Alaskan Entrepreneurs – From Rags to Riches

From Rags to RichesHarriet Smith Pullen left her children and a bankrupt farm in Washington state and 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, one of many enterprising Alaskan entrepreneurs, the 37-year-old opened a tent restaurant to feed Skagway’s hungry stampeders. 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 stampeder’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 stampeders 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.

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.

By Laurel Bill

Alaska history