March 4, 2010

Soapy Smith and the steamship Tartar

(Click image to enlarge)

I found the above 1883 picture and believe it to be the steamship of the same name involved in

One of the more bizarre stories told about Jeff in Skaguay involves Northwest Mounted Policeman Captain Zachary Taylor Wood and two subordinates. In early June 1898, they were ordered to transport $150,000 in customs fees (other versions of the story say $224,000 in bullion from the Klondike) across District-of-Alaska soil to the Canadian Tartar, which would be waiting in Skaguay’s deep-water port. The route chosen was the Chilkoot trail and through Dyea because, as the story goes, taking the White Pass meant chancing a robbery attempt by “Soapy” Smith and his gang. At Dyea harbor, the Mounties loaded the heavy cargo into a skiff, rowed to the tugboat Lady of the Lake, and made for the wharf where the Tartar was tied up. Covering the gold transport was the story that Captain Wood was going to a new duty assignment.

My favorite part of the whole affair is when Capt. Wood wrote that a rowboat full of men “suddenly bore down astern [the rear of the ship] of the tug as it chugged towards Skagway.” How in the world does a human powered rowboat “bore down?” Was it going faster than the tugboat? I highly doubt Soapy and his gang were stupid enough to attack a boat full of armed men. It just was not their method of operation.

When the tug tied up at the crowded wharf, between the Mounties and the Tartar stood Jeff with men whom Wood recognized as Soap Gang members. Jeff reportedly approached Wood, followed by most of his gang, offered welcome, and invited the captain to stay a few days in Skaguay before embarking on his long voyage. In the context of the story, this welcome was a brazen pretext to keep the men in town so they could be robbed. The story tells how Wood refused Jeff’s invitation, saw to the loading of the heavy bags onto the Tartar, and sailed at 1 p.m.

Jeff probably did meet the Mounties as told in the story’s different versions. However, he did not go with his gang but, more likely, with members of the Skaguay Military Company, not to rob the foreign visitors but to welcome them. This would be in keeping with Jeff’s way of thinking, one officer to another as an international gesture of goodwill. Thus, as a show of respect, he might have sent members of his Company in a boat (albeit in a lowly rowboat), not to board the Lady of the Lake but to welcome it. In the universally negative tellings of the story, though, the skiff “suddenly bore down” on the tug as if the steam-powered vessel could not have easily outmaneuver and outrun a rowboat containing a number of men. Colonel Steele, who gave Wood the assignment and to whom Wood reported, gave the story a page in his Forty Years in Canada (1915). In Steele’s telling, the event occurred on June 9, and Wood “had to threaten to fire on the men in the row boat full of men, who appeared determined to run them down and were only kept at a distance by the threat of shooting.

The Tartar was also one of the steamers involved in deporting members of the Soap Gang out of Skagway, back to the states.

pp. 514-15, 573



  1. Wood is a neat character in this story, he arrived Oct 8 1897 w/ Norwood, Walsh and Hurdman; then arrived back to Skagway Feb 25, 1898 and then in May he closed the Skagway office and moved to Lake Bennettt.
    "For most of the frantic winter of 1897-98, he ran an office out of Skagway. There he acted as the Force Paymaster, arranged to forward men and supplies into the Yukon, and provided information to the steady stream of travellers. Of course, the force had no legal authority in Skagway during its lawless heyday, and members wore plainclothes while stationed in the Alaskan town. On one occasion, Wood's Skagway office was caught in the midst of a gunfight. The staff hit the floor as bullets whizzed through the walls."
    This is all from a History of Nova Scotia website and Law of the Yukon by Dobrowolsky.

    From personal family knowledge I know that Z.T.'s grandfather, John Wood ran slave boats between Rhode Island, the Caribbean and Africa and his brothers (including our ggg-grandfather Peleg) were also all ship captains. Because of Z.T.'s father's involvement in the Civil War (on the Confederate side) smuggling arms to the south, he retired to Halifax after the war.

  2. Hi, Skagway Sleuth.
    Thanks for the extra information! Can't get enough of Skagway history.

    Skagway Sleuth is the head honcho for the blog: Skagway Historical Society


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