December 8, 2009

Was Soapy ever in Chitina, Alaska?

I have heard some whoopers in my years but until the author can come up with some really good sources this yarn takes the year end prize for the tallest tale. I found this won on Lost The story that follows is by Anthony M. Belli from page 52 of the January, 2010 issue of Lost Treasure.

Incident at Chitina – A Gambler’s Lost Gold

UNORGANIZED BOROUGH/VALDEZ-CORDOVA–“Cort” Thompson (Cortez D. Thompson [Actual name: Corteze D. Thomson]) was a successful gambler. He and his wife, “Mattie” (Martha A. Silks), a madam in Denver’s red-light district, were both local celebrities during Denver’s boomtown era. It was during the height of the Alaskan Gold Rush that Cort bid his wife a farewell to go seek their family fortune in Alaska.

Cort had no intention of mining; his plan was to mine the miners through a series of crooked card games. For the most part his plan worked. Traveling from one gold boomtown to the next, Cort had accumulated roughly $50,000 in gold by running shady games. Then one night in Chitina, a copper mining and railroad camp, Cort had the misfortune of dealing to a local named “Soapy” Smith (Jefferson Randolph Smith).

That night Cort’s luck ran out. Soapy accused Cort of being a grifter and cheating him at cards. Cort defended his honor as best he could, but their gentlemanly discord suddenly turned into a wicked beating for which Cort was ill prepared. After regaining his wits, Cort not only got of Chitina as fast as he could, but out of Alaska as well. He didn’t stop until he reached Denver - without his gold.

Although Cort never returned to Alaska to claim his ill-gotten gains, he sometimes offered his own version of the events that night in Chitina. He explained it was his usual practice after arriving in any camp or town to secretly bury his gold somewhere on the outskirts of the village, just in case his ruse was exposed and he had to flee for his life.

Of course he carried enough gold on him to present himself to the locals as a freewheeling, successful gambler. And in those days there were plenty of young men working in local mines that, with enough liquor, were eager to engage “Lady Luck” in a friendly game. Perhaps Lady Luck will one day shine upon some treasure hunter and a gambler’s lost gold will be found somewhere on the outskirts of the ghost town of Chitina, population 100.

The author listed sources at the bottom of the article online but none could be found that contained this particular incident. Giving the author the benefit of the doubt I emailed in to question for sources on this story in hopes of finding out where it came from. It might perhaps be local folklore to boost tourism and give them something to talk about.

Chitina is 337 miles from Skagway ("as the crow flies") and according to the local chamber of commerce and what I could find online, the town began in the early 1900's as a supply town for the Kennicott Mine and Copper River Northwestern Railway. When copper prices began to decline, Chitina became a ghost town.

None of this takes into account what I and those who own a copy of my book already know about Mattie Silks and Cort Thompson's pre-adventures with Soapy in Denver and then their later trip to Alaska which ended in Mattie's accusations that Soapy was going to murder her. Cort was involved with Soapy in the shooting death of Cliff Sparks in Denver in 1892 (Alias Soapy Smith: p. 250 - 259) which led to bitter feelings. Unlike the story above Mattie and Cort went to Alaska together, traveling to the Klondike where the gold was not to Chitina. It was on their return trip to the states that Mattie ran into Soapy in Skagway and the ill feelings from the Denver days apparently still lingered within. It is probable that Soapy, who had been fighting tooth-and-nail to supress news of his past, saw Mattie as a threat to expose who he really was, the infamous confidence man of Colorado. Soapy made Mattie feel very unwelcome in Skagway, making her think she was to be murdered. You will have to read the book for the rest of the story...

For more information see Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel.
  • Thomson, Corteze D. "Cort" 251, 255, 258-59, 507
  • Silks, Mattie 258-59, 355, 505, 507-13



  1. Greetings Jeff - Thank you for contacting me and posting my story on your blog. It looks as if you have nailed down that this incident may not have taken place. None-the-less in publishing it it does keep this tale of Chitina folklore alive. Much of what I deal with in the treasure hunting community when it comes to "tall tales" is just that... local legend and lore. And once in awhile there is a thread of truth to it and someone actually does dig up some long lost treasure.

    My best to you and your work Jeff,

    Anthony M. Belli

  2. Hi, Anthony.
    Thank you very much for responding. The history of Soapy Smith has its share of folklore and tall tales. My goal as a family historian is to separate truth from fiction. I published the above post not to make you look "bad," but rather to hopefully save family and fans from having to "dig" for facts where none exist. I have to wonder how many readers of Lost have wasted money and time actually digging for something that was never there. As a historian I personally believe that it is your duty, if you suspect the "facts," to let your readers know that the story you are writing is most likely just a local tall tale.

  3. Greetings Jeff,
    I never took offense, nor did I think you were trying to make me look bad. I really enjoy your site and before I did the Chitina story had never heard of Soapy Smith... but now I think I'll pick up your book and check him out. He certainly sounds like a man who lived larger than life.

    Lost Treasure magazine has been in publication for 43 years, rare for a magazine. The treasure hunting community is well educated that the stories they read in Lost Treasure are largely based on local folklore and old legends. This is where the average treasure hunt begins... with research.

    It is up to the treasure hunter to take these stories, research them then decide for themselves if there is something worth looking into or not. The magazine does also publish "how-to" articles, many focus on doing research,
    field work, and investigating historic events. I have also disproved a number of "tall tales" and have published my research debunking such stories.

    I wear two hats as a writer. The magazine is my "fun" work because I love writing about these old legends, and in doing so help keep the local folklore alive. By writing the Chitina story I have introduced Soapy Smith to many folks who, like me had never heard of him before. That said, its a great thing that people like you provide factual history and data to those who want to learn more.

    My second hat is that of historian, lecturer and author of El Dorado County, CA. & California Gold Rush history. Here no folklore is usually allowed, or if it appears it is presented as such to the reader. This involves serious investigative research for which I have several hundreds of articles published. So I do appreciate and value your work as a family historian. Truth is if I ever wanted to write a serious piece on Soapy Smith, you'd be the first person I'd contact.

    I hope that explains the magazines position and my interest in writing something "out-of-the-box" that isn't quite as dry as real history. Its a nice break from writing strictly history only. Again thank you for posting my story and these follow up posts.

    My best to you on your family history work, I'm sure Soapy has to be an endless source of great tales.

    Best regards,

  4. Thank you very much for clearing up the magazines position on articles as well as your interesting "second hat." I am at your disposal if the time comes that you need my assistance.

    Jeff Smith

  5. I suppose I will now need to read your book as I am "Mattie Silks" g-g-g-niece. Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

    1. I hope you do! You will find some very interesting and previously unpublished information on Mattie and her connections to Soapy.


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