Alaska – Soapy Smith and Mother Pullen

I AM going to confess right here that I am not about to take you into the far-lying heart of Alaska by the shortest way! There are two reasons for this—no, there are three. You may sail from Juneau today out through Icy Strait, past the mouth of Glacier Bay, past Cape and Mount Fairweather, and across the wide Gulf of Alaska, straight to Cordova, Valdez, Seward, or Anchorage, on the south coast of the mainland of Alaska (as you will see by glancing at the map) ; and thence, from any one of these four towns, by various overland routes, you may turn straight north into the center of The Great Country and Fairbanks.

But when we first came to Alaska, the Government Railroad from Anchorage over Broad Pass had not yet been built, the automobile road from Chitina back of Cordova was not well developed, the trail through Keystone Canyon behind Valdez was in bad repair, and the Seward terminus was as yet in process of adjustment. To-day you can reach Fairbanks in the summer months by any one of these four ways, in pleasure and in comfort, and by the railroad all the winter months. But when we first came north, the one most feasible approach to the interior was via Skagway, the Upper Yukon, and Dawson.

It is a fact, and yet a fact not always given due consideration, that very much of the past history of Fairbanks and of other Alaskan towns lies buried in Canadian Dawson, for us to find and understand, if we can—just as, in equal measure, the past history of little New England colonial settlements lay rooted in old English shires, or the roots of our great Middle West migration ran back to and drew nourishment from the soil of Virginia or Connecticut, whence it was pioneered. So, since the Skagway route is the trail the Argonauts of ’98 took chiefly to the Klondike; and since we shall again come back, ” Outside,” by other routes and ways, if you are patient; and because, too, I have always been so glad I came myself into the mainland country first by the Great River and the road of history, instead of by the newer, shorter, easier ways: if you’ll agree, I’ll take you with me into the Interior by that longer and older waterpath, which twists. back through Canadian hinterland, to come again, by side ways of an eastern-facing window, into the bulky center of Uncle Sam’s attic. For the thin Alaskan strip from Ketchikan, we have so far been traversing, is never more than ten marine leagues wide at any place, back to the summit of the Coast Range all along to eastward. And behind that range lies Canadian British Columbia; and up on top of ” B. C.” lies ” Y. T.,” for Yukon Territory bounds the mainland of Alaska in a meridian line straight north from great Mt. St. Elias near the coast along west longitude 141° ” dans son prolongement jusqu’a la mer glaciale,” as the early treaty reads.

Tourists who are attracted only by the lazy beauty of the Inside Passage, the merely curious or the ease-loving traveller who avoids a possible discomfort or delay, will take the short, unusual, railroad day-trip up over White Pass summit, or perhaps spend a few days at the tourist paradise of Canadian Lake Atlin, and think they’ve seen Alaska. But they have not, and should not fool themselves into thinking so. They’ve seen but five per cent. of Alaska’s land area, so far, and all the mighty bulk of the Great Country lies beyond and yet unguessed. Even if they do cross by rail over the White Pass and on by boat to Lake Atlin, they’ve traversed only fifteen miles air-line of actual Alaskan territory. Those with a genuine desire to see the High North, and to know what calls behind the ranges, will never be content with such a compromise.

Skagway was once the wild, bad, boom town of The North, a bustling cosmopolitan community of many thousand gold-crazed men en route to Klondike, unloading here their outfits from the over-crowded boats in preparation for the Trail of ’98. It was the home of fevered hope, of mad despair, of cruelty, greed and hate. To-day the ” Flower City ” lies asleep upon the sands at tip of Lynn Canal, dreaming, alive but in its yesterdays.

Strangely, perhaps you’ll think, the guardian spirit of the quiet town’s hectic past, curator of its memories, and the most enterprising of its present citizens, is a woman! No one knows Skagway who does not know Harriet Pullen. For years she has been Skagway, to all who stop and linger there to hear from her own vigorous dramatic lips the tale of Skagway’s tarnished day of glory.

