I beg to state that I am no gambler.
A gambler takes chances with his
money, I don't.
Jeff R. Smith, Rocky Mountain News, 12/2/1894
The Klondike Gold Rush, 1896-1898
- Skaguay (Skagway)
- The Telegraph swindle
- Jeff Smith's Parlor (saloon)
- The committees of 101 & 317
The Klondike Gold Rush, February-July, 1898
- Soapy creates his own military army
- Hero of Skaguay July 4, 1898
The Tragic Death of Soapy Smith
- The J. D. Stewart robbery
- The gunfight on Juneau wharf, July 8, 1898
1897 - 1898
The famous Pullen Collection
and the Soapy Smith Roulette table
(just days after the first stampeders arrived)
first set foot in Alaska territory in 1896. News of small gold strikes
were being more frequently reported. His gambler's instinct told him
that Alaska, "the last frontier," would produce the next big rush. He
began surveying the territory, seeking the right location to build his
major gold strike in the Klondike occurred in August of 1896, but
because of the extreme winters, news of the strike did not reach the
states until 1897 when two ships filled with cver two tons of gold
reached San Francisco, California, and Seattle, Washington. The rush
Soapy knew was coming, had arrived. Every ship sought the closest
possible place to the Klondike possible, to drop off their human cargo
of stampeders. The steamer Queen, sailed up the Lynn Canal until it
could go no further, and dropped off the passengers on a beach head
named Mooresville for its inhabitant, William Moore. It was renamed Skaguay. With the arrival of the U.S. Postal service, the spelling was changed to Skagway.
Shell Men On The Trail
Smith arrived at the tent city of Skagway very soon after its
beginnings. He quickly set himself up in business with John Clancy, a
proprietor of a local saloon and set out to take over the camp's
underworld as boss, just as he had done in Denver and Creede. The
narrow trail over the White Pass and into the interior was choked with
stampeders, creating a bottle neck, that led into and out of Skagway.
The setting was perfect for the business men, as well as the bunco men.
The miners were in such a hurry to get onto the trail that the job of
the con man was all too easy. Even when caught red handed, victims
rarely stayed around to enforce a complaint. If they did decide to seek
justice, it was quickly found that the deputy U.S. Marshal was not of
much assistance, mainly due to the fact that the marshal was in league
with the soap gang. If a victim still insisted on justice, he had to go
over to neighboring Dyea, five miles away, to make an official
complaint. Often times, the victim would find himself placed under
arrest in order to keep him in town for the hearing. All to often the
victim was willing to accept their losses in order to get back on the
trail to the gold fields.
The Skagway Telegraph Swindle
Message Sent ANYWHERE For Only $5.
( do expect a reply )
One of the more
humorous swindles, if one can find humor in it, was the
Skagway telegraph office. We see humor in it because of the gullibility
and ignorance of the stampeders in regards to what was available in
Alaska. According to the legend, miners could send a
message anywhere in the world for a mere $5. The humor is that
There were no telegraph lines to or from Skaguay
1897 - 1898
Imagine how difficult it was to
reach Skagway, Alaska, in 1897. Ships were leaving the docks of
Seattle, full with passengers, and the captains knew little of the
route and it's dangers to begin with. There were ships that actually
got lost! Passengers spent a week or more on a ship that was nothing
more than overloaded junk heaps, trying to get to Skagway.
Once there, passengers and their gear were tossed ashore as quickly as
possible, so that the captain could quickly sail back to the states for
more passengers. "Skaguay was like an ant hill that had been stirred up
by a stick welding child," one old timer stated.
Skaguay May, 1898
yourself there, dropped off with a crowd in a new, little explored
territory that is perhaps, thousands of mile from home, and there it
is, a telegraph office! Now you can send a message home, letting loved
ones know you had arrived safely. After paying your $5 and while the
clerk is sending the message, he begans to offer infomation on the
region. He answers all your questions, and in between he gathers
information about you and your situation. Who are you traveling with?
Where are you headed and when? Do you have enough cash to make it
through the winter? He seems to genuinely care and at the conclusion,
you leave the office satisfied, with new information and hope.
