July 10, 2020

How Soapy Smith conned his way to be Grand Marshal of the July 4, 1898 parade, Skagway, Alaska

Soapy Smith in July 4th parade
Skagway, Alaska 1898
Broadway and Fourth Ave.

Note Soapy is on the left of center, behind Joe Brooks.
Behind him is Brooks' Pack Train
Where is the Skaguay Military Company?
Where is the Fitzhugh Lee wagon?

Courtesy of
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

(Click image to enlarge)

ow Soapy Smith conned his way to be Grand Marshal of the 4th of July

With the approach of the July Fourth 1898 holiday, Skagway, Alaska was filled with great excitement. The Commercial Club, consisting of business owners, took early control of planning the celebration and appointed a committee to arrange “for the proper observance and celebration of the glorious Fourth.” Skagway would have a parade, of course, and the committee decided it would consist of three divisions and three marshals, with Commercial Club President C. W. Everest as grand marshal. The commonly held historical belief is that Jefferson R. Smith, alias "Soapy" led the July 4, 1898 parade in Skagway, but according to pre-July 4 records and newspapers, Soapy was designated marshal of the 4th division, the position at the very end of the parade. The committee had planned the parade, but Soapy was planning to make it memorable.

Line-up for July 4 parade?
Is that Soapy?
Third Ave and State
Courtesy of
Darcie Culbeck

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
(Click image to enlarge)

     Soapy was a very patriot man. In nearly all of the photographs of his numerous saloons and gaming houses in Colorado and Alaska between 1887-1898, there are American flags flying and red, white, and blue bunting draped across the fa├žades. Surely, he reasoned, given his great success with the May 1 parade, no one knew better how to lead a celebration and stir a crowd’s emotions than he. Being dead last no doubt sat ill with Smith, captain of the Skaguay Military Company. There is no official  record of Soapy's complaint about his positioning in the parade. The committee had planned the parade, but Soapy would make sure no one would remember it. He had a plan, and he likely did not bother trying to change the committee’s minds about putting him at the end of the parade. In fact, adding another division at the very end of the parade may have been Soapy’s idea!

Is that Soapy Smith?
Close up from above photograph
Courtesy of
Darcie Culbeck

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
(Click image to enlarge)

     In the earliest plans for the parade, Soapy’s name does not even appear. On July 1 his name is added as marshal of an added fourth division. The Skagway News published the program.

[1] Grand Marshal, C.W. Everest and aids J.F. Burkhard and A.P. Tony
[2] Band
[3] Marshal First Division—S.L. Lovell and aids
[4] Veterans
[5] Children’s’ Float with Goddess of Liberty
[6] News boys
[7] Chilkat Indians
[8] Grotesque characters
[9] Bicyclists
[10] Marshal Second Division—C.N. Hanson and aids J.G. Price and Sam Roberts
[11] Knights of Pythias
[12] Ladies Cavalcade
[13] City Brewing Float
[14] Gentleman’s Cavalcade
[15] Skaguay Brewing Float
[16] Floats and displays of Skaguay business and industries
[17] Marshal Third Division—F.W. Whiting and aids Messrs. Heney and Wilson
[18] Railroad employees
[19] Mechanic’s Floats
[20] Marshal Fourth Division—Jeff R. Smith and aids Wm. Tener and J. H. Brooks
[21] Skaguay Guards and “Fitizhugh Lee”
[22] Man of War Float
[23] Brooks' Pack Train.

Soapy before or just after the parade
The round badge dates this photograph
Jeff Smith's Parlor is seen at the far left
The Hotel Mondamin where Soapy lived is at the far right
Courtesy of
Royal British Columbia Archives
(Click image to enlarge)

The parade will form on Broadway at 1:30 p.m., and after parading the prin- [unreadable line] … front of the city hall where speeches will be delivered by the orators of the day, Messrs. R. W. Jennings, Walter Church, Judge Sehlbrede and Dr. Campbell.

Courtesy of
Royal British Columbia Archives

(Click image to enlarge)

      After the speaking, the athletic sports will take place on and contiguous to the Seattle and Skaguay dock, as follows:

1. 100 yard Foot Race, open to all.
2. 50 yard Sack Race, open to all.
3. 100 yard Fat Men’s race—contestants must weigh 200 pounds or over.
4. 75 yard Ladies’ Race, open to all.
5. Bicycle Race.
6. Tug of War—8 men.
7. Climbing Greased Pole, open to all.
8. Horse Race, ¼ mile, at low tide.
9. Indian Canoe Race, at low tide.

Prizes were donated by local businesses, including clothing, accessories, cigars, stationary, and a keg of beer. Frank Clancy, a partner of Soapy’s, donated a bottle of wine.
     Monday July 4, 1898 was the most festive day seen in Skagway up to that time. First thing in the morning the city was shaken by thundering echoes as shotguns were fired and dynamite placed under anvils was detonated. Red, white, and blue bunting brightened city buildings. American flags and patriotic banners fluttered everywhere in town. According to some accounts, Jeff and his associates handed out candy, peanuts, and firecrackers to the children.

