March 22, 2013

Soapy Smith and the McDermott cabin in Dyea, Alaska

Did Soapy Smith visit this cabin
The McDermott cabin
Dyea, Alaska

(Courtesy of KGRNHP, 586-85)
(Click image to enlarge)

e know that Soapy Smith arrived in Skagway within a month of its founding. What we do not know is when he visited nearby Dyea. One mention of the Well's Saloon confirms he went there but with no detail of the visit(s). Considering Dyea was already in existence when Skagway was founded it is probable that Soapy surveyed the location for possible business and residence.

The Historic Dyea Area
by Laura McCarley
Southeast Alaska Empire
Juneau, Alaska
December 9, 1977
(Click image to enlarge)

Friend and National Park employee Bob Lyon sent me some information on the McDermott cabin in Dyea in which Soapy supposedly visited. In a 1977 interview (see above) Bill Mathews, mentions Soapy as one of the numerous cabin visitors. Mr. Mathews, now deceased, was a Chilkat Indian who lived most of his life in the Dyea and Skagway area which included the years during the Klondike gold rush where he claims he had personally known Soapy.

Mr. Lyon states that the local story is that the cabin dates to the gold rush but the studies done thus far by the National Park Service show that they are not officially convinced. The cabin study can be found at the following link: Library of Congress

The cabin was moved approximately 1 mile from its original location by the Park Service in order to protect it from further damage until such a time that a more thorough study can be completed.

McDermott Cabin 2009
Historic American Buildings Survey (#AK-225)
National Park Service
(Click image to enlarge)

Bob Lyon sent me the following (condensed) information.

At the time of writing it [The cabin] was owned by the Pattersons. I don't think I'll ever run down the origins—it wasn't on the 1923 homestead survey and a new survey wasn't done when the Pattersons applied for the homestead. Must have been moved in sometime after the 1923 survey, but no one knows by who or when. The original homestead application wasn't approved, as the guy died right after the survey—no heirs.


The evidence I've turned up in the last few weeks suggests—we have no idea where it came from. The only maps are the survey maps from a 1924 homestead survey and the dimensions given don't match the cabin, plus it was, until 2002, in a completely different location from the buildings in the survey. When the homestead was re-applied for in 1947, they didn't do a new survey. So the cabin was either missed in the 1923 survey, which I doubt, or moved in sometime after that and we have no idea when. The only anecdotal account I could find identifies it as gold rush and cites local old timers who said it was from then. I'll attach a copy of the newspaper article by a woman who lived in the cabin, but doesn't say exactly when! Dang these people! The park is supposed to be doing a dendrochronology test on the cabin, which will tell us when the logs were cut. If cut in the 1890s, then it must be gold rush, as no one would use logs to build that had been on the ground for more than a couple of years—not in that climate.

The logs in the McDermott cabin are whole, some of them, so a core sample to the center would do. Don't want to drill all the way through, really. We don't usually date that way, as most don't have such concentric rings.  The 1920s date comes from the homestead application. A.T. Wilson detailed the buildings, though he doesn't actually say he built them, he describes them as "improvements." But he says he had two houses and a barn. The surveyor mentions one house and barn—and none of his measurements of the buildings are very close to Wilson's. And neither Wilson's nor the surveyor's measurements are the same as the McDermott Cabin. Wilson detailed what he had done for qualifying for the homestead patent. He mentioned the buildings and that he'd fenced 60 acres, cleared 20 acres, I think, and listed in some detail the crops he was raising—carrots, cabbage, rye, and a couple others. Considering all the detail, I doubt he would have left out the McDermott Cabin if it was there. So Wilson dies before the patent comes through and he has no heirs they can find. So the patent reverts to the Feds. The Pattersons claimed the same parcel in 1947, getting the patent in 1953—but the Feds didn't do a new survey, just used the one from 1923! So what buildings were on the land, no one can be sure, though we have photos of the cabin from the Patterson's time there in the late 40s, early 50s. But what else might have been on the land, no one knows. There were a fair number of squatters in the valley, too, who moved buildings and built cabins. This isn't a squatter's cabin, I'd say. Squatters didn't usually build this substantially. It's a solid cabin. So, if it wasn't there in 1924, but was in 1947, someone moved it in during that time period. So it could well be the Kinney Bridge toll point, even though the 1947-2002 location is far from the bridge site. But we just don't know, lots of guesses. I'll go with the oral history until I have some reason to disprove it. Oral history can be completely wrong, but is often right, too. So that's why I want the park drilling that sample. Some research cored a bunch of trees in that area, and by comparing overlapping tree rings, he was able to date tree ring events, you know an especially cold or dry winter, that sort of thing, and certainly took it back as far as the gold rush. That's how the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon were dated, by the logs used in the roofs. Which confirmed the carbon dating. My best guess on the cabin is it was gold rush era, moved in by Wilson after the survey, or some squatter, moving one of the buildings from Dyea or vicinity. So I'm done with the nomination unless they do the sampling, then we'll see.

