SKAGWAY, ALASKA — Forget the gold rush here comes the cruise-ship invasion. History has come full circle in this little Alaskan gem of a town. Once an irresistible lure for Klondike dreamers in search of instant riches, Skagway now attracts hordes of tourists hunting for very different plunder.
"We are a boom town again," boasts tourist chief Carlin "Buckwheat" Donahue as Skagway plays host to thousands of eager explorers pouring ashore from a line of cruise ships plying the hugely popular Alaska route.
In 1898, lawlessness reigned supreme in Skagway as 40,000 gold rush stampeders headed to the Yukon. Many fell prey to con men, cheating them out of their hard-earned gold dust.
Today's tourists hunt for gold trinkets in the jewelry shops, and the contrast with 19th-century Skagway could not be sharper.
"Then there were 15,000 people, and they were carrying guns. Now they are here to appreciate our landscape," says Mr. Donahue, reflecting on Skagway's 21st-century renaissance.
It is a miracle that Skagway, a town of just 850 people, doesn't burst at the seams. "We can have up to six cruise ships and get up to 8,300 people for the day," he said.
But surely that must drive the people of Skagway insane? Not at all, says Donahue, because tourism is the lifeblood of this "19th century time machine" from May to September.
"We did a survey a year ago," he said. "Ninety-three percent of the people said they liked it the way it was. This is our only industry. Our livelihoods depend on it."
And now, for a change, the gold is going in the opposite direction.
By 1900, the US mints in Seattle and San Francisco had received about $50 million in Klondike gold from the largest gold rush the world had ever seen. Today, tourism pours $80 million into Skagway annually.
"Last year we had 730,000 visitors. This year we are expecting the figure to be about the same, and next year we expect an increase of 10 percent," Donahue says.
The bearded Donahue, a larger-than-life figure with a ready smile, first came to Skagway from Colorado on holiday and the love affair was instant.
"I had too much to drink on a ferry to [Alaska state capital] Juneau, overslept and woke up in Skagway," he confesses. "Now I have bought a graveyard plot here. I am staying."
Tom Peters has an intriguing perspective on the Alaska tourist invasion, since he has seen the phenomenal growth from both sides of the fence. He spent two summers working at a Skagway jewelry shop. Now he is the port consultant aboard the Norwegian Wind, steering its 1,800 cruise-ship passengers to the best bargains in town.
"It is a different type of gold rush now from the gold nugget to the souvenir hunter," he says. "There are as many people in town now as there were in the gold rush days."
And he is convinced the welcome is genuine. "Most of the local people are happy with it. In these towns, [the cruise ships] are pretty much the principal industry.
"It is a short season," he adds, "but the businesses can do well. And I don't think Alaska has been spoiled by the tourism."
Skagway's chief attraction is the spectacular train ride up into the mountains on the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad. Constructed against all odds, the narrow-gauge railway ranks as one of the world's great engineering feats.
Workers, suspended from cliffs by ropes and often toiling in heavy snowstorms, used 450 tons of explosives to carve out the tortuous route to the summit in 1898.
Instead of ferrying men into the gold fields, it now transports tourists through some of Alaska's most ruggedly beautiful scenery.
For tourist chief Donahue, the allure of Alaska has never worn off. To him it is a last frontier that can change a person's life.
"People here have a 'can do' attitude," he says. "Add in the grandeur of the land and, yes, these are the people you want to be around."