The Westward Ho! migration of the 1800s struck up a myriad of small gold boom towns, and with them arose a history comprised of stories and legends, myth and mastery.
It was the Wild West and things occurred in auspicious and sometimes dour ways.
Towns and villages all over the state of Alaska are rich with stories of the Gold Rush days, but none seem to compare in the equal parts tragedy and humor as is found in Skagway.
Nestled between 6,000 foot mountains along the waters of the Inside Passage, the small glacially carved out valley of Skagway was first settled in 1887 by Captain William Moore, a surveyor who had been working in the nearby Native summer fishing village of Dyea.
At 75-years-old, Moore founded the White Pass Trail, a 35-mile trail that rivaled the Native Chilkoot Trail in Dyea, which was not traversable by horse. Both trails ended at Lake Bennett, where ten years later nearly 100,000 stampeders would thereupon build a boat and row 500 more miles to Dawson City, where the gold was.
In 1898 the Klondike Gold Rush was on and more than 20,000 people came to find Moore’s 160 acres home – for a short time.
The town boasted 75 bars, 75 brothels, no church and no sheriff. As was bound to in such circumstances, legends arose from an amalgamation of historical facts and myths.
Herman Kirmse, the proprietor of Kirmse’s Curios Shop still located on Broadway in downtown Skagway, made his first fortune by selling a barge full of cantaloupe to scurvy-ridden trail-bound stampeders at $50 a pop.
There are tomes written about the innumerable characters that took root in Skagway.
Of them, the most notable – at least to most Skagwegians, are the town hero and town villain. Respectively, Frank H. Reid and Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith.
Many towns all over Southeast Alaska and the Lower 48 boast of Soapy’s presence at one point in time, but only Skagway claims his body.
As legend has it, Soapy was a con artist who acquired his nickname in Denver, Colo. where he used to play a soap trick. He would take bars of soap, wrap them tight with paper, and then twine try to sell them to crowds of people for $5 by proclaiming there were $50 and $100 bills inside. Most were dubious until one brave soul would walk up, slap down a $5 bill, unwrap the bar of soap and find: a $50 bill! The crowd, hungry for money in the Depression Era would buy up every bar of soap, only to find nothing but their only foolishness – at which point, Soapy and his shills would be long gone.
Soapy and his gang managed to get kicked out of every town en route to Skagway, but when they arrived they found there was nobody to kick them out. The first thing Smith did was hire the very first sheriff, and start up the first church, the Union Church. Then he hired the prized reporter from New York City – which meant he had good press.
Smith was a hero in town. He was not only a very successful entrepreneur (of questionable legitimacy), but he was also a philanthropist. He took care of the wayward women and the homeless children, and saw to it that every man who’d lost his gold in a gambling match gone awry had enough cash in his pocket to return home to his loved ones in the Lower 48.
Soapy was the town hero. So much so, that on July 4, 1898 he was made the grand marshal of the Fourth of July parade. More than 10,000 people cheered his name.
It seemed everyone loved Jefferson Smith – except for a few good businessmen who were looking to make money off the gold stampeders. They found it wasn’t going to happen with the likes of Soapy around. He wasn’t only stealing gold, but he was also starting to make a bad reputation for the town.
A secret vigilante group called a Committee of 101 was born of these businessmen, and among them was Frank Reid. On July 8, 1898 they held a secret meeting at the Juneau Co. Wharf in Skagway, to devise a plan to get rid of their nemesis.
Soapy caught wind of it, so he went down to his saloon, threw back a few shots of red eye whiskey, grabbed his Winchester Repeating Rifle from off the shelf and stumbled down to the dock.
What unfolds from there is said to be one of the most amazing, dramatic gunfights in Alaska’s history. But how it went down is still, 111 years later, greatly debated.
The most common story is that Soapy walked down to the dock. He was greeted by Reid, who told him not to come any closer. Eyewitnesses said that when Soapy got within spitting distance of Reid he took the rifle off his shoulder and swung it like a club, trying to knock Reid off the dock and into the drink. But he was drunk and he missed. This was all the legal provocation that Reid needed. He took his six shooter off his hip, pointed it directly at Smith and: Click! Nothing happened. The hammer of his gun fell on a faulty cartridge. In the time it took for him to put another round into the chamber, Smith regained his balance and aimed his rifle, and the two men pointed and shot at exactly the same time.
Soapy Smith, 38, took a shot to the heart and was dead before he hit the dock. Frank Reid, 54, was not so lucky. He took a shot to the groin. It shattered his pelvis and he died an agonizing 12 days later. He died the hero.
That’s the way the incident between Reid and Smith is commonly portrayed, but according to local historian and tour company proprietor Steve Hites, Reid did not kill Soapy.
“Reid shot Soapy, but it was not his bullet that killed him,” Hites said. “It’s the difference between history and legend.”
Hites spent time over the past year assisting and editing author and historian Catherine Spude’s book about Soapy that is slated to come out this fall. It’s working title is “Soapy Smith: The Truth, the Legend.” Hites said Spude researched everything down to the coroner’s report to the transcripts of the inquest.
“Word on the street has always been that Reid didn’t kill Soapy,” Hites said. It’s just been dramatists and bad journalists who have propagated the myth.
So the word on the street is that when Reid shot, he hit Soapy in the knee – hardly a fatal blow. A railroad worker by the name of Jesse Murphy was out on the wharf, holding watch over the meeting. Murphy seized the moment. He wrangled Soapy’s gun out of his hands and turned it on him, thus finishing the job.
It just so happened that at the time, federal troops had been taking a strong interest on all the illegal shenanigans going on in Skagway. They were threatening martial law. It was decided by the Committee of 101 members who were at the scene of the double homicide that day, it would be best to publish that Reid and Soapy had killed each other rather than have the federal government seize their newfound governance over Skagway. And on that day, Frank Reid became the hero of Skagway – it’s all about good press.
As it turns out, some time later a bounty hunter came to Skagway looking for Reid. It seemed he was wanted in Sweet Home, Ore. for shooting and killing an unarmed man in the back. Reid had come to Skagway to escape his past, and turned over a new leaf by becoming the town’s surveyor, which he did by stealing the surveying equipment from the real engineer who was out on the White Pass Trail. He laid the streets of Skagway just like they are today on top of the town’s founding father, Captain William Moore’s original homestead claim to the valley. Then sold all the plots as though they were his own and pocketed the cash.
Even so, a 10 foot tall monument still stands in the old Gold Rush Cemetery that reads: “Frank H. Reid; He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”
Soapy, however, is hailed the leader of Skagway’s miscreants. Every Fourth of July the parade is presided over by someone dressed as Soapy Smith.
On that day, every year, flowers are laid on Soapy’s grave and young local men come to have a toast of whiskey and pee on