Lydia's Ghost at Red Onion Saloon
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How would you like to wait in this line to find your fortune?
In 1896, local miners discovered gold in the Klondike region of Yukon in northwest Canada. The news hit Seattle and San Francisco, and then a stampede of prospects descended on the area looking for wealth. Over 100,000 people with gold fever rushed into Klondike in only three short years. Most of them got a whole bunch of nothing for their trouble.
Many places went through drastic changes during that time. A town in Alaska named Skagway saw its population balloon from a few hundred to over 30,000 people. If the name sounds familiar, you may have heard of it from The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Will Hobbs's book Jason's Gold by Will Hobbs, Guardian by Joe Haldeman, or even North to Alaska starring John Wayne.
"Most [1995-2002 Tlingit-speaking informants] agreed that the name [Sha-ka-ԍéi] refers to the effect of the strong north wind on the waters of Lynn Canal, which generates rugged seas and 'wrinkled up' waves." — Thornton, Thomas F. (2004). Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Ethnographic Overview and Assessment. U.S. Dept. of Interior., page 53.
Nearly every building in Skagway has a story to tell and clear links to the Klondike Gold Rush past. One building, in particular, the Red Onion Saloon, has an odd history, and visitors claim a resident ghost. It opened for business in 1898 as a dance hall, saloon, and bordello at the height of the gold rush. It was considered Alaska's most exclusive bordello and was even built by planks cut by the founder of Skagway, Captain William Moore. It only operated for two years, as the prospectors' attention moved onto the Nome Gold Rush in 1899. Oh, how fickle those prospectors were.
After closing up when the Klondike Gold Rush ended, the building hosted all sorts of businesses. During World War II, it was barracks for soldiers. Later, it spent time as a laundry business, a bakery, union hall, a television station, and a gift shop.
The building was kind of slapped together, and when so many people began to move to Skagway, the owner decided to move it four blocks closer to the rail depot to attract more customers. They hoisted it up onto rolling logs and pushed it with a single horse and a crew of men. Once the building was placed in the new spot, the team realized they had the whole thing backward. Instead of rolling it around to face the other way, they just sawed off the front and back, switched them, and nailed the whole thing back together.
The cut lines are still visible today.
The two-story building had a saloon and dance hall on the first floor and the brothel up the "Stairway to Heaven" on the second floor. Men would come into the saloon, head over to the bar, and find ten dolls on display, each representing a woman working at the time. If the doll was lying down, the woman was busy with another customer. If the doll was standing up, then $5 in gold would buy 15-minutes of her time.
Interested buyers would select a doll and head upstairs to meet the woman in one of the "crib rooms." He'd pay the woman, and she'd drop the gold down a copper tube system into a safety deposit box. The whole business was overseen by a madam and a crew of bouncers. Only around eight percent of the total population of Klondike during the gold rush were women. In Skagway, there was a high turnover rate of prostitutes, and there were about 300 serving over 15,000 men.
Skagway was a lawless town, described as "little better than hell on earth" by the North-West Mounted Police. A con artist and gangster named Soapy Smith operated a ring of thieves, a spy network, and a private militia. He also controlled the local newspaper and the Deputy U.S. Marshal's office.
As you might imagine, it wasn't really a friendly place for anyone, but especially for women. While some traveled to the area for the work, others found it their only option to make enough to survive or make enough to get out of Alaska. Each of those crib rooms in Red Onion Saloon's brothel had several doors if the women working needed a quick escape from a bad situation.
Today, there's a resident ghost (or two) who you can hear roaming upstairs, her footsteps falling on the still-original hardwood floors.
There are conflicting reports and plenty of misinformation about the ghostly activity at Red Onion Saloon, so I've only included things that I've been able to verify in reports directly from current or former employees.
A relatively friendly ghost made an appearance to an employee years ago. She showed up as a translucent figure in the corner of a room upstairs. The figure had marks on her face that resembled what untreated syphilis might do. The disease was a considerable risk for sex workers, and the first effective treatment wasn't developed until 1909.
Lydia has been known to employees for many years, and staff believes her to be friendly, at least to women. She wanders the building, watering plants, caressing faces, and leaving the scent of freshly cut lilacs behind. The room she appeared in often has mysterious cold spots, and guests continually take photos that show white blurs, orbs, and occasionally even the faint outline of her face.
It's unclear precisely how people know her name, but, as these things go, the name Lydia has been passed on to new staff through the years. As for the cause of her death, the commonly accepted theory is that she contracted syphilis and took her own life by hanging herself in the corner of the room where she is sometimes seen.
Lydia may or may not be friendly toward men. There's another ghost in the building that isn't often spoken about—and it may be responsible for the unfriendly interactions with men (and possibly others.)
Watch out for yourself if you ever find yourself up in Skagway in the Red Onion Saloon. There's a malevolent male ghost that employees call "John." He roams the place, causing no end of trouble for the staff and sometimes guests. You'll know he's around if you catch a whiff of horrendous body odor or if he decides to simply shove you down a flight of stairs. He'll also fling open doors of rooms staff while they are changing. The story among employees is that John is a former bouncer who was stabbed to death by a prostitute who got fed up with his constant harassment.
Today, Red Onion Saloon is a restaurant and museum, complete with guided tours. It's open from about April through September, as the building is not well insulated and quite cold in the winter months. You'll find a collection of bedpans decorating the restaurant's walls and pizza on the menu. There's a good selection of Alaskan beer, as well.
For a small fee, you can get a Quickie Tour, or for a bit more, you can go on the Ghost & Goodtime Girls Walking tour where you'll "wander the streets, back alleys & old red-light districts of Skagway, learning about historic characters like Soapy Smith, Skookum Jim, and Klondike Kate. Of course, your guide will be a well-dressed and good-humored madam, and you'll end with champagne and a tour of the brothel museum." — Alaska.org