Sunday, September 14, 2014

A drink, a dance, or something else?

The Red Onion Saloon
This month I'm going to take you on another journey - one of the most entertaining I've experienced during my travels.

This took place in Alaska which is wild and wonderful, and one of our stops was Skagway. In the 2010 census its population was 920 people. During the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, however, it was the largest city in Alaska, with a population of around 8,000 and with an additional 1,000 miners passing through each week. 

Nowadays, of course, the numbers of visitors are much larger. 900,000 annually, mainly from cruise ships, and each and every one of them enjoying an existence far removed from the tough lives of the gold prospectors. The memories haven't gone away though. The cries of “gold in the Yukon” still echo from steep canyon walls, as do the sounds of bar room pianos and boomtown crowds. It's a place where the romance and excitement of yesteryear lingers around every street corner, every bend in the trail.

Like all historic towns, Skagway boasts buildings full of artefacts and tells stories of hardships endured. People had to be tough to survive the gold rush. The prospectors' journey included climbing the mountains over the White Pass above Skagway in often terrible weather. Then on across the Canadian border to build a barge on one of its lakes so that they could float down the Yukon River to the gold fields around Dawson City. Soon, overwhelmed by the number of prospectors, officials began to insist that everyone entering Canada had to bring their own supplies to ensure that they didn't starve during the winter. This placed a huge burden on the prospectors as well as the pack animals who had to climb the steep pass.

It wasn't all bad though because it also offered a lot of opportunity to the people who decided to stay behind. Pretty soon there were stores, saloons and offices lining the muddy streets of Skagway. The Red Onion Saloon, was one of these.
A portrait of one of the original girls

 In 1898 it was one of the classiest dance halls and saloons in town. Was that because it also provided something extra? Maybe. You see the upstairs was a bordello which comprised 10 small rooms, known as cribs. Each crib was very small but elaborately decorated by the women who used them. A weary miner could wander into the Red Onion Saloon for a bottle of liquid courage and a dance or two with a beautiful lady. Then, ready to order something a little more personal, he would choose his girl in a very unique way. Behind the bar were 10 dolls that represented the 10 girls upstairs. As soon as the customer chose a doll, the bartender would lay the doll on her back, indicating that that girl was 'busy'. Once the personal services were complete and the customer had returned to the bar, the doll sat upright again, waiting for her next customer.

So what, you say? Interesting, but that was life in the gold rush. Well yes it was, but this was different. The Red Onion Saloon, having gone through a long history of thriving success and then dwindling to nothing as bigger dance halls and casinos were built in Dawson, is now operating again. Not as a bordello I hasten to add, but as a saloon full of beautiful, laughing girls who all dress in the style of the madams of the gold rush era.

So nowadays, after years of being used variously as an army barracks, a laundry, a bakery, a union hall, a television station and even a gift shop, it is open for business again. This time, however, the girls are merely guides and historians when they lead a group of visitors up the stairs to look at the 10 small cribs. And in their revealing red and black dresses with a black top hat perched on their piled up hair, they add a touch of glamour to the simple business of buying a drink. So do the barmen and the musicians who also dress the part. Stepping inside The Red Onion Saloon and hearing the tinny sound of the piano and the strum of a banjo, both overlaid with the the buzz of voices and the clatter of glasses, it is possible to see a shadow of the history of the gold rush right in front of you.

Modern day 'Madams'
But why did I find it especially entertaining? Well that's because our particular 'Madam', a beautiful young lady with the pretty and unusual name of Tamar, was born and educated in England in a place not very far from where I grew up. So there I was, approximately 4,250 miles from home, being served beer and tortilla chips by an attractive girl dressed as a gold rush Madam even though her origins were very far removed from the history of Alaska.

 Why was she there? Well in the manner of a true Madam, she winked and told me it was because of a man! " Isn't it always," she said.

Of course, as a writer of romances I had to agree. However, in her case, I should also hasten to add that she married the man well before she started to work at the Red Onion saloon. She told us that she had been working there for 10 years and it was one of the best jobs in the world. Five months of hard work during the cruise ship season and then seven months of relaxation with friends and family, not just in Skagway, but in warmer places during the cold Alaskan winter.

She made our day as we watched her dispense jokes and witty repartee with every sign of enjoyment. She tucked dollar bills into her cleavage while she collected empty glasses, smiled, laughed, posed for photo after photo. Thanks to the history of the gold rush, I suspect than the Red Onion Saloon has given the beautiful Tamar far more than it ever gave to those poor souls who lived and worked there at the end of the nineteenth century.