Does it come as a surprise that one of the rowdiest watering holes in history was located in “Roughest Town on Earth”? As pungent as it is garish, a woodland marvel of the Klondike Gold Rush, it’s the Red Onion Saloon. Colored by prospectors and prostitutes, it was a champion’s champion in a frontier outpost that already sported 80 other pubs. To this very day, the Red Onion Saloon is singed by the gritty spirit of those that made their lives there.
It was in 1897 that Captain William Moore broke ground on his new home in the wilderness and in doing so, founded the village of Skagway. Thus also referred to as the Moore House, the 49th State’s would-be landmark opened its doors to the wilderness as a flamboyant, borderline ostentatious tavern the following year. Offering an air of exclusivity and individuality amid great white isolation, the walk-in Saloon was an instant hit.
Specializing in cardinal sins, the Victorian cathouse upstairs was even busier. The business of hanky-panky was booming and the brothel was built to make a killing. Capt. Moore deserves an “A” for effort: his blueprint reveals the finest attention to turning tricks in the most efficient manner possible. The design employed in all of its ten “cribs” (10’ x 10’ work stations) features three exits each, just in case the need for a hasty getaway arose.
In order to minimize downtime between clients, Red Onion management instigated a tracking system. A row of ten dolls arranged neatly behind him, the bartender was able to greet customers and present them with each soiled dove’s availability and wait time based on which of the dolls was sitting up or lying down. The call girls indicated they were ready for another john by dropping payment from the previous into a copper tube that led from each bedroom directly to the bar. Sex staff did receive a relatively large portion of their earnings- nightly wages averaged around $5 at a time when the national paycheck hovered at $1.50.
Time was not always kind to the Red Onion. By 1899, most of the working girls had left for Dawson in search of larger purses. However, the Saloon was saved by the introduction of a railroad after the turn of the century.
As evidenced by the storefronts’ and thoroughfares’ well-worn character, transportation became the town’s nucleus. Skagway became popularly known as the “Gateway to the Klondike”.
The Red Onion jumped on the corporate trend to cluster around the train station in 1914, and relocated its headquarters to a more centralized location. They literally picked the building up and lugged it to its current address by horse. The house was regrettably placed with its main entrance in the back yard and the ensuing rotation required the removal of front and rear living quarters.
Wine and women reigned supreme at the Red Onion until World War Two, when the Army converted it into barracks. The Saloon’s tap ran dry in the post-war years. It wasn’t until 1980 that it reclaimed its liquor license and heirloom integrity.
The authentically-restored bordello lives on as an eatery and the ever-enchanting Brothel Museum, situated within the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Most of the Red Onion’s ladies of the night may have left long ago, but one poor soul is said to have stayed behind. Affectionately nicknamed “Lydia”, the apparition is just one of the guided tour’s many charms.
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