Skagway holds its quirky charms with its Klondike-themed buildings and summer staff dressed similar to the time period. It’s no different as you step inside the Red Onion Saloon. The blood-red walls, wooden furniture and old-time music gives the feeling of stepping back in time, with the only indication of modern times at the gift shop.
It’s a spring Friday night in Skagway and the town has started to pick up in preparation for the summertime madness of large cruise ships as 15,000 people descend into the small town. It’s a busy time for locals who often come to Skagway only for the summer, to make their fortune and to experience the taste of living in Alaska.
Head Madam, Afton Toler, is in her third season in Skagway and lives in NYC during the winter months. She’s perfectly manicured, as any good madam should be, with her bust stuffed with cash in her Klondike attire. I’ve come down to try one of their brothel tours and Madam Toler shares some highlighted information. Their popular “Quickie” tour lasts 20 minutes and includes a souvenir garter and a tour of the museum.
They also have a two-hour Ghosts & Good Time Girls Walking Tour, which starts in Skagway with a half-hour walk through town and ends at the Red Onion with a champagne toast in the Bombay Room; and they finish them off, as it were, with a museum tour.
The Red Onion Saloon was built in 1897 and much of the original building still remains. It was a brothel from 1898 to 1900 and was many other things, such as a telegraph station, a post office, a TV station and even WWII army barracks. Jan Wrentmore bought the Red Onion in 1978 as a gift shop and reopened it in 1980 as the Red Onion Saloon, which it still is today.
Madam Toler starts our tour in the bar as we walk upstairs. The quips and dirty innuendos are thoroughly enjoyable as she responds to one tourist, “I like a handsome man who can handle my caboose.” The customer flushes red and I can see why they recommend patrons be a minimum at least 14 years old for tours and must be accompanied by a parent or guardian if under 21 years old.
She takes us through the history of what it was like to be a prostitute in Skagway in 1898 where there were 15,000 men and 300 prostitutes. Customers would choose a rag doll that represented the girl they wanted, and the bouncer would lie the rag doll on her back for 15 minutes as the customer was taken upstairs. It was $5 for 15 minutes.
It was quite an efficient process and many women would turn to the illegal profession because of the money that could be made in comparison to other professions of that time period.
We step into the wallpaper room, which has framed pieces of wallpaper that prostitutes chose to decorate their rooms with. Even though the Red Onion was a brothel for just two years, when they stripped the walls in one room there were 18 layers of wallpaper, showing the high turnover. But that makes sense as Skagway was the Gateway to the Klondike. The gold was in Dawson City, so many would move on and move north.
Madam Toler runs through many historically famous figures who worked for or visited the Red Onion during that time. She advises, particularly, that the Red Onion is haunted by Lydia, a prostitute who took her own life when she contracted a venereal disease. The creepily decorated rooms, with their historical artefacts, certainly run chills down your spine.
The Quickie tour is over and was thoroughly enjoyable. Madam Toler tells us, “As we say in the Red Onion … as we’ve said for one-hundred years—please come again!” We head downstairs, admiring photos and artefacts and getting a drink at the bar. The Red Onion Saloon isn’t merely famous as a brothel museum, but is also popular for its pizza and nachos.
Tours are run in Skagway between May and September. Check the website for tour dates and times. You can buy your tickets as well at http://redonion1898.com.