Fitzhugh Lee float
Before the parade, in front of Jeff Smith's Parlor
Note the flag carrier, believed to be in
front of the Skaguay Military Company
Courtesy of
Royal British Columbia Archives
James A. Sinclair Collection

(Click image to enlarge)

     The parade’s fourth division had four parts: Captain (1) Jeff R. Smith, gang member William Tener and Joe Brooks. (2) The Skaguay Military Company and the Fitzhugh Lee float, (3) The Man of War float, and (4) The Brooks' Pack Train. The "Fitzhugh Lee'' float centered around a caged American bald eagle captured alive outside of Skagway by two men, who brought it to the city and gave it to Soapy in honor of his patriotic efforts in creating the all-volunteer Skaguay Military Company and offering its services to President McKinley during the Spanish-American War. Once the parade got under way, Soapy rode his dapple-gray horse alongside the J. H. Brooks as planned, but the only known photograph of Soapy in the parade shows that he is not leading the Skaguay Military Company or Fitzhugh Lee (photograph at top of article). Soapy is actually behind Brooks and to the left, not in the front center, like one would assume a grand marshal would place himself. Soapy is known to have craved the attention of the citizenry, so the question is begged, was his moving away from the center stage intentional? We know from photographs that “Fitizhugh Lee” was definitely decorated to be in the parade, consisting of a large wood and wire cage on a wagon decorated with six American flags and traditional tri-colored bunting. John Clancy’s six-year-old son, Frank, dressed as Uncle Sam, riding on the wagon behind the driver. However, a considered look at the parade photograph shows it is missing—in fact, that quite a bit is missing. The one known photograph taken of Soapy during the parade, and it offers some clues. There is more in that photograph, made conspicuous by their absences, that better offers us clues as to what could have happened that day.

Fitzhugh Lee float
Photo taken on Broadway during parade
Proof it was in the July 4 parade
(Click image to enlarge)

     No known newspaper accounts about the parade are known to exist. However, there are numerous published eyewitness accounts from people who witnessed the parade. Not a single eyewitness account is known to exist that states Soapy was positioned at the rear of the parade. All of them remember seeing Soapy at the head of the parade. Witnesses also spoke of seeing the Skaguay Military Company, but why would Soapy not be leading them as shown in the one existing photograph?
     Soapy was very proud of the Skaguay Military Company he commanded as it's captain. He led it, parading it through the streets of Skagway on May 1, 1898, and no doubt he was wanting to lead it again for July 4th. Since formed on March 19, 1898, Soapy had had his military unit drilling. A June newspaper account reported that the Company drilled "every night" (Sitka Alaskan Report 06/01/1898).

Only known photograph ofSoapy Smith in July 4 parade
Brooks Pack Train behind him
 Where's the Skaguay Military Company?

Where's the Fitzhugh Lee float?

Courtesy of
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

(Click image to enlarge)

     In the parade photograph, Joe Brooks and his Pack Train has a sign advertising the pack train, but the division marshal is without one. A closer look at Soapy shows that he is off to the left, and behind Brooks, not in the middle, as one might assume a fourth division marshal would be.
     Soapy's history reveals a man who rarely gave up or gave in unless forced to, and even then, not without resistance. The parade committee chosen by Skagway merchants hardly seemed a threat to Soapy, so it is likely he had a plan to circumvent its will. So what did Soapy do to get to the front of the parade? What was his strategy? A plan so effective and generally pleasing that it remains a part of the annual July 4 parade tradition in Skagway to this day. Here is what I think happened during the parade that day.


     The parade moved south down Broadway towards the bay, with Soapy’s contingent at the very rear for the entire length of the parade. As the parade reached the end of its procession, Soapy put his plan into action. Riding his horse, he dashed up and down the length of the parade line-up, announcing that they should turn around and make another pass back through town. Everyone had worked hard on their floats and costumes and on getting organized, so in the spirit of the 4th of July, the idea of more parading probably sounded like fun. Having announced the proposed idea, and before the parade divisions could make a complete turn circle, Soapy convinced the parade entrants to simply turn about face and start the parade up again, from where they were. Soapy turned his horse and galloped back to the end of the parade, which was now the front of the parade, and started the procession, with him at the lead. Suddenly, out from the side streets, appeared the Skaguay Military Company, Fitzhugh Lee, and the Man of War Float, moving into place right behind Soapy’s horse. With Soapy now at the head of the parade, he led it back up the street before anyone could do anything, but follow along.

