Alaska Day on October 18 commemorates the 1867 transfer of the territory from Russia to the United States. To celebrate the 150th anniversary, we’ve invited some of the characters who took the Wild West to the far north.
Akiak, Alaska — February: It is pitch-black in the Alaska village where I am teaching. The generator has broken down and the village has no heat and no lights. I am in my sleeping bag wearing my coat, a little worried about hypothermia. The forecast calls for a low of around minus 30.
I am drifting in and out when I hear the barking. Wolves are coming in for the dogs. Light usually keeps the wolf pack from entering the village, but the easy meal the dogs make is too hard to resist now that we are in the dark. Suddenly a shotgun blast erupts, followed by another. Yupik Eskimos aren’t about to lose part of their dog teams to wolves.
Around 6 a.m., I trudge through the snow for school to get ready to teach my class. The air is crisp to the point of being painful. I am watching the moonlight illuminate my breath when I hear a chopping sound. I make out an elderly woman to my left wearing everything she could find to stay warm as she chops firewood.
A few days later, I am showing my replacement around the village when he says he sees a caribou skin stretched over the side of a cabin. It looks odd to me until we get closer. It’s a wolf pelt. There is a Native woman in the doorway braving the cold for a smoke. She says a hunter brought it in off the tundra a few days ago. A woman in her 60s took it into her cabin, thawed it out, skinned it, and then tacked it up to dry.
As we walk away, my replacement asks if I ever plan to come back to Alaska. I always come back, I say. It is as close as I can ever get to how the Old West was.
Poet Robert Service, the so-called bard of the Yukon, once described those who went to Alaska as a “race of men who don’t fit in.” They were men and women who only felt comfortable living on the fringe of society, moving farther and farther away until they fell off the edge of the map.
It seems like an apt description for some of the men who went west in the early days. I often wonder if the description applies to me as well. I am confident it applied to Service. In 1904, he was northbound for Yukon Territory, headed toward the Whitehorse branch of the bank he worked for when he got off at Juneau for a few days. He wandered into a watering hole called the Missouri, today’s downtown Imperial Saloon, lingering long enough to witness a gunfight. It became the basis for his poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
Frontier historians claim Alaska drew in legendary Old West figures as sort of a last hurrah for them. There are plenty of stories to back up the assertion.
Capt. Jack Crawford, the Poet Scout of the West — who rode with Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok — went to the Klondike Gold Rush sporting a white goatee, long hair, and a buckskin shirt and ended up selling everything from ice cream to hay out of his store in Dawson called The Wigwam. The Klondike reminded him so much of the Old West he wrote his old friend Buffalo Bill about coming north to participate in all the fun.
A young Army lieutenant named Charles Erskine Scott Wood guided the Charles Taylor Expedition in 1877 to Mount St. Elias, a monster of a peak at 18,008 feet. Taylor failed, but Wood became the first American to encounter the creamy white Kermode “ghost bear,” play medicine man for the Huna Tlingits, and discover Glacier Bay. Two years later, he was in Montana standing next to Gen. O.O. Howard recording Chief Joseph’s immortal words, “From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly, the chief of the U.S. Army Scouts Yellowstone Division, who guided U.S. forces against the Sioux after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, took a stab at Alaska twice. Kelly’s most famous trip north came as a guide for the 1899 E.H. Harriman Alaska Expedition, a two-month maritime exploration of Alaska’s coast from Seattle to Siberia and back financed by wealthy railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman. It’s not clear why Harriman, who is a story unto himself, chose to journey to Alaska when he was supposed to be taking a long, restful vacation at his doctor’s behest. The speculations were many: Did he intend to develop Alaska’s resources? Build a railroad bridge from Alaska to Russia or across the territory? Buy the whole shooting match? Whatever the deeper motive, Harriman’s idea of R&R included hunting Kodiak bears — but with a full contingency of scientists, artists, and photographers to explore and document the wild frontier from a retrofitted ship.
One-time cowboy, bank robber, cattle rustler, and outlaw turned lawman Frank Canton, who aided in the killing of the notorious Doolin gang of Oklahoma and fought in Wyoming’s Johnson County Range War, begged to be appointed a deputy U.S. marshal for this new land. After following the gold rush to Alaska, he received the appointment in 1897, maintaining the law out of an office in Circle City. In 1898, he rescued the riverboat Walrus from a gang of cutthroats on the Yukon River.
Texas lawman George Lewis “Tex” Rickard went bust in the Yukon before participating in the Nome Gold Rush. In Nome he opened the Northern Saloon in direct competition with Wyatt Earp’s Dexter Saloon. The two staged boxing matches through the hard winter months. Rickard eventually returned to the lower 48, and the one-time cowboy would go on to construct the third Madison Square Garden in New York City, become the founder of the New York Rangers hockey team, and make millions as a fight promoter.
A very green Jack London landed in Skagway in 1897. He dreamed of being a writer, but thus far he’d been everything but — he’d worked in a jute mill, a laundry, and a cannery; been a sealer and a hobo. Desperate to change his fortune, he headed for the gold fields. But instead of finding gold, he found muddy streets lined with tents, huts, and ramshackle structures. Laughter, screams, and gunfire filled the air. Prostitutes conducted business in full public view. Supt. Samuel Steel of the North West Mounted Police called Skagway “little better than a hell on earth.” The White Pass greeted young Jack with a horrifying scene. Dead and dying horses littered the slopes. One count estimated the death toll at 3,000. “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps,” London wrote of the justly named Dead Horse Trail. London made it over the White Pass, gathering enough adventures to write The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and “To Build a Fire.”
Augustus Mack cofounded Mack Trucks with his Klondike gold fortune. Sid Grauman opened his Chinese theater in Los Angeles with Klondike gold. Playwright and admitted con man Wilson Mizner, who later opened the famed Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, spent time in Alaska scamming miners out of Nome gold.
President Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, went to the Klondike in 1897 to mine the miners. He had come to America in 1885 at age 16 and worked as a barber in New York City. In Alaska, he partnered with Ernest Levin to set up a tent along the trail and serve soups and fresh horse steaks harvested