July 10, 2009

An inside man for Soapy Smith

(Click image to enlarge)

A Park Ranger talks about Jeff
Smith's Parlor (right) during a town tour

How nice it is to have an inside man when it comes to the restoration plans for Soapy Smith's saloon in Skagway, Alaska. That man, a young intern, B. Mike, has a blog called Commencing to Get Ready to Begin. I have talked about him before and the more I hear from him the more I like him.

. Mike traveled to Skagway for a week of research on the Parlor and other buildings. He has an opinion about the cost of restoration to some of the Skagway buildings but what he says at the end made my day. He writes,

Speaking of spending money on buildings, the McDermott Cabin in Dyea was the project that the interns came to Skagway to work on. This is a tiny little cabin that may have been a toll booth during the Gold Rush. It's possible that the building served as the toll booth for crossing the river before getting on the Chilkoot Trail. But really this is just a tiny old shack in the woods that we can only guess at its function. And to restore it to its possible Gold Rush appearance will cost $500,000, and that's on the cheap end. I know I am supposed to really respect historic preservation/rehabilitation at this point in the summer, but half a million bucks on a cabin when millions of Americans can't get a job just rubs me the wrong way. How about we give that money to a couple would be retirees who can't quit their jobs because they have totally lost their retirement funds. Or maybe we can just put 1898-esque siding on a couple cabins in the woods in an abandoned town that no one will ever see or care about. I'm getting a little jaded, but I still love my project and so I say bring on the millions to save Soapy's!

My hero...

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The mechanical Soapy made by

Martin Itjen that stood at the
bar inside Jeff Smith's Parlor,
now in storage.

B. Mike began his study of the Parlor and had this to say.

The next morning I finally got to go inside Soapy's, or as I know it the Jeff. Smith's Parlor Museum, and poke around a little bit. I had been inside for about 30 minutes the previous evening, but Wednesday afternoon I really got to explore. And explore I did. A curator named Jon showed me around the interior of the parlor museum which unfortunately has been totally cleaned out and stripped down. The only things that remain in it with any historic value are actually bar itself and the moose diorama that was built in the 1930s. It's two bull moose with locked horns that were once part of a larger bizarre wildlife diorama, but now are wrapped in plastic and sit in the middle of the room in the back of the museum. Pretty bummed that the museum was empty, but the park is in the process of preparing it for rehabilitation. My boy Jeff Smith, not Soapy but his great grandson, would just be crushed to see the museum in its current state, hell he'd be crushed to hear me keep calling it a museum. But there is some good news, which I will get to in a moment.

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Martin Itjen's Skagway Street Car

B. Mike continues,

What I did while I was in the museum was get a run through of all the layers of wallpaper that came off the walls when they first stripped the building down to the wood. Then I examined all the walls and any indications of old door frames and windows and then I spent about an hour climbing around in the various parts of the foundation attempting to tell what was original flooring and where clear changes in the foundation indicated additions to the building. One part of the foundation was so close to the ground that I had to lie on my back with a flashlight in the dirt just to get a look at it. I came out extremely dirty and extremely knowledge about the different types of flooring that went in to the building.

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Underneath Jeff Smith's Parlor.

. Mike continues,

While I was walking around the building a tour group came by and a park ranger looking woman gave them about a 7 minute talk on the history of the building. And here's the real key for my boy Jeff. No mention of either of the museum operators, Martin Itjen and George Rapuzzi. No mention that the building became a museum. The tour talk only harps on Soapy's life from wealthy southern beginnings to crime in mountain west and Alaska. One thing the tour totally missed on was Soapy's death, which the woman credited to Frank Reid who "shot Soapy right through the heart." As Jeff explains that is not the true story, but it is what the newspaper at the time reported, so hey let the 'amateurs' tell the story like that and leave it to guys like me and Jeff to set them straight. (One thing I learned about Soapy form Karl, which Jeff will undoubtedly dispute, is that Soapy was not the Grand Marshall in the 1898 July 4 parade, but actually just the leader of the 4th district. So he was a key part of the parade, but not the key part. Prove me wrong, Jeff.) But the key take away is that the tour of the Parlor Museum is actually just a talk about Soapy's life of crime. So for all my work to preserve the life and careers of the Soapy museum owners and operators the park just totally ignores that portion of the building's history. I guess you win this round, Jeff, but with all my efforts Itjen and Rapuzzi won't totally disappear. What I really learned, crime pays or at least it makes for a good story once you get shot.

We look forward to more of his posts.


  1. We are from Holland, Europe and visited Skagway on a bootcruise.We took a bustour to the klondike and the driver (forgot his name but he was all moustache)and he told us the Soapy story, with the end of Frank Reid as being the man who killed him.
    We also vistied the graveyard with the stones from Reid and Smith.
    Maybe a nobel thing to instruct those tour operators to tell the correct data.In any case, i fell in love with Alaska and would trade my country for it anytime.

  2. Hello, Heetman.
    Yes, Alaska IS a beautiful place. I almost moved there myself.

    Frank Reid did shoot Soapy Smith but he did not kill him. Another guard named Jesse Murphy did. I believe the reason the real facts were hidden was due to the Army threat of martial law. I go into great detail in my book (due out in August)

    Thank you so much for writing!

  3. Thanks Jeff, for your comment.
    The tour guide was not so wrong afterall.
    Nice to see you people keep this folklore a live.
    Without history and roots a man is nothing.
    It's a bit far from my country to visit the wake sometime, otherwise I would.
    Success with your book(s) and blogs, I will order a copy of your book when it is published in August.




Thank you for leaving your comment and/or question on my blog. I always read, and will answer all questions left here. Please know that they are greatly appreciated. -Jeff Smith