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Once Skagway’s Red Onion Saloon Was a Bordello — As The Popular Tour Recalls

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Steamy and sultry, these girls are exceptional actresses.

©Bert Gildart: The history of Skagway’s Red Onion Saloon is typical of other bordellos that proliferated in the late 1800s, both in Alaska and in the Yukon. Today, though the Red Onion offers a dining facility, it also offers an extraordinarily popular brothel tour. But as the ladies said, “You’ve got to be broad minded.”

Several of the settings reminding me of the Robert Service Ballad, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” and so I start this posting with the first stanza of that ballad, essentially because the photographs from my day’s take seem to complement it so well. Some of you may know it. When I was in high school, we got extra points for memorizing the poem:

A Bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the

Malamute Saloon;

The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;

Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous

Dan McGrew,

And watching his luck was his light-o’love, the

lady that’s known as Lou…

Call this lady Klondike Kate, but with that look in her eye, doesn’t she seem to fit the part of Lou?  I thought so.

$5 FOR 15 MINUTES

Once the Red Onion Saloon was a working brothel and tours today recount the history as it was during the late 1890s. The tour is a bargain and costs harken back to the gold rush.  “Five dollars for 15 minutes,” says the Madam, “Just like in the old days.”

Conditions of the time at the brothel are also reported on the back of its menu, and I’ve taken their write-up and included it here. What it lacks is the color of our tour, which was full of innuendo. When I find time, I’ll try and write more about the tour. In the meantime, here’s a mighty fascinating history, illustrated with photographs which I made yesterday. I think these are exceptional images and certainly want to take some credit, but these attractive ladies deserve most as they could be models with their much practiced and professional demeanors. They were humorous and great actresses – to a point.

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"A bunch of the boys were whooping it up..." Doesn't this scene fit the classic Robert Service ballad?

The tour for Janie and me was set up by none other than “Buckwheat” Donahue, Skagway’s Executive Director of Tourism and the subject of my last posting. Hastily I want to reiterate that Janie was with me the entire time and helped me with my multiple strobe set up, the only way to create flattering light in harsh situations. And now, from the back of the Red Onion Menu:

BACK OF THE MENU

The Red Onion Saloon, now a National Historic Building, was Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. Built in 1897 with planks cut by Capt. William Moore, the founder of Skagway, the Red Onion Saloon opened for business in 1898, serving alcohol on the first floor while the upper floor satisfied more than the prospector’s thirst. The brothel consisted of ten tiny cubicles, called cribs, each ten foot by ten foot with three exists, one into the hallway and one into each of the adjoining rooms. Each room also had a hole in the floor which connected to the cash register in the bar by means of a copper tube.

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Klondike Kate or Pea Hull Annie? Maybe in another life, but today this Red Onion lady provides a most entertaining brothel tour.

In order to keep track of which girls were busy, the bar tender kept ten dolls on the back bar, one for each of the girls in each of the rooms. When a girl was with a customer, her doll was laid on its back. When she sent her money down the tube, the doll was returned to the upright position signaling to the waiting prospectors that she was ready for business. The bartender safeguarded the girl’s earnings, usually $5.00, preferably in gold, while in the crawl space between the floors, loose floorboards had nuggets and private tips.

NOT MUCH SOUND PROOFING

Because the rooms were divided by single planks toe-nailed into the ceiling and floor, not much sound-proofing was provided. To decorate their cribs, the women stretched linen across the rough planks, and then glued wall paper to the cloth. Remnants of the original wall paper still cling to the planks. Some of the girls who worked in Skagway were Birdie Ash, Big Dessie, Popcorn Lil, the Oregon Mare, Babe Davenport, Pea Hull Annie, Kitty Faith, the Belle of Skagway and Klondike Kate.

By the late1899, business began to suffer. Most of the women moved north to Dawson which was closer to the gold fields and had big gambling casinos and dance halls. As the railroad became the center of business for Skagway, numerous buildings were moved closer to the depot.

The Red Onion was moved in 1914 with one horse from Sixth and State Street to its current Broadway location. Unfortunately, the Onion was dragged around the corner backwards and the front and back of the building had to be removed in order to switch them. During World War II the building was used as an army barracks and in subsequent years housed a laundry, bakery, union hall, television station and gift shop. In 1980, Jan Wrentmore purchased a liquor license and opened the building once more as a saloon.

SO THAT’S THE HISTORY as it appears on the back of the Red Onion’s menu, which also provides a portion of the tour’s content. Actually the tour is longer than 15 minutes, and it is probably the town’s most popular tour. Seems like there are thousands off the cruise ships that either want to be “Johns” or “Klondike Kates”. That at any rate is my quickie for the day and will close by saying that both Janie and I highly recommend this “sporting event” for the shear fun derived from a most satisfying presentation, and for an insight into some of America’s very rough and very bawdy times.

It’s the way things were, and it can not be refuted.

__________________


THIS TIME THREE YEARS AGO

*Ticonderoga — America’s First Revolutionary War Victory


 

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2 Responses to “Once Skagway’s Red Onion Saloon Was a Bordello — As The Popular Tour Recalls”

  1. arrowhead ranch homes for sale Says:

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    Once Skagway’s Red Onion Saloon Was a Bordello — As The Popular Tour Recalls | Bert Gildart: Writer and Photographer…

  2. Eko Haryanto Says:

    We went to Skagway in 2017 and a train tour to Skagway, on the way back saw a lady wearing red and black dress (classic dress) with the crowd on either side of the street. We wasn’t sure what is that. Your story help me, thanks.

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