a Colonial Revival element, the palladium window inset into the northeast facade of the church.
While the exterior of the church is relatively simple, its interior design is not. The nave, or sanctuary, is octagonal, which author Alison Hoagland says was a popular design with “nonconformist denominations” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. , with cast iron frames, date from the construction of the church.
A full basement was then built under the church, and an enclosed handicapped access ramp was added along the southwest side of the church. The exterior of the church was being renovated when we visited in 1998, and the building looks much the same as it did in 1901.
Skagway’s “boomtown” phase ended when the flow of gold diggers dwindled in late 1898. By 1900 Skagway’s population had fallen to about 3,000 people, and by 1910 it was below 900 , composed mainly of railway employees, merchants and a few miners.
Due to declining population, the Methodist Church, which attracted the same population as the Presbyterians, closed in 1917. The Presbyterians, whose church burned down the previous year, purchased the building from the Methodists and have occupied it ever since. Presbyterians still hold regular services there.
The church is part of the Skagway and White Pass National Historic Site. The Historic American Building Survey produced a computer-generated overview of the church. You can watch the video on:
• Architectural drawings for the First Presbyterian Church, Skagway, Alaska. Survey of American Historic Buildings. no date
• “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
• “District of Skagway and White Pass, nomination as a National Historic Landmark”. National Park Service, 1999
• “Skagway, Alska District – 1884-1912: Construction of the Gateway to the Klondike”. Robert Spude. University of Alaska. 1983
• “Skagway: Gateway to the Klondike (teaching with historic sites)”. National Park Service. 2021
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime resident of Fairbanks. See more of his works at www.pingostudio.us.