Story & Photos by Jennifer Richmond
You may know Alaska as a cold tundra full of icebergs and glaciers, huskies and salmon. But back in the late-1800’s Alaska was in the midst of a rush. A rush of people, pioneers and cowboys. They all came searching for one thing. The only thing that would cause people in the late-1800’s to pack up everything they owned and move somewhere thousands of miles away. Somewhere temperatures often dropped below freezing. Somewhere covered with snow and ice. Somewhere the sun refused to show it’s happy face six months out of the year. Somewhere that recently discovered gold.
The rumors of mountains full of gold nuggets in the Yukon in August of 1896 sent people running to Alaska by the thousands. Men from all over flocked to cold tundra with picks and shovels hoping beyond hope that they’d make their fortunes. But all that work during the day required a release as the sun dipped below the horizon. Some would simply set up in their tents, have a nice dinner and go to sleep. But others would head into town and have a drink or dinner at the local saloon.
One such saloon was the Red Onion in Skagway. Built in 1897 to accommodate the need for food and drink, this local watering hole had plenty of liquor to chase away the blues and cold of an unsuccessful dig. But if eating, drinking and dancing wasn’t enough, there were women – 10 to be exact – who were more than happy to dance with depressed men, and then take it even further if so desired. Yes, the Red Onion wasn’t just a saloon, it was a bordello. Downstairs men and women filled their stomachs, while upstairs men could satisfy a different kind of appetite with the woman of their choice.
If this place sounds enticing, there’s good news. The Red Saloon still stands at the corner of 2nd and Broadway right in the middle of Skagway. While food and drink are still served, the bordello is just for show. Downstairs you can enjoy anything from their full bar, as well as pizza, nachos, soup or a salad. The food is delicious, filling and full of flavor and spice, while their drinks pack a delicious punch. Two or three cocktails will easily send you back to the 1800’s if you’re not too careful. But if hard alcohol isn’t your thing, they also have a long list of locally brewed beers. After tasting the food and drink, you can pay “$10 for 20 minutes… just like in 1898”. No, you won’t be treated to any female entertainment, instead you’ll get a tour of the bordello and all it has to offer.
The tour begins when a lady decked out in a beautiful corset and bustle stands atop the back stairway and announces that the tour is about to start. After following her up the “stairway to heaven” you enter what would be the lobby or waiting room filled with antique furniture, a small bar for another shot of liquid courage and a piano. Sitting on the piano are 10 dolls. Though odds are these dolls aren’t the originals from the house’s heyday, they represent the way men would choose their women. See, each doll was a raggedy replica of the prostitutes living at the Onion. A patron would scan the 10 dolls and pick the one he wanted to spend time with… but that was only if she was sitting up. If the doll happened to be laying on her back, she was occupied. So, the gentleman could either wait downstairs until she was finished or pick an alternate.
As the tour continues, you see the rooms which were tiny; maybe 50 square feet max. But they were full! There was a tiny twin bed, a desk or bureau, at least 2 windows for light, “temperature control” and a quick escape and plenty of art. Each girl got to decorate her room as she wanted. There are layers and layers of wall paper and paintings still hanging on each and every wall in the bordello showing how tastes changed from girl to girl. All the rooms look the same save one: that room belonged to none other than the famous Diamond Lil.
Getting her name because of her affinity for the sparkly stone, Madam Lil had money to burn. All that money had to go somewhere, so more often than not she turned it in for a diamond or two. Lil had so many of the priceless gems in fact, she had one embedded in her front teeth. While a lot of her money came from a portion of her girls’ wages, Lil herself would engage in the company of a man on occasion. But Lil didn’t come cheap. If a man wanted the honor of lying with her inside her opulent room and queen sized bed, it would cost him a cool thousand.
While the Red Onion drew many inside its doors, Lil was undoubtedly the main attraction. At six feet tall, Lil towered over most of her clients. She was beautiful, always well dressed and quite the entertainer. Anyone traveling through Skagway in the late-1800’s on their way to making their fortunes stopped in, just so they could say they were there and met the infamous Diamond Lil.
Lil and her women may no longer live at the Saloon, but visitors and employees alike say her spirit still visits the restaurant and museum. Yes, on top of all the Red Onion has to offer, it’s also supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the States. While I didn’t witness any creepy sounds, cool spots or tingles along my spine, I also made my visit while the sun was still high in the sky… a time when most spirits are still asleep in their graves.
But no matter what time of day or year you make your way north, Skagway and the Red Onion are well worth a visit. There may no longer be gold up in them thar hills, but the beautiful drive up the Klondike Highway is full of treasures all its own. You can skip across the Yukon Suspension Bridge, pet some Huskie puppies and even walk across the world’s smallest desert. But no trip to Skagway is complete without a stop in the Red Onion. Between the food, drink and upstairs stories, it’s easy to see why the Onion still stands when so many of its fellow brethren have disappeared.
Step back into the Alaskan Gold Rush & visit the Red Onion Saloon at 205 Broadway, Skagway, AK 99840
Jennifer Richmond has been cooking ever since she could hold a wooden spoon. Her food blog, Kitchy Cooking, appeared in 2009 when she realized she could combine her love of vintage life with cooking and writing. While she enjoys creating twists on classic savory and sweet recipes, she especially loves learning about the history and recreating vintage cocktails. You can follow her blog at kitchycooking.com and on Instagram and twitter at @kitchycooker.