This tall, all-competent, adventuring soul dropped into Skagway first with the first Klondike trailers—a widow with her brood of little boys a-clinging to her calico skirts, and seven dollars in her pocket. She drove a four-horse freighting outfit up the wild and ragged gulch by day; and though the stiff brakes on the terrible inclines near broke the body, they could not cut the grit of this near-Amazon of women. By night she stood beside an oven in a tent, and baked dried-apple pies and cakes, that sold for fabulous sums to hungry men intent on golden-fleece adventure. She made her pans by hammering out tin cans. She manufactured drinking glasses from discarded beer bottles, with the true pioneering woman’s ingenuity. Would you know how? She’ll tell you. You tie a stout string dipped in coal oil round the widest part, then touch a match to the string and dash the bottle in cold water—which cuts the neck away, as with a knife. And then you grind the sharp edge in the sand and have a perfect drinking glass. She nursed a local Indian chief, who gave her a rich ceremonial coat of ermine, decked in beadwork, which she will show you. She is a member in blood brothership of many local tribes, and speaks the several Indian dialects of the coast. One son was drowned at Juneau, one was the first Alaskan boy ever to enter West Point. There this upstanding red-head, six-foot-three-in-socks Alaskan played right tackle on the team for four years, and lovingly was dubbed “the Eskimo ” by fellow classmenthough very probably he had never even seen an Eskimo! In the Great War this Colonel Pullen won the Distinguished Service Cross and, with his brother, Captain Royal Pullen of the Engineers, made for the name of that brave mother such rare reputation that General Pershing has been quoted saying, ” I wish I had a regiment of Pullens!” Here is colonial America to date, as bred and raised at Skagway, atop the attic stairs.

Today is Mrs. Pullen’s, too, for she’s not one to live back in her yesterdays. The Pullen House is the hotel of Skagway, and, with its bungalow surrounding cottages, rests in a stream-cut lawn and massed in flowers. Here you may have a room with bath, or in her banquet hail you may gather with a hundred and fifty others to feast on Mother Pullen’s good things from an especially designed fine set of Haviland, and eat with solid silver service of her own device. And when you sit before your breakfast cereal and coffee, you will be fetched an individual blue-enamelled pan of unskimmed milk, with skimmer of your own, to dip the cream and’ take to your heart’s fill! For just across the bay at old Dyea, once the foot of perpendicular Chilkoot Pass where so many met their deaths, Harriet Pullen runs a ranch and herd of Jerseys and of Holstein, providing unlimited fresh milk and butter. ” Out of the strong, out of the strong,” your memory sings in hearing her rich laugh ring out, all hours, all times. Out of the strong surely the honey of this world has come-both yesterday and now.

She opens for you her wide treasure room of curios–a piled-up place where one may browse for days and read Alaska’s history in fingering these relics of her past. Hand-hammered copper of the Russian days, and silver candlesticks from Baranof’s castle over at old Sitka; great strings of purple-blue rare Russian beads, made of Bohemian glass especially for the early fur trade; the first newspaper of the great Dawson strike, with Klondike news in large gold letters, and a picture on it of George Carmack, who first struck it rich there, surrounded with large daubs of gilt to represent huge nuggets; Soapy Smith’s gambling table-round, of two-pieced oak in which is a slight slit (he called it ” the accommodator “) whence, by a quick flick of the hand, an ace could be extracted; as well as his fine crap table, roulette wheels, and ” knuckle dusters ” for a use best guessed!

You will unearth here, too, a medicine man’s mask, long bead-strings made of jade or amethyst or wampum, tobacco pouches formed of white swan’s feet, and bags of cedar bark; moose robes and coats are here, soft-tanned as clean and smooth as woolens. And then, drawing herself up to her full height, Harriet Pullen tells you of the days of Soapy Smith.

Jefferson Smith was one of the world’s truly notorious bad men, and for years he and his gang of outlaws terrorized both Wrangell (where the Teslin-Telegraph Creek trail led also to the new Eldorado) and Skagway and Dyea, the side-by-side step-offs for White Pass and the Chilkoot ladder-way. Yet ” Soapy ” looked the gentleman, as a true villain should to qualify in expert bunco-steering; and so suave was his manner and so affable and kind his ministerial-looking face,—like Tito of George Eliot’s ” Romola,”—the inner rottenness would never be suspected from a look at him; for he was tall and slim and handsome, polite and gay. His nickname came from earlier days of rather simple forms of mild chicane, when at county fairs and in plain sight he folded crisp five-dollar bills about a cake of soap and sold them for a dollar to unsuspecting yokels. Needless to say, unwrapped, there was no bill there! ” The hand is quicker than the eye,” you know. And Soapy’s hand was of an unguessed swift dexterity, either in drawing cards from “solid” oaken tables—or drawing shooting irons!

