November 23, 2011

Bishop Rowe Hospital: Skagway, Alaska.

Early photo of the Skaguay Hospital
February 1898
Later renamed the (Bishop) Rowe Hospital
(W. L. Whitaker Collection, Alaska State Library)

The Rowe Hospital has been a footnote in the history of Soapy Smith, being the place where Frank H. Reid was taken and where he died after the shootout on Juneau Wharf where he was shot by Soapy. Besides what little information was published in The Skaguay News and The Daily Alaskan, my first education about the hospital came from Martin Itjen's book, The Story of the Tour On the Skagway, Alaska Street Car (1934) in which Martin wrote,

This was Bishop Rowe Hospital, which by the way, is the place where they took Reid when he was shot by "Soapy'' Smith. It was our hospital for a number of years, but after the people quit getting sick he had to close the place on March 31st, 1905.

The Bishop Rowe Hospital

The history of the once Bishop Rowe Hospital in Skagway is almost coincident with that of the town itself. The same was founded by a group of townspeople on Feb. 19th, 1898 to meet the emergency of the great epidemic of spinal meningitis which then swept the region. The largest log cabin in town — 16 by 24 was purchased with funds raised by subscription, a nurse secured. So great was the emergency that not even beds were provided, and patients were cared for lying side by side on the floor. Men died unknown and uncured for in their tents and cabins.

Primitive as the hospital arrangements were, it proved an incalculable good in that time of scourge. April 16th 1898 Bishop Rowe was asked to assume charge and ownership. They made over to him the cabin and lot on which it stood, stipulating that he should make an immediate outlay of $1000 in building. The old books show that he laid out $3000. The two story frame building on the south was added.

The ground that was once tilled by the patients, now yields gorgeous tulip poppies and luscious red raspberries, and is the home of Mrs. Stanton Yeomans.

Hospital patient Frank Reid
July 9 - July 22, 1898

From Glenda J. Choate's book, Skagway, Alaska Gold Rush Cemetery we read that the,

first hospital in Skagway opened in February 1898, when the spinal meningitis epidemic ravaged the local community. Money was raised to rent and furnish a hospital building on the corner of McBride Avenue and Ivy Street. On February 23, 1898 the Morning Alaskan reported that "the lot is 50'x100', house is 1.5 story log, 18'x24', with a cellar, stable and a large quantity of wood for $600.'' The paper also reported the following admissions to the hospital that week. Ten patients were cared for with these ailments:
1- frozen toes amputated 2 - cerebral spinal meningitis
2 - pneumonia
2 - grippe
1 - bronchitis
1 - influenza
1 - inflammation of the bowel
1 - death

In April [1898] the hospital became the Bishop Rowe Hospital, named for Episcopal Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe, its benefactor, who made frequent trips to Skagway. Women of Skagway decided the hospital needed a women's ward, and funds were soon raised for the ward. The Bishop Rowe Hospital advertised on April 15, 1899 that "its location was high and healthy, accommodations for 30 patients, clean, well ventilated, with own dispensary with full stock of medicines and three doctors on staff ."
Our neighbor, Skagway Folklore posted (April 6, 2010) the text of a letter dated April 15, 1898 from the Right Reverend Peter Rowe, Bishop of Alaska in which "he described the desperate situation in Skagway and the need for the hospital."
"...the people of Skaguay have been forced to start an emergency hospital. The need of it beggars description. It has relieved many cases of great distress. The people have responded to appeals to their humanity nobly. Impressed with the importance of the institution, representatives of the public have asked me to take charge of it, and I have done so. They have transferred it all into our hands.

"The emergency hospital is a low cabin 30 feet long and 18 feet wide. One room on the ground floor answers for kitchen and cots; one room above is but half-story or attic. In this room I found 12 cots, and 10 of them were occupied with men in all stages of pneumonia and meningitis. Yesterday while visiting it a young man was brought in from the summit, 18 miles, on a sled, tied on to keep him from falling off, having been dragged over rocks and through mud all that distance.

"Last night I was with a young man who died in my arms, from New Brunswick, telling me what to say to his father and mother and sisters. It was most sad, most pitiful. Sickness is ging to increase. The appeals to our humanity cannot be ignored. The sick are absolutely friendless, helpless, and without the hospital would simply die by the wayside. We have one woman nurse, two men, and a cook. Skaguay doctors are attending for little or nothing as expenses permit. We must build an addition if only of an inexpensive and temporary character.

"I am going to begin this immediately. Present accommodations are totally inadequate and unsuitable. We have assumed great responsibility."

White Pass and Yukon Railway hospital
(Probably similar to the inside of Rowe Hospital)

It is known that Soapy was one of the first contributors to the hospital. The following is from my book (Alias Soapy Smith).

The Daily Alaskan published another subscription list, this time of those who had contributed to the community hospital site and building that had been purchased from Packer Joe Brooks. “Jeff R. Smith” was fourth from the top with a $25 donation. Previously, when the Union Church adopted the idea, as reported in Sinclair’s Mission: Klondike, “a board of three trustees was named with Reverend R. M. Dickey as chairman.” A committee was formed to canvass Skaguay for contributions, and one night as canvassing lists were being reviewed, Dickey’s Gold Fever narrator, Quebec, tells of coming “to one entry that read, “Jefferson Smith $25.” The person who collected that donation said,

“…I was passing Jeff’s place, and he came to the sidewalk and said, ‘I understand you’re collecting money to build a hospital. That’s something any of us may need sometime—I’d like to help.’ And he handed me $25.”

After a debate about not accepting tainted money, Rev. Dickey (named “Dominie” in Gold Fever) said, “If Soapy wants to contribute to a good cause, we have no right to prevent him.” When asked what was thought “of the stories being circulated about Soapy’s benevolences,” Dickey replied, “I believe some of them are true….”

Soapy's involvement with the hospital did not end there, again from my book:

Dr. W. T. Barrett wrote of his having observed Jeff look after some of his men when they were afflicted by disease.

I met Soapy Smith many times during our ten days stay in and near Skagway through D. Moore, a resident physician who was attending dozens of cerebrospinal meningitis cases, many of whom were associated with Soapy in gouging the public. Soapy often accompanied us on our daily rounds and seemed rather a delightful fellow to meet, one that would pass in any ordinary community as a successful business man—mild mannered and much interested in the humanities. His record, however, as an outlaw leader was well known to both American and Canadian authorities.

Sept. 16, 2009

Bishop Rowe Hospital: page 537.


Our friends over at Rocky Mountain Profiles have some photographs of how Sunrise, Alaska looks today. Hope is one of the camps Soapy visited on his first trip to Alaska in 1896. A diary notation confirms that he swindled miners with the prize package soap sell racket.

Jeff Smith


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