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Century-Old Building at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Yields Some Surprises


(Top photo) The Smith & Wesson pistol found hidden in a wall. (Bottom photo) Broadway Street in Skagway in 1916. NPS photos.

Visitors to historic buildings have said many times, "If only these walls could talk…." Perhaps that was the case for employees at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska, when an intriguing discovery was made during restoration of an old building.

The Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897, brought a human flood to and through Skagway, a key access point to the gold fields in Canada's Yukon Territory. Although most of these treasure-seekers were merely passing through, the town of Skagway grew to be large enough to support some facilities we don't often associate with a mining boom town.

In 1900, a wood frame gymnasium containing a gym, baths, handball court, photo darkroom and reading room was constructed in Skagway. It was the first YMCA established in Alaska and was the base of operations for creating other YMCA’s throughout the state at that time.

In 1902, butcher Herman Meyer bought the building and, after moving it to State Street, remodeled it by inserting a meat locker with sawdust insulation into the western side of the building. In 2009, the building was one of two historic structures donated to the park, and work is underway to restore it.

As part of that project, a park work crew was taking down interior walls when maintenance worker Doug Breen noticed something that was definitely out of place: Lying on a ledge within the north wall of the old building, next to a ball of string and a small metal pulley, was old Smith and Wesson pistol.

The pistol was immediately given to the park’s curatorial staff for analysis, which determined the gun was manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts, sometime between 1878 and 1892. It's a single action, .32 caliber, rim-fire pistol, with a bird's head grip and spur trigger. A park spokesman pointed out that while an identification of the basic facts about the pistol was fairly easy, the circumstances surrounding the weapon's location in a sealed wall remain a mystery.

The gun wasn't the only discovery during the summer's work on the building. NPS staff also uncovered portions of the original gymnasium floor with portions of the paint lines still intact, and a beaver felt hat pre-dating 1901.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park gets plenty of day visits during the summer; Skagway is a popular stop for cruise ships travelling the Inside Passage, and the park offers a nice selection of tours and other activities. There's more to this park than many realize, however; In 1998 the international significance of the Klondike Gold Rush was officially recognized by Canada and the United States with the creation of the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park.

The site in Skagway, Alaska, represents the “Gateway to the Klondike” and preserves the setting of Klondike Gold Rush boom towns and trails to the Yukon gold. Other units making up the international park include the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, Washington, and two Canadian parks: Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site and Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Sites.

There's an abundance of tales associated with Skagway, the White Pass Trail and the Chilkoot Trail, but so far an explanation for the pistol hidden in the old YMCA building hasn't surfaced. Ah, if only those walls could talk….

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The walls would say "If we keep this gun hidden, no one will find the murder weapon......"

You got that right!

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