June 26, 2011

Excerpts from Grit, Grief and Gold by Dr. Fenton Whiting, part 2.

I felt like posting a humorous picture today, however, the following text is very serious. It is the finishing up of what Dr. Fenton B. Whiting had to say about Soapy Smith in his book, Grit, Grief and Gold: A True Narrative of an Alaska Pathfinder (1933).

Chapter 6, Pages 39-41,  (Wherein the Pathfinder Forestalls the Grafters)

By now the much-talked-of railway was assuming a reality. Already hundreds of tons of supplies and material were on the ground, and hundreds of men were scattered along the line for miles up the canyon, and the sound of heavy blasting rent the air night and day. The so-called "Wild Cat" railway, so dubbed by many doubting citizens, was rapidly materializing into a real one, although unwelcomed by many. The saloons, dancehalls and gambling dens were reaping a rich harvest from ingoing travelers, many of whom were often detained for days or weeks, due to impassable trails, and who remained in town and spent their money more or less freely. The packers were coining money with their horses, transporting supplies over the treacherous trail at fabulous prices, and they, also, frowned upon the new enterprise. For with a train leaving each morning for the interior, both packers and hotel keepers and others would lose this valuable trade; hence obstructions were placed in its way whenever possible.

One or two of these individuals were members of the City Council, where opportunity presented itself for further obstacles. For Skagway, although a typical frontier settlement in most respects, was also incorporated as a young city of several thousand and rapidly assuming a real metropolitan atmosphere.

Incidentally, the first mile of the line ran through the outskirts of the city from the ocean dock, and while many desired the enterprise with its permanent and substantial payroll, certain astute members of the Council seemed inspired with the same commercial spirit as many of their brethren in the States, and vague hints had reached the railway officials that affairs would be much expedited if certain members of the Council were consulted in private.

That ponderous body debated long one night, obviously inviting some substantial overture from the company. They had reckoned without their host, however, for in the interim the "Pathfinder" had not been caught napping, and during the hours of that night, a short half-mile distant, a very industrious gang of tracklayers and spike drivers labored hard and fast, and the following morning saw a very substantial track laid directly through the much-discussed territory, greatly to the chagrin of certain members of the City Council. The very first half-mile of railway ever built in Alaska was laid at night, and under somewhat peculiar circumstances.

Chapter 8, Pages 45-54,  (Rounding Up the "Soapy Smith" Gang, and the Death of "Soapy")

Things were rapidly coming to a climax in the underworld. The "Soapy Smith" gang was constantly becoming bolder, and several murders and robberies were directly and indirectly traced to their lair at "Jeff Smith's Parlors." Smith, the mastermind, with his variegated staff of crooks, feared no law nor officer of the law. The wealthy Yukoners had already learned that this section was no place for them and their gold, and had finally, through necessity, awaited the opening of navigation on the river and had dropped down from Dawson to St. Michael at the mouth, and there caught deep-water ships for the States. This meant some two or three thousand miles more of water travel, but also much safer, as they had learned from previous experiences.

Skagway's hotels, saloons and business houses had come to realize that something must be done, and were organizing for final action; something must be done immediately to regain this valuable lost trade. The U. S. Marshal was known to be in league with the outlaws, although a previous Marshal had been brutally murdered when he and a victim of the gang had returned to the scene of robbery, and both had been slain in cold blood by the bartender, the guilty one, and who had been acquitted by a picked coroner's jury which found it to be a case of "self-defense."

The end finally came one day when an unsophisticated Australian came out from the interior with a fair-sized poke of gold. "Soapy's" scouts had not overlooked him and he was soon steered up into "Jeff Smith's Parlors," where he and his bullion were soon parted during the afternoon. Smith's men never waited until night.

This proved to be the finish of the now famous band of outlaws. Things moved swiftly from then on, and within a very few short hours Skagway, the hot-bed of crime, was transformed into an exceedingly law-abiding village, where life and property were, for the first time in its history, entirely safe, and at all hours. The better class of citizens met, organized, and planned a meeting at one of the ocean docks at the lower part of the town, in order to insure privacy. A long trestle over the water led down to this. At about eight in the evening the vigilantes had gathered there, leaving several guards at the approach to hold back undesirables. One of these guards was Frank Reid, city engineer, a firm, law-abiding citizen of iron will and courage. He and Smith had been at outs for months, and the smoldering fire of animosity needed little to kindle it into flame.

This was July 8th. The previous night Smith and his gang had held up a convoy of liquor on the way up from the dock. The owner had gotten by the customs officers and was hurrying onward up town with his precious cargo. Numerous saloons were running and good liquor was at a premium. Smith's men had lain in wait and posed as customs officers, having received a previous tip. They took entire possession — team, wagon and liquor — the driver having escaped in the darkness, gladly sacrificing all in order to evade arrest. The outfit was then driven up town by the outlaws into an alley in back of "Jeff Smith's Parlors," where the liquor was unloaded and the team turned loose. The following day Smith, still celebrating the great haul of the night previous, was about town, making numerous calls at the saloons and spending his money freely. That evening the vigilantes were gathering at the ocean dock upon an important mission. Smith, through his emissaries, soon learned the object of all this, namely, to once and for all rid the town of him and his men.