A Friendly Game Of Poker Between Gentlemen
while taking in the sites of the new camp, you run into the friendly
clerk again and he informs you that you have received a reply to the
message sent earlier. It is after hours and the office is closed but he
gladly offers to take you to the office and retrieve the telegraph
message, if you pay the additional $5 up front. After paying, the clerk
takes you to his office. Inside there are a few men sitting at a card
table playing poker. Greetings are made as the clerk is informed by one
of the men that his wife needs him at their tent immediately. You are
eagerly invited to sit in on the game and play a few hands while you
wait for the clerk to return. Before too long, you are out a large
portion of your ready cash because you were certain you held a
"sure-thing" hand. Even if the though occurs to you later that you had
been swindled, there is no time to complain to the law and wait until
justice is served. Every hour you waste not getting on the trail to the
gold fields, means more claims being staked out and that means less
gold for you. chalking up the loss to experience and hoping you will
make up the loss with a new found gold strike, you hit the trail the
should not have been that hard to figure out that the telegraph office
was a fraud. How in such a short time could the way have been cleared,
telegraph poles erected, and lines strung for over a thousand miles of
forest, mountains, and rivers? A telegraph cable to Juneau, just 100
miles away, was not laid until 1901. This does not mean we should
condone the crimes, but it sure makes the victim look just a little
foolish. Who would be willing to go home and admit that they fell for
such a trick? Anwser: There is no record of anyone admitting they had
been taken this way.
The non-denominational Church and school house that Soapy helped build
The true story would not be complete if Soapy's good deeds were not mentioned. In the book, The Reign of Soapy Smith, it reads, Although he was at odds with the law, many times he was the law's best friend. It should be known that
as bad as Soapy was, he also genuinly contributed to the towns he ran,
and was known for his huge donations to charitable causes. Skagway was
no exception. Soapy was responsible for setting up or aiding numerous
charity funds that fed stray dogs, the hungry, the sick, the ungodly
and the uneducated. When the town council asked the residents to chip
in so that a night watchman could be hired to guard the residential
area, Soapy argued that one was insufficient and donated enough money
to hire two watchmen.
"Welcome to my Parlor"
...said the spider to the fly
operated several saloons while controlling Skagway, but the most famous
was Jeff Smith's Parlor, opened in the spring of 1898. Skagway had a
city hall but many called Jeff Smith's Parlor, "the real city hall." It
was from this saloon that Jeff oversaw his operations.
Although the photograph is marked "July 4" it is unknown if this was actually taken on that date as at least one other photograph is known to be mismarked.
Another photograph of Soapy in his saloon
Early residents of Skagway say that there were two gangs fighting for control of the city; the "real-estate grifters" and the "bunco men." As crime increased in the city, the target of vigilante's became the easy crooks to define, the bunco men. It was easy for the real-estate grifters to join in the fight with the vigilante's, but much more difficult for the bunco men, especially if their identities were known.
The Vigilante Committee of 101
There were others that did not want Soapy in control. They secretly formed a vigilante organization aimed at ridding Skagway of Soapy and his gang. The vigilantes printed up a handbill and posted them around the camp and the trail.
A word to the wise should be sufficient! All confidence, bunco and Ssre-thing men, and all other objectionable characters are notified to leave Skaguay and White pass Road Immediately. And to remain away. Failure to comply with this warning will be followed by prompt action.
The Law and Order Society
Many bunco men would have heeded this warning, moving on to another location, but not Soapy Smith. The vigilantes did not realize who they were dealing with. He called an informal town meeting and proclaimed the creation of his own law & order committee. The following day the little city awoke to another handbill plastered about town.
The body of men styling themselves 101 are hereby notified that any overt act committed by them will be promptly met by the Law abiding Citizens of Skaguay and each member and HIS PROPERTY will be held responsible for any unlawful act on their part and the law and order society consisting of 317 citizens will see that Justice is dealt out to its full extent as no Blackmailers or Vigilantes will be tolerated.
T he Committee.
* Both handbills were copied from the originals at the Alaska State Museum, Juneau
(copies of these handbills can be purchased here.)
Soapy's bluff worked. The vigilantes crawled back into hiding. There could be no doubt that Soapy Smith was the supreme ruler, the uncrowned king of Skagway.
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