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A Guide to Skagway, Alaska

Harriet Pullen and the Pullen House Hotel in Skagway, Alaska

    Harriet Pullen arrived in Skagway aboard the steamer "Rosali" on September 12, 1897. The wife of fur trader Dan Webster Pullen, she left her husband and 4 young children in Washington State to go north to make her fortune. Harriet Matilda Smith had married Pullen in 1878, when she was 18 years old and he was 36.

    Harriet could do two things well - cook and handle horses. She arrived in Skagway with $7.00 in her pocket and took the first job that came along - cooking in a tent for $3,.00 a day for the 18 men who were building Moore's Wharf. At night, Harriet baked apple pies, hammering pie plates from tin cans, and then sold them to the miners longing for a taste of "home".

    Soon she had enough money to send for her family and buy a small cabin. When gold was discovered in Atlin in the fall of '98, Harriet joined the rush. However, she fell, broke her arm, and returned to Skagway. Harriet then sent for her horses which she had left in Washington, and began hauling freight over the White Pass Trail. When the stampede subsided, she opened a small boarding house. In 1901, Harriet opened the Pullen House in the large home built by Captain William Moore.

    During her fifty years in Skagway, Harriet accumulated a large collection of Alaska memorabilia. She kept Skagway's history alive with her colourful talks in the Pullen House. Harriet met every tourist ship in her horse-drawn Pullen House coach. She had a steadfast belief in the future of Alaska and was a courageous woman with an unquenchable spirit. Her motherly ways earned her the title "Mother of the North", and in her later years she was known as "Ma Pullen".

    With the help of her granddaughter, Mary, and her son, Royal, Harriet kept the Pullen House open until her death on August 8, 1947. At her request, she was buried along the White Pass & Yukon Route rail line near the Pullen House (see her grave here). The hotel was demolished in 1991.

    The definitive biography of Harriet Pullen appears to be Eleanor Brackbill's The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman, published in 2016. In his review of the book, Steve Haycox says that separating fact from fiction in Pullen's life was a major challenge: "Many writers have examined Pullen, and Brackbill found that many of them gave her story their own twist, some vividly imagining what can't be known, impressed as they doubtless were by her determination and capability. Pullen herself wrote occasionally about her exploits, and wasn't above exaggeration."

Before World War I, round trip excursions to Alaska could cost as little as $66, but the trip was most popular with society's upper classes, and the amenities offered by the Pullen House were significant in getting cruise ships to stop in Skagway.

Harriet and children in 1901 - Chester, Dan, Royal, Mildred.

Harriet posing on the railroad tracks on Broadway ca. 1910.

An elegant dinner in the Pullen House in October 1901.

Horses and cows were kept on the adjacent Pullen Ranch and Harriet also had a farm at Dyea for many years.

Today (2017), 26 years after the Pullen House burned, the property beside City Hall still stands empty, with only the chimney remaining. A descriptive panel has been installed to tell the story of Harriet and her hotel, but few people venture into the bushes to see it.

Harriet Pullen had a river rock facing added to the fireplace that heated the house when Captain Moore lived in it.

The Pullen name is inset in the rock facing of the fireplace.

A brass plaque noting the site of the Pullen House used to be on this rock standing near the chimney, but it was stolen many years ago.