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Skagway, Alaska:
The "Ship Signature Wall"

by Murray Lundberg


An Explorer's Guide to Skagway, Alaska

One of the ship signs at Skagway, Alaska Click on each image to enlarge it.

    Alongside the Railroad Dock in Skagway is an impressive wall of solid granite that is home to one of the most unique art collections in Alaska. Since 1928, the crews of ships have been "autographing" this wall to commemorate their first voyage to Skagway. Though access to the dock has been severely curtailed since "9/11", passengers on the cruise ships which use the dock and off-season visitors can spend hours reading the signatures, which comprise a virtual "Who's Who" of Alaska passenger ships from the past 80-odd years.

    Space on the wall is quite limited, and as can be seen in the photo to the right, new signatories are being forced higher and higher up the wall - indeed some fancy mountain-climbing gear must have been required for some of them! Unfortunately, the collection is also slowly but surely being ruined by vandals (excuse me, "graffiti artists") who have no respect for the tradition or artwork of those who came before. Between the graffiti and the passage of time that fades all paint, the collection may be past its prime, but is still a worthwhile visit if you have the opportunity.


The ship signs at Skagway, Alaska, in the 1930s This photo was taken in the 1930s, when the dock was known as Moore's Wharf.

The rock painting known as Soapy Smith's Skull in Skagway in the late 1930s This postcard from the late 1930s shows "Soapy Smith's Skull", which was painted in the Fall of 1926 on a natural rock formation shaped like a skull. It's signed "FM" but nobody seems to know who it was that painted the signature wall's most striking piece.

Soapy Smith's Skull at Skagway, Alaska In the sign-painting world, the space around Soapy Smith's Skull is prime real estate, as it's guaranteed that your artwork will show up in thousands of photos every year. Whether crowding a historic sign is disrespectful is a discussion that this photographer would be happy to get into.

The Ship Signature Wall around Soapy Smith's Skull - Skagway, Alaska This broader view of the cliffs around the skull was shot near high tide - the tides at Skagway have a range of 15-20 feet.

The 1949 signature of the Canadian Pacific Railway cruise ship Princess Kathleen at Skagway, Alaska When the lovely Canadian Pacific Railway cruise ship Princess Kathleen visited Skagway in 1949, Captain Graham 0. Hughes was in command. Although not on the bridge, he was still in command on September 7, 1952, when the Princess Kathleen struck a reef between Skagway and Juneau and sunk.

One of the ship signs at Skagway, Alaska The crew of the Prince Rupert recorded her July 19, 1930 visit to Skagway, when she was being operated by the Canadian National Steamship Company, under the command of Captain E. Mabbs. The Prince Rupert was built for the Grand Trunk Railway in 1910, was sold to Canadian National in 1925, and continued to serve the coast until 1956.

One of the ship signs at Skagway, Alaska Here are signatures of two the legendary cruise ships that have run the Alaska route for Canadian Pacific Railway Coast Service, also known as British Columbia Coast Steamships. The 330-foot Princess Charlotte was built in Glasgow in 1908, and served the West Coast until 1949. The 331-foot Princess Louise was built in North Vancouver in 1921, and worked until 1964 when she was moved to Los Angeles, where she was moored and opened as a restaurant. It closed in 1988, and the following year, the ship capsized. In 1990 she sunk in deep water while being towed to Catalina Island where she was to be sunk as an artificial reef.

Signature of the Princess Louise at Skagway, Alaska There are a few "mystery" signatures on the cliffs. While it says "Princess Louise", I don't recognize the design in the centre, so it may or may not be the same Princess Louise as the artwork in the photo above.

The 1977 signature of Holland America's cruise ship Prinsendam at Skagway, Alaska When Holland America's 4-year-old cruise ship Prinsendam visited Skagway in 1977, Captain Cornelius Wabeke was in command. He was also in command when the Prinsendam caught fire and sunk in the Gulf of Alaska on October 11, 1980 - see the story of that incredible rescue mission (all 520 passengers and crew members were saved) here and/or in the book "Burning Cold" by H. Paul Jeffers.

Rainier ship signature at Skagway, Alaska This beautifully-executed signature by John Brittingham is from the Rainier (S 221), a Fairweather-class hydrographic survey ship operated by NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This signature notes 3 visits to Skagway, in 1990, 1992 and 1998 - John Brittingham was serving on the Rainier during the 1990 and 1992 visits.