     This is when Soapy and his Military Company shined. They had been practicing for months, and were ready to make their captain proud. Reverend John Sinclair reported that “At scheduled intervals the Guards would exercise a neat maneuver and fire a volley into the air as Jeff would lift his hat, acknowledging the plaudits of the crowd. It was Soapy’s greatest hour.
     Always the planner when it came to managing a crowd, Soapy would have had his many friends, supporters, and particularly members of his gang, spread out among the spectators, boosting enthusiasm and excitement as Soapy would bring his mount to a stop and the military company would perform some sharp maneuver. Then lifting his hat and waving to the crowds to acknowledge their approval, he would lead on, guiding his mount from side to side to present himself. Of course, it is not known what Soapy actually did during the parade. Besides Sinclair’s accounting, this is just a possible scenario. However, it actually was Soapy at the head of his Skaguay Military Company, and they must have put on a spectacular show for him to be remembered as the grand marshal of the parade over 120 years later.

Before or after the July 4 parade

Soapy Smith is to the right of the Parlor door
Soapy's horse is the light colored one

(Click image to enlarge)

     Today, visitors to Skagway on July 4 will witness the parade make it’s way going in one direction on Broadway, and thanks to Soapy Smith, once the last entry reaches the end, the parade turns around and travels in the opposite direction, along Broadway.
     Official plans did not include Soapy as a speaker, following the parade, but of the post parade activities, Reverend Sinclair wrote in his diary, “Soapy was much in evidence. He was seated on the platform along with Governor Brady, Dr. Campbell and Messrs. Church, Humbert and Everest.” Soapy might have considered some stratagem by which he would be called upon to say a few words, such as planting members of his gang in the audience who could easily stir up the audience in wanting to hear a few words from captain Jeff Smith, the "grand marshal" of the parade. No record shows that Jeff actually addressed the crowd, but knowing Soapy, it seems unlikely that he would not have tried. The Skagway News reported how the fourth “was a great day for amateur photographers, as every man, horse, mule and float was ‘snapped’ at on every corner….” These picture-takers probably photographed the decorated speakers’ platform as well. Rev. Sinclair is reported to have taken up a good picture-taking position, but photographs of this venue, and the rest of the parade, have yet to surface. Hopefully one day they may.


William Saportas
"One of the 'sure thing' men"

Member of the Soap Gang
July 4th parade
Courtesy of
Cynthia Brackett Driscoll

(Click image to enlarge)

Childrens Float with Goddess of Liberty
Courtesy of
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Click image to enlarge)

Ben Moore
July 4 parade
Courtesy of
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Click image to enlarge)

"A portion of the fourth of July street parade"
Moving north on State Street
Courtesy of
Cynthia Brackett Driscoll

(Click image to enlarge)

Examining That Fiend in Hell: The Legend

"On this evening my friend “Soapy” seemed very depressed. He gave me a very interesting account of his life. He had never intended to be regarded as a bad man. He killed his first man in self defense. He just could not help it. It had to be done. He was terribly sorry and the next man also made it necessary for him to Snuff out his candle."
— Saunders Norvell, Forty Years of Hardware, 1924


1679: The British crown claims New Hampshire as a royal colony.
1776: The statue of King George III is pulled down in New York City.
1778: In support of the American Revolution, Louis XVI declares war on England.
1821: The U.S. takes possession of Florida, being sold by Spain.
1832: President Andrew Jackson vetoes legislation to re-charter the Second Bank of the United States.
1861: Fort Breckenridge, New Mexico Territory (Arizona) is demolished and abandoned by Union troops during the Civil War.
1863: Idaho Territory is created.
1866: Edison P. Clark patents his indelible pencil.
1877: Five masked men, probably the Sam Bass gang, rob a Deadwood, Dakota Territory stagecoach heading to Nebraska. No passengers or money was on the coach. The robbers asked about the next coach driving towards Deadwood. That coach was warned and hid at a ranch until certain the robbers had left. Soapy Smith would later witness the shootout that ended the life of Sam Bass in Round Rock, Texas.
1881: Outlaws, Frank and Jesse James rob the Davis and Sexton bank in Riverton, Iowa of $5,000.
1886: Outlaw, Sam Archer, of the Archer Brother gang, is on trial for murder. He is found guilty and will hang. Vigilantes will hang his older brothers, Tom, Mort, and John Archer without a trial.
1890: Wyoming becomes the 44th state to join the Union.
1898: Soap Gang member, Van B. Triplett hides out in the hills after Soapy Smith is killed, in Skagway, Alaska. Hunger becomes too much for him, and he sneaks back into town to eat. He is recognized and arrested while eating breakfast at the Pack Train restaurant. Later in the afternoon gang members, John Bowers, “Slim Jim” Foster, and George Wilder are captured in the hills, north of the town.
1900: The logo, “His Master’s Voice,” is patented. The logo for the Victor Recording Company shows the dog, Nipper, looking into the horn of a gramophone machine.
1901: Outlaws, Cole and Jim Younger are released from the Stillwater, Minnesota penitentiary.
1902: Etta Place and Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longabaugh sail to Buenos Aires aboard the Honorius from New York, working as a purser and stewardess.