Dyea, Alaska – Ghost Town Of The Klondike Gold Rush
At the foot of the Chilkoot Trail, Dyea was established several centuries ago as a summer camp by the Tlingit. These Chilkoots built the trail over the mountains to facilitate trade with Yukon and Alaska interior First Nations tribes. Dyea and Taiya are really the same word (Deiyaa) in the Tlingit language, meaning “to pack.”
The Tlingit’s camp on the Taiya saw its first visitors after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. The U.S. Navy had exerted control in the area and convinced the Tlingit to allow others over the Chilkoot Pass. George Holt was the first documented white man to cross it in 1874, and Alaska Natives began a commercial packing operation a few years later. Westerners John J. Healy and Edgar Wilson established a trading post on the site in 1884.
Dyea had a post office by 1896, the year Tagish trader and frequent Dyea visitor Skookum Jim discovered the Klondike gold 600 miles from here. Nearly a year later, in July 1897, the first ships of stampeders arrived, and a city of 10,000 went up at the edge of a long tidal flat, connected by two mile-long wharves to the ships in the inlet.
During its year-long heyday, Dyea boasted 150 businesses, including 19 freighting companies , 48 hotels, 47 restaurants, seven real estate agents, and two newspapers. Taverns outnumbered churches 39 to 1.
But as quickly as it boomed, Dyea suddenly dwindled and almost disappeared. Two events played into its doom: an avalanche on the Chilkoot Trail in April 1898 that killed more than 60 stampeders, and the start of construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad out of Skagway in May of that year. Dyea had boasted its own tramline and a future railroad of its own, but in 1899 the WP&YR owners bought it and shut it down. Business owners from Dyea flocked to Skagway, taking many of their buildings with them, and by 1900 the city of 10,000 was a mere village again of 250.
Three years later, there were just six people living in the Dyea valley.
However, Dyea did not go away. Original homesteaders Emil Klatt and William Matthews lived and worked there, and Harriet Pullen ran a dairy farm in the valley for her hotel in Skagway for many years. A few braved the Chilkoot Trail, even scouting it for a film in the 1920s. But what was left of the old gold rush buildings gradually crumbled into busted foundations by the middle of the century.
Dyea became a destination again after the valley was connected by an eight-mile-long coastal road from Skagway in 1947. It became a favorite recreation area for local residents, and a few more residents built cabins there.
In the late 1970s, much of the Taiya River valley was absorbed into the Dyea-Chilkoot Unit of the new Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The historic trail was restored, as were some of the trails through the woods where the Dyea townsite once stood.
Today visitors can take a walking tour through the old townsite and to the Slide Cemetery, where many of the 1898 avalanche victims were buried. There also are a limited number of commercial tours operating in the valley, but for the most part Dyea is there for the independent traveler to explore and photograph.