May 14, 2011

Howard Clifford: Author-Historian-Friend

Howard Clifford was a friend. The last time I saw him was in 1998 in Skagway, Alaska at the 100th anniversary memorial for the gunfight on Juneau Wharf.. We were on a symposium panel on "Who killed Soapy Smith" with different views as to who did the dirty deed. It was fun, and I couldn't have picked a better opponent to match up against. After that I lost contact with Howard. No one seemed to know where he was. I gave up trying to contact him after a few years figuring he had a quiet passing. Occasionally I would think about him and Google his name only to come up empty handed. The other night I thought of him and this time I found him. He had indeed passed, but many years after I had thought. I regret not being able to tell him how much he meant to my family and me.

The year was 1973. The place, Seattle, Washington. I was 15-years-old and with my parents attending the Pullen auction of Alaskan artifacts. My father wanted, and did, purchase Soapy's roulette table and grave marker. My parents put us under a different name so that the auction house would not know that the family was bidding on artifacts for fear of falsely raising the prices. The auctioneer, Greenfield Galleries, was simply the best I have ever witnessed. It took four days to auction off the entire Harriet Pullen collection, mainly because there was so much, but also because the auctioneer was slow and precise. There was no yapping, yelling confusion you see and most other auctions. I don't know how many times he would say, "going one, going twice..." and then stop to add a story about the artifact. Although he was doing this to raise the price he did it in such a way that was very entertaining. I have few memories of my 15th year of existence, but I do remember a lot about that four days.

There were lunch breaks in which my parents would go have a drink at a local tavern (to calm down and discuss bidding plans). They gave me money to go eat on my own and so everyday I went to a lunch counter a few doors down. I was amazed at how friendly everyone was to me. What I didn't know was that they were big time bidders from Alaskan and Canadian museums trying to figure out who my parents were because of the bidding wars. My father failed to tell me not to tell anyone who we were, and I did. Hell, I told everyone who would listen! I think it was the very first time in my life that I was able to talk about Soapy to someone other than my own family. Everything worked out fine with the bidders as they made a deal with my father, not to bid on items he wanted and he wouldn't bid on items they wanted. We came home with a truck load of Alaskan artifacts, some of which have found their way back to Skagway. Besides the bidders, Howard Clifford talked to me. He was the most knowledgeable person on Soapy I had ever met outside of the family so it was a lot of fun talking to him. On the second day he asked me to introduce him to my father, which I did. Howard then set up a meeting in our hotel with Robert Sheldon, who as a young boy, had witnessed the pre-shootout argument of the gunfight on Juneau Wharf.

Howard turned out to be a big fan of Soapy's. He wrote numerous book about the Klondike gold rush in in all of them he paid tribute to Soapy. Some of his books are.

  • Much about Totems. (1962)
  • The Skagway Story: A History of Alaska's most Famous Gold-Rush Town and Some of the People Who Made that History. (1974)
  • Rails North. The Railroads of Alaska and the Yukon. (1981) 
  • Doing the White Pass. (1988)
  • Soapy Smith: Uncrowned king of Skagway (1997)
  • Alaska/Yukon Railroads: An Illustrated History (1999)
  • Alaska adventures: Wyatt Earp and friends (2000)
  • The Soapy Smith Tragedy (reprint)
  • Soapy Smith: Bandit of Skagway (reprint)
  • Correspondence of a Crook (reprint)

His books were factual with sources, with the exception of  Soapy Smith: Uncrowned king of Skagway. Not only did he not use the information I supplied him, but he added a lot of fiction which really disappointed me as he used to be so adamant about non-fiction history. minus that book I consider him a great researcher, historian, and friend. My "Howard Clifford" file is packed with letters from him as we correspondent consistently until I lost contact with him in 1998.

Howard Clifford running for his life

What I didn't know about Howard Clifford was that he was an award winning photographer. But, the wealth of fascinating experiences that have colored Howard Clifford's life are all surpassed by one—the run for his life on the collapsing Tacoma Narrows Bridge, "Galloping Gertie," in 1940.

On the morning November 7, 1940 Clifford was in the Tribune office when word came that Galloping Gertie was in trouble. The newspaper dispatched Clifford as back-up cameraman along with veteran reporter Bert Brintnall. Clifford shot several photos of the bridge's last moments. By late afternoon, the spectacular images were sent across the country.

January 5, 2011
September 7, 2010 
December 15, 2009 

Howard Clifford: page 9.

Jeff Smith



  1. Howard Clifford was my grandfather and has been dearly missed - it's so nice to see pages dedicated to him and all his zccomplishments! Thank you,


    1. Carrie, it is a great pleasure to meet you! I consider it an honor to be among those your grandfather called friend. He was a great man and he is missed. I always enjoy seeing and talking with him on the phone and thru the mail. Thank you for reminding me of those wonderful times.

      Jeff Smith


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