At Skagway gathered hordes of Klondike seekers, going in with funds, and going out with well-filled pokes of precious dust. It was the time, too, of the Spanish war, you will remember. Smith opened a ” recruiting office ” for the U. S. Army. Hundreds of men, discouraged by the hard back-packing over the steep passes, which rose so straight up from the sea they seemed from below to lean over backwards —or discouraged by mere sight of the stiff climb and all they heard of danger further on—decided to join the army. Entering Smith’s ” recruiting office,” they were told to strip for physical examination. In an adjoining room another member of the gang, made up to look and act like an army surgeon, stalled at conducting this examination while Soapy’s crowd went through the luckless fellow’s clothes and outfit. They left him only the least desirable of his clothes, in which he might peacefully sneak out by a back way, a whipped and broken man—or, if he showed a fight, his body later would be found afloat and bullet-riddled in the bay. Shots were so constant and so frequent no one paid attention. There was no law, and as fast as one crowd had been ” cleaned,” other innocents were arriving; and so the merry sport went on. Another form of the same game was the Information Bureau, where strangers newly landed, eager for knowledge of the fabled trail beyond, crowded in like flies to a spider’s trap, and only left when stripped.

Yet Soapy ” played the game” in his own way, was loyal to his followers and, strange to say, gave liberally to the Union Church. An old-timer of those days, who landed here in ’97 and was a trustee of this church, tells with a chuckle now of those strange days, when ” contributions came from all sects and from no sects. Liberal contributors included gamblers, Soapy Smithites, and all other kinds of sports—a strange complex of saints, skeptics, infidels, atheists, and all other kinds of publicans and sinners. Every denomination represented in Skagway was asked, to suggest a trustee, at a first public meeting held under the blue sky. Any minister who happened to be located in Skagway would have been made pastor of that unique fraternal flock. The one chosen was Rev. J. Hickey, a young Canadian Congregationalist who was there waiting for the ice in the Yukon River to go out, so he could continue on to Dawson. All Skagway grieved when he de-parted. His was the truest expression of Jesusanity it was ever my good fortune to know.”

While Soapy Smith was one of the most generous givers to the church, he had a rob-Peter-pay-Paul sort of creed, I’m afraid. On one occasion he helped most warmly, giving personally much time to collect a fund for churchly charity, and himself handed this sum over, with a Chesterfieldian bow, to the hard-working conscientious pastor. That night one of Soapy’s cohorts crawled beneath a tent and stole the money !

But there came a time when even lawless Skagway turned against this King of Terror, as they called him. The town got a bad name all up and down the coast,, of course, and fame of Soapy’s terrorizing gang dimmed the bright glitter of the gold fields beyond. Vigilance committees formed, and a meeting of the decent element was called—upon the wharf, for two reasons : No house was large enough to hold the conscientious objectors to the high hand of unlaw; and too, out on, the wharf’s end, ways and means could be discussed without an overhearing. Frank Reid, an engineer and a man of known courage and determination, was stationed at the land end of the wharf to keep out eavesdroppers and spies—or any known member of the gang, such as Fatty Green, Yank Fewclothes, or Kid Jimmy Fresh, who might come to rough-house.

Soapy heard of these preparations, of course, for his spies were everywhere. ” I’ll end this,” he’s reported to have said, and single-handed started for the pier. Reid challenged him, and both men drew and fired in the same fraction of a second. The gangster dropped, killed instantly, but the gallant Reid, though fatally shot, lingered on for two weeks, before they heaped his grave under the hill, within that little, now deserted, green enclosed acre up the canyon—beneath a granite shaft inscribed, if you will hunt it out today:

Frank H. Reid Died July 20, 1898 He gave his life for the honor of Skagway

Then, as Mrs. Pullen says, ” Soapy’s gang jumped like jackrabbits for the hills,” but fifteen of the desperadoes were captured by determined, hardened groups of miners. Attempts at lynching were most vigorously put down, the better element and saner council wisely prevailed, and the captured crew were taken on to Juneau and were legally tried and convicted there for sins against ” the honor of Skagway.” The quiet town lies a-sunning now under those tall passes, which once drew men to it in riot and in glory like a lodestone. The trails are grass grown, and the footprints of the pioneers have hardened into stone.