Circa November 17, 1898
Note the boarded up windows
Jeff Smith collection
Previous to 2011, no photographs of the steamship Utopia had been identified. Then the photograph below was introduced as being that vessel; however, it has no provenance. It does, though, resemble the newly discovered photograph of the Utopia (at the top of this post). Helpfully, the new image contains the ship's name, Utopia, between the wheel house (steering room) and the mast.
The steamship Utopia was built in Seattle, Washington, in 1893 and is famous, in part, because of a master she had for several years: Captain “Dynamite Johnny” O'Brien. On November 17, 1898, the Utopia was enroute from Seattle to Skagway when she caught fire. This new photo may have been taken shortly after the fire, and because of some photographs acquired along with the one of the Utopia, she may be tied up in Juneau. It was owned by the Alaskan Steamship Company until 1903 when it was acquired by the Puget Sound Navigation Company.
Other ships arriving at the location that would become Homer and having to wait for the late breakup of the Inlet ice were the steamers Utopia and Lakme, containing together, as Mrs. Banks tells us, “four hundred men headed for the Turnagain Arm district. They camped on the spit….” During this wait at some point, Mrs. Banks met Jeff. He “was a dark-haired, medium-sized, mild-mannered man,” she wrote of him forty-nine years later, “and I was quite surprised after my introduction to him to learn that he was the notorious Denver confidence man.”
Soapy also wrote to his young brother Bascomb while apparently camped on the spit, as a couple of details from his letter match Mrs. Banks’ remembrance. This letter made the press:
Dear Bas. —Well I am 600 or 700 miles more on my way. Over 400 men are camped here on ice waiting for a thaw. You can write here but I may never get the letter. Have done no business yet. I expect to look for gold with the balance of the guys. Regards to all the people in the jail. I don’t suppose the governor has done anything for you. Take it easy; the world was not made in a day.
Soapy seems to have reached the head of Cook Inlet the following day. A letter to a friend from there, apparently dated May 11, came to publication over a month later.
Col. Sapolio Smith Heard From.A citizen of Greeley received a postal card Saturday from the notorious “Soapy Smith.” The card was written from “Cook’s Inlet, Six Mile Creek-Alaska,” and dated May 1 [11?]. An attaché of the Tribune made the following extract: “This place is 2,500 miles north of San Francisco, 1,500 miles from a railroad or telegraph office and 600 miles to the nearest post office. There are about 2,000 men in camp looking for placer claims and we think we have it. Only one woman in camp. I expect to be in Denver next fall in time to aid my brother redeemers. Your friend,” “Jeff Smith.”Mrs. Banks met that “one woman” to whom Soapy referred. “She was red-headed, and attractive in a bold way. She and her husband were running a restaurant at Hope.”
—Alias Soapy Smith, p. 412
The first available ship into the area, arriving ahead of the returning General Canby, was the steamship Utopia. It had dropped anchor at the head of Cook Inlet, disembarked its chartered cargo and hundred passengers bound for the Susitna River region, likely looped to the Sunrise-Hope beach sites to take on passengers, and returned south. Jeff boarded and paid passage to Seattle, but had he known what lay ahead, he might have waited for another ship. First, the Utopia was missing its master. He was Captain Dynamite Johnny A. O’Brien, an explosive Irishman from Cork who had gone to sea at 15, become a captain at 25, fought pirates, and who at the slightest infraction, battled insubordinates with his will and sometimes his fists. The nickname “Dynamite” seems to have grown out of his quickness to detonate when faced with dereliction of duty or disrespect for his station aboard ship. Once in Nagasaki “he had disposed of two larger opponents in less than thirty seconds.” They had not liked O’Brien’s tossing overboard their “two bottles of vile-looking liquor.”
—Alias Soapy Smith, p. 413.
|The ships name|
sign hanging between wheel house and mast
Jeff Smith collection
(Click image to enlarge)
On June 2, 1896, after an absence of two months, the steamer Utopia docked in Seattle. Soapy may have spent a longer time in the frozen hell than he had wished for but he had made a very valuable friend, one who never denied Soapy and the Soap Gang passage aboard the two ships captained by O'Brien in Alaskan waters.What happened next varies in different versions, but the one told in Milton A. Dalby’s The Sea Saga of Dynamite Johnny O’Brien (1933) carries the clearest ring of veracity. To prepare for this biography, Dalby met regularly with O’Brien in his eightieth year in the months before his death in August 1931. Dalby also had access to the captain’s diary as well as other records. The biography is unsentimental and often realistically hard-hitting in its clear-cut accounts of brutal first mates, murderous cooks, loves, murders, numerous fights, and men perishing in storm-whipped seas. The following sequence is based primarily on Dalby’s biography of O’Brien.