the park has no plans to rehab this building anytime soon. They'd like to turn it into a trail information cabin, but that's way off in the future.  I wouldn't be too surprised if Bill Matthews exaggerated the list of people he saw in the cabin, but I have trouble believing he'd invent the whole thing, that's why I'm going with a gold rush date, unless I find something to definitely disprove that. Dendrochronology would answer some questions. The park has a kit for that and there's a baseline for the Skagway-Dyea area. You can date a tree from the rings, if somebody's done a baseline. 

I found this information very interesting and valuable. I hope you all did as well. I wish to thank Bob Lyon for furnishing this information. For more on the parks plans for Dyea see Administering the Dyea area

Robert Lyon, NPS employee
Southeast Alaska Empire, 12/09/1977.
Library of Congress

"I just finished your book wow! It was like going back in time in a time machine, it’s nice to finally come this close to the truth at last, and get to see Soapy through a much different lens."
—Clyde Vongrad (regarding Alias Soapy Smith)


1622: Indians attack and kill 347 colonists in the James River area of Virginia.
1630: The first legislation to prohibit gambling is enacted in Boston, Massachusetts.
1638: Anne Hutchinsoon, a religious dissident, is expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
1733: Joseph Priestly invents carbonated (seltzer) water.
1765: The Stamp Act is passed. It is the first direct British tax on the American colonists, and is repealed on March 17, 1766.
1775: Edmund Burke presents his 13 articles to the English parliament.
1790: Thomas Jefferson becomes the first U.S. Secretary of State.
1794: Congress bans U.S. vessels from supplying slaves to other countries.
1822: The New York Horticultural Society is founded.
1858: James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, age 20, is elected village constable of the Monticello Township, Johnson County, Kansas.
1863: A stagecoach is attacked by Indians near Eight Mile Station in Tooele County, Utah Territory. Passenger Judge Mott takes the reigns and outruns the attackers after the driver is killed and another passenger is wounded.
1871: William Holden of North Carolina becomes the first governor to be removed by impeachment.
1872: Illinois becomes the first state to require sexual equality in employment.
1874: The Young Men's Hebrew Association is organized in New York City.
1875: Silver is discovered in the Pinal Mountains of Arizona Territory.
1877: 3 civilians are reported killed near Fort Clark, Texas.
1881: Outlaw George Manuse, reputed leader of a gang of rustlers in the Powder River region of Wyoming is lynched by vigilantes for killing a deputy sheriff in Miles City, Montana. He was scheduled to hang on April 2. Supposedly his hide was made into a pair of moccasins and a tobacco pound.
1882: Congress outlaws polygamy.
1883: Apache Indians kill three people at the Total Wreck Mine in the Whetstone Mountains, Arizona Territory.
1886: Abilene, Kansas turns on electric lighting for the first time. A local newspaper writes "time will tell whether it will be to the interest of the city to use the same to any extent."
1886: Seattle, Washington turns on electric lighting for the first time.
1903: Niagara Falls runs out of water due to a drought.

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