February 16, 2012

War Department gives Soapy Smith permission: Artifact #45

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When the first stampeders of the Klondike gold rush came out of Alaska there was no Skagway. The miners went to St. Michael where they boarded the steamers Excelsior or Portland. When the Excelsior docked in San Francisco on July 14, 1897, excitement spread quickly when each passenger disembarked with a reported average of from $30,000 to $90,000 in gold. The same occurred on July 17 when the Portland docked in Seattle. Soapy Smith had already made one trip to Alaska in search of his new empire. At this time most of the gold laden miners were coming through St. Michael at the head of the Yukon River, and this site looked early on to be a prime location for a major settlement and that's where Soapy wanted to be. In October 1897, to help control the disorder created by the gold rush, the US government opened Fort St. Michael. It was in a new place of abundant opportunity without competition, and at 2,000 miles from Seattle, surely it was far enough away that his name would not be there to greet him. He had written to cousin Edwin in Washington, DC, to ask him to use his influence to secure permits to operate at Fort St. Michael in Alaska. Soapy told his cousin that he had plans to open a hotel. 

Edwin replied in a letter dated November 18, 1897.
Dear Jeff:

Your letters were gladly received. Always anxious to know how you are doing. You say you want me to send your permits. The letter to Col. Randall is all the permit the war department will give. That letter which I have already forwarded you grants you every concession you are after. I hope you will not get in any trouble with the minimums of the law.

Your brother Ed. B. Smith
In a 1920 interview cousin Edwin said Soapy's,
"... intention seems to have been to seek an honorable fortune in the frozen north and then to return to Washington and establish himself in the respectable life of a hotel proprietor. His cousin made a vain effort to keep him out of Alaska, but he expressed the greatest confidence in the success of his schemes in that distant region and was intent upon going…. 'This ... is my last opportunity to make a big haul. Alaska is the last West. I know the character of people I shall meet there and I know that I am bound to succeed with them.'"
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The permission (artifact #45), signed by US Adjutant General Samuel Breck, and the rules (artifact #36) for using it were sent to Edwin, who in turn shipped them off to Soapy. If sent quickly, they may have arrived in Soapy's hands about the second week of February 1898 and Soapy, by this time, was already located in the new camp of Skagway. Now Soapy had a decision to make. He could build a hotel at what surely would be a major American entrance to the Klondike. Through it would pass, coming and going, vast amounts of money and gold, and many were the ways he knew how to take a share of it. But first, much needed to be done. To build the hotel, he would have to raise many thousands of dollars, arrange for supplies and builders, probably leave right away by steamship around the Aleutian island range, a voyage of about 2000 miles, stand the cost of bringing up his men…. Or should he stay in Skagway, where he had already staked a successful claim to a temporarily captive migrant population of thousands, knowing that tens of thousands more would be arriving in the spring? He chose to stay in Skagway and the rest, as they say, is history.

Note the writing on the back of the envelope. 
Soapy made notes where ever he could.
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June 6, 2011 

St. Michael: pages 414, 418, 425, 432, 444, 449, 470, 489, 512, 524, 544.
Fort St. Michael regulations: page 449.

Jeff Smith


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