His brain already afire with liquor, he was in the exact mood for trouble. Hastily notifying his men of his intention to go down and break up the meeting, he hurried onward, leaving word with his gang to follow on down immediately with their guns, and assist. As he approached the dock he recognized his old arch enemy, Frank Reid, face to face. There was a hasty recognition which was mutual, with no apologies. On his way down he had grabbed up his rifle and hurried onward. As he recognized Reid he approached boldly, and, before killing him, as he really intended to do, recklessly clubbed him with his rifle butt. Reid, revolver in hand, coolly pointed it at Smith's heart and pulled the trigger. It failed to explode, whereupon Smith lowered his rifle and fired point blank into Reid's body. Reid fell, but as he lay prone, paid a parting salute to the desperado, this time his revolver responding, and Smith fell stone dead, with a bullet through his heart, without uttering a word. Just behind him came rushing his gang, guns drawn, but observing the sudden change of affairs, they hurriedly retreated in all directions, some going into retirement in the resorts up town, others taking to the mountains. All were brought into custody within a few hours.

(Author's Note: I operated upon Frank Reid the following morning and held an autopsy on Soapy Smith's body the same afternoon.)

An infuriated and long suffering, now thoroughly aroused, community was at last taking the law into its own hands. The bullies and gunmen of the day previous, who had flaunted their insults in the faces of law-abiding citizens, were now cowed and whimpered at their feet.

We had just gone to bed at Rock Point, six miles out of Skagway. Thus far a mountain road had been constructed, running directly through our camp. We smoked our pipes and chatted casually over the doings of the day. Suddenly the door burst open and in rushed Dan O'Neil, the night watchman. He was much excited and out of breath. "They want you at the telephone down in the commissary," he addressed Heney. "Soapy and his men are on the rampage, and Hell's a-popping generally down there."

Heney sprang out of bed and hastily kicking his feet into an old pair of shoes, ran on down to the commissary without dressing. He soon returned, his face beaming with excitement.

"Get up and dress right away," he exclaimed, "they're rounding up Soapy's gang, and he's already been killed. Saddle up the horses, Dan, and we'll be right down behind you. Graves says to come on down with our horses and guns and turn everybody back on the trail who looks suspicious. Soapy's men have scattered in every direction, and some of them may be coming this way."

We were soon dressed and met O'Neil at the stable with the horses about ready, and were soon on our way clattering down the rocky road at break-neck speed.

At the upper end of town we encountered the vigilantes with a prisoner, and we continued on down to the city jail with them. There, hundreds of excited citizens swarmed about the place, a crude building made of roughly hewn logs, the front part the city hall, the back part the jail. Winchester rifles and revolvers were carried openly without the least effort at disguise. Now and then, men were seen with coils of rope in hand, like cowboys at a round-up. Some ten or twelve were by now captured, and the surrounding country was being combed for the rest. The Marshal, who had long been known to be in league with the outlaws, was encountered at his home and promptly relieved of his star, and a well-known citizen, who could be depended upon, was selected in his place, much to the relief of the former, who had expected somewhat rougher treatment. The new Marshal began his strenuous duties promptly. The U. S. Commissioner chartered a small boat and disappeared during the night, never to return.

Later, during the night, it was discovered that the three ringleaders of the gang had been secretly transferred up into the garret on the third floor of a nearby hotel for safety from the increasingly dangerous mob outside, bent upon satisfaction at any cost.

We stood at three the next morning out in front of the "Hotel Burkhard," with hundreds of others, at the foot of the stairway leading up to the top floor. Here, at the entrance, stood the newly appointed Marshal, pleading earnestly with the mob to be calm and let the law take its course. On the top floor, in a musty garret, stood three deputies with glistening Winchester rifles, braced to resist the onrush of the mob from below. Behind them, huddled together in one corner, were the three prisoners, expecting momentarily to be taken out and strung up. As the mob prepared for the final rush, one of the deputies poked his head out from a window and announced the escape of one of his prisoners by a back window. This was taken as a ruse by the gathering in front. However, a large man ran around behind and there stood "Slim Jim" with his back against the wall, glancing about anxiously for an avenue of escape. The large man "covered" him with his gun, and grabbed him by the collar, half dragged him out into the open. Out at the end of the alley stood a man with a coil of new rope in one hand and a Colt's revolver in the other, apparently undecided as to which to use, grasping the situation and realizing the opportunity of using either. Just then, however, a squad of U. S. soldiers rushed in and took charge of the prisoner, martial law having been invoked in the meantime, and the troops summoned from Dyea, four miles down the coast.

The three ring leaders were later tried before the Federal court and given heavy sentences in the penitentiary, the remainder of the gang sent to the States under a "blue ticket," with the warning not to return.

Thus ended the colorful career of "Soapy Smith," the hardest character Alaska had ever known.

In the crude cemetery just above town, in the dense timber, are many graves, most of these with a romantic history. Over one stands a huge column of native Alaska granite, endowed by citizens of Skagway, upon which is chiseled in bold letters:

"Frank H. Reid; Died, July 20, 1898, Age 54 years. He gave his life for the honor of Skagway."

Over by itself some distance away in the underbrush is another, over which stands a plain, weather-beaten board, upon which is painted in plain black letters:

"Jefferson R. Smith, Died, July 8, 1898. Age 38 years."

Many seasons have since come and gone. The deep snows of winter have fallen alike upon the just and the unjust. The chilling Arctic blast shrieks down the gulch and moans a solemn requiem over the silent city of the dead beneath the sombre spruces. The gaunt timber wolf emerges at night from the darkness out into the moonlight, glances furtively down at the few remaining lights in the deserted village below, crosses on over the graves, leaves his tracks in the cold, dry snow, and slinks once more back into the darkness. Beneath all, lie the earthly remains of Frank H. Reid and Jefferson R. Smith, sleeping on in peace throughout eternity.

June 24, 2011
June 19, 2011
April 12, 2009
January 8, 2009
January 8, 2009

Fenton B. Whiting: pages 80, 521, 537, 542, 564, 567-70, 595.

Jeff Smith


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