From bankruptcy to Skagway elite
Aunt Phil's Trunk
September 1, 2023 | View PDF
Harriet Smith Pullen left her children with friends in Seattle, and a bankrupt farm in Cape Flattery, and arrived broke in Skagway on Sept. 8, 1897. Although husband Daniel came with her, their marriage ended after he continued on to the Klondike and later died in Seattle in 1910.
Earning $3 a day (about $108 in 2023 dollars) as a cook for Capt. William Moore, one of Skagway's founders, the enterprising 37-year-old soon opened a tent restaurant to feed Skagway's hungry stampeeders. She also began baking pies in pie tins made from discarded cans.
It didn't take long for Pullen to gain a reputation as a pie baker by using the tons of dried apples included in every stampeeder's outfit to create her pastries. She eventually made enough money to send for her three sons to help with the business, which she'd moved into a log building.
An experienced horsewoman, Pullen also saw an opportunity to provide the stampeeders with transportation as well as food. She sent for her seven horses, and when they arrived in Skagway, she jumped into a rowboat and guided them to shore because no one else would bring them in.
With grit and courage, along with her care and knowledge of horses, she hired out to pack prospectors and their supplies over the White Pass Trail. Pullen became one of the few women packers on the trail, surviving the rough conditions and the corruption imposed by Soapy Smith and his band of thieves.
Her business was so successful that she netted a grubstake that funded several future enterprises when she sold it.
Pullen used some of the profits gleaned from her successful freighting business to rent Capt. Moore's boarding house, which she later purchased and converted into Alaska's largest and most elaborate hotel – the Pullen House. The rooms boasted hot baths and soft beds. The hotel's tables were laden with vegetables grown on land she owned near the old townsite of Dyea, once the major gateway to the Chilkoot Trail, and with milk from her own cows. And food was served on the finest china and silver.
Even during tough times, the Pullen House retained its elegance. President Warren G. Harding made it a point to visit the outstanding hotel during his visit to Alaska in 1923. Pullen made sure her guests were transported to and from the wharf in her own horse-drawn coach.
Over the years, Pullen became a well-known character throughout Alaska. She promoted tourism in Skagway, which at one time was Alaska's largest city, and amassed a large enough collection of Alaska artifacts to have her own museum. In her later years, she regaled tourists with tales of the Klondike Gold Rush and the shooting of Soapy Smith, an event she claims to have witnessed.
In 1947, after spending 50 years in her adopted town, the grand lady of the North died at the age of 87. She is buried near the site of her once-vibrant hotel.
Her extensive collection, exhibited by granddaughter Mary Pullen Kopanski from the late 1950s, was sold by auction in 1973.
This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.