About the Red Onion Saloon

During the Gold Rush…

The Red Onion Saloon, now a National Historic Building, was Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. Built in 1897 with planks cut by Capt. William Moore, the founder of Skagway, the Red Onion Saloon opened for business in 1898, serving alcohol on the first floor while the upper floor satisfied more than the prospector’s thirst. The brothel consisted of ten tiny cubicles, called cribs, each ten foot by ten foot with three exits, one into the hallway and one into each of the adjoining rooms.?Each room also had a hole in the floor which connected to the cash register in the bar by means of a copper tube.

In order to keep track of which girls were busy, the bartender kept ten dolls on the back bar, one for each of the girls in each of the rooms. When a girl was with a customer, her doll was laid on its back. When she sent her money down the tube, the doll was returned to the upright position signaling to the waiting prospectors that she was ready for business. The bartender safeguarded the girl’s earnings, usually $5.00, preferably in gold, while in the crawl space between the floors, loose floorboards hid nuggets and private tips.

Because the rooms were divided by single planks toe-nailed into the ceiling and floor, not much sound-proofing was provided. To decorate their cribs, the women stretched linen across the rough planks, then glued wall paper to the cloth. Remnants of the original wall papers still cling to the planks. Some of the girls who worked in Skagway were Birdie Ash, Big Dessie, Popcorn Lil, the Oregon Mare, Babe Davenport, Pea Hull Annie, Kitty Faith, the Belle of Skagway and Klondike Kate.

By late 1899, business began to suffer. Most of the women moved north to Dawson which was closer to the gold fields and had big gambling casinos and dance halls. As the railroad became the center of business for Skagway, numerous buildings were moved closer to the depot. The Red Onion was moved in 1914 with one horse from Sixth and State Street to its current Broadway location. Unfortunately, the Onion was dragged around the corner backwards and the front and back of the building had to be removed in order to switch them. During World War II the building was used as an army barracks and in subsequent years housed a laundry, bakery, union hall, television station and gift shop. In 1980, Jan Wrentmore purchased a liquor license and opened the building once more as a saloon.