Story Time with Aunt Phil: The Pullen House
One woman turned adversity into a thriving business after leaving her home state of Washington during the Klondike Gold Rush era.
Harriet Smith Pullen’s story of going from rags to riches begins after she arrived broke in Skagway on Sept. 8, 1897. Although her husband came with her, their marriage ended in divorce.
Earning $3 a day as a cook, the enterprising 37-year-old opened a tent restaurant to feed Skagway’s hungry stampeeders. She also began baking pies in pie tins made from discarded cans.
Soon Pullen had gained quite 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 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 when she sold it, she netted a grubstake that funded several future enterprises.
Pullen used some of the profits gleaned from her successful freighting business to rent Capt. Billy Moore’s boarding house, which she later purchased and converted into Alaska’s largest and most elaborate hotel – the Pullen House. Its 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.
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 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.
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