When the Utopia reached lower Cook Inlet, it encountered a heavy outflow of ice and so “came to anchorage in Seldovia Bay, with two other vessels, until the ice cleared….” It was here that O’Brien suddenly collapsed in terrific pain. Dalby recounts how since no doctor had been aboard, a hurried survey
of the anchored ships revealed a fortune-seeking miner who had once been a surgeon. He shook his head dolefully over O’Brien after a hasty examination.These tools were “honed to razor sharpness and roughly sterilized.” Since the ship was “rolling somewhat,” men carried the captain ashore in the bitter cold to “a rough hut,” slipping “repeatedly on the icy ground.” Here he was “placed on three planks laid over two packing boxes” for the operation. O’Brien said he did not know what anesthetic was used but that “it was at least partially effective.” He said he was conscious at times during the operation “but felt no marked pain.”
“About a thousand to one shot to pull through,” he told the Utopia’s hovering officers. O’Brien was partially conscious and heard the remark. “I’d operate if I had any tools but I haven’t any,” the ex-doctor went on.
O’Brien painfully roused himself. “Doc, I heard you say I had a long chance to pull through. I’m a sport and God knows I don’t want to die in this damn place. Go ahead; all you need is a knife and a pair of scissors.”
“O’Brien lay in a bunk in the hut for several days,” recuperating. In the meantime, ice had cleared sufficiently to allow ships up the Inlet, and the Utopia’s 100 restless miners wanted to join them. So somewhat behind the other vessels, the Utopia also made the 200-mile voyage to the head of Cook Inlet but without its ailing captain. He was left in a better accommodation than the hut, “the galley of some ill-fated ship,” as Mrs. Banks described it, but she and her husband had transformed it into their home.
The Captain of the Utopia was ill, apparently from appendicitis. We had been moved hastily from the derelict galley … so as to give over our quarters to the sick man, they being the quietest and the cleanest spot.When Soapy returned to Coal Bay at the Homer Spit on the Utopia, the captain was returned to his cabin to continue his recuperation.
At some point, Soapy learned that “The vessel’s coal supply ran very low, the bunkers were scraped almost bare,” apparently a Seattle provisioning error. Coal was to be had, just not the $300 ($9,372 today) for a sufficient supply of it. So, from his bunk aboard ship, O’Brien ordered coal dug “from the bottom of the bay” where “a straggling coal formation was uncovered” when the tide was out. Over the next two days, ten tons were taken into the Utopia’s coal bunker. Bitter cold made the wet, back-breaking work even worse, and on the third day, the crew refused to dig any more. Such was the state of things when
A knock came on O’Brien’s door and a bearded man entered. He smiled. “When do you sail, skipper?” he asked.
“No coal, mister, and no money to buy any with, dammit….”
Out came a bulky wad of crumpled bills. “How much do you need?” O’Brien told him, and three hundred dollars were quickly peeled off.
Coal was purchased, and during the three days … before the Utopia was ready to sail the bearded stranger spent much time in O’Brien’s cabin. His name? “Just Smith, skipper!” He … tended O’Brien as carefully as a nurse might. He kept the cabin clean and brought O’Brien such food delicacies as could be found. If O’Brien wondered a little about the two heavy-framed revolvers which nestled under either armpit he said nothing, for they were none of his business.
The Utopia sailed and O’Brien slipped into uneasy sleep with the welcome pounding of her engines in his ears. But when he awoke—it was some eight hours later, the cabin clock disclosed—all was quiet and the ship seemed anchored. He called feebly but none heard him, and Smith was not about. He gripped a stout water glass and hurled it through a cabin window and out onto the deck. The mate came running in response to the crash.
O’Brien demanded the cause of the ship’s halting and was told that the purchased coal was of wretched quality, and that the engineers refused to burn any more of it. “So we’ve decided to anchor here under the lee of Cape Elizabeth and wait for a supply of good coal,” the mate explained. “The crew agrees with the engineers,” he added.
O’Brien exploded…, and then had to grip his side in mad pain. “Why in the devil wasn’t I told about this? Who do you think is master of this ship?”
“We didn’t think you were in any condition to handle the ship, captain.”
“Call Smith, the bearded passenger, at once,” O’Brien demanded.
“Dynamite Johnny explained to Smith the situation and asked if he might borrow his guns—the damn crew was mutinous and needed a little convincing that the “old man” knew what was best for ’em!
An unusual fifteen minutes followed on deck. O’Brien was aided to a deck chair by Smith and, with a revolver in each hand, called the crew to file by him and swear that they would help get the ship into Juneau where an ample supply of good coal would be obtained. He stormed at the engineers particularly and shook the weapons at them threateningly.
“If that coal was good enough to steam on for six or seven hours it’s good enough to get into Juneau with,” he shouted. “By the Rock of Cashel I want steam up in this old tub and I want it in a hurry! Understand me?”
And apparently he was understood for the Utopia crossed the Gulf of Alaska without trouble and refueled in Juneau. When the vessel reached Seattle it was a pale O’Brien who went ashore on the arm of his friend Smith. He had weighed nearly 160 pounds when the Utopia had sailed…; he was reduced to 120 when he came ashore. He spent the next month in a hospital.
Dalby reported from O’Brien that members of the Soap Gang
frequently traveled on O’Brien’s ships although their identity was not always known. O’Brien found Smith kind-hearted and generous; indeed such was his reputation in Skagway outside of purely business hours! He returned … [to Skagway] with O’Brien on the Utopia [in 1897] and, at O’Brien’s urgent plea, kept a tight grip on his gang of cut-throats and gamblers during the trip north.
For the rest of 1897 the Utopia returned to short runs on Puget Sound, and John O'Brien continued as master of the Rosalie on the Seattle-Skaguay run into 1898, the same Rosalie on which the widow of Soapy, Mary Eva, went to and from Skagway after he was killed (Alias Soapy Smith, pp 584-86).
Soapy arrives in Skagway on the Utopia: May 13, 2017
The other photo of the Utopia: August 13, 2011
The Utopia: pages 412-17, 435, 447.
"The most infamous of his unique schemes was the prize package soap sell in which he put large-denomination bills inside the wrappers of some cakes of soap and auctioned off the packages for $1 each, then for more as the number of cakes diminished. Only Jeff’s men, who seeded every crowd, ever won the larger bills. From this swindle came the sobriquet “Soapy” by which he came to be known throughout the American West."
—Alias Soapy Smith, page 15
1848: A women's rights convention takes place in Seneca Fall, New York.
1867: Construction begins on Fort Fetterman near the North Platte River, Dakota Territory.
1878: Outlaw John Selman arrives in the Pecos Valley, New Mexico Territory. His cattle rustling gang is known as the “Selman Scouts.”
1878: Outlaws Sam Bass, James Murphy, Seaborn Barnes, and Frank Jackson shoot it out with Texas Rangers in Round Rock, Texas. Deputy Sheriff A. W. Grimes and wounded Deputy Sheriff Maurice Moore are shot dead. Outlaws Barnes and Bass are shot dead, Bass not passing away for another two days. Bad man Soapy Smith and Cousin Ed witness Dick Ware shoot Bass.
1878: The five-day battle in Lincoln, New Mexico Territory ends. Outlaw Billy the Kid and others were able to escape.
1879: Famed gambler and bad man Doc Holliday shoots and kills Mike Gordon outside a saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory.
1881: Indian Chief Sitting Bull and 187 Sioux Indians surrender to Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, after four years of exile in Canada.
1881: Pat Garrett arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory and announces that he is going to resign as sheriff of Lincoln County.
1881: Three citizens are killed in an Indian raid of Arena Blanca, New Mexico Territory.
1890: “Crazy Bill” Lynn, a Spokane, Washington thug, shoots and wounds two boxers at the Spokesman City Room. Ed Hutchinson, Sporting Editor of a Spokesman newspaper promotes a boxing match between Patsy Muligan and Jimmy Casey, but there is a weight dispute and the fight is about to be called off when 'Crazy Bill' Lynn decides he should take Mulligan’s place in the ring, and strikes Mulligan in the face. Mulligan pulls out a revolver, but editor Hutchinson grabs the gun before it can be fired. Lynn calls Mulligan an undesirable name and Mulligan strikes Lynn. Lynn pulls a revolver, but is subdued and escorted from the building. Later, Lynn returns with gun in hand. A man named Smith attempts to stop Lynn and is shot twice, in the hand and kneecap. Mulligan attempts to flee, but Lynn fires wounding Mulligan with a bullet to his body.
1893: Bad man Soapy Smith pays $25 so that 125 unemployed workers could attend a meeting in their behalf at the Coliseum Hall in Denver, Colorado. After paying, he hollered out, “walk in boys, the hall’s yours and nothing to pay.”
1909: The first unassisted triple play in major-league baseball was made by Cleveland Indians shortstop Neal Ball in a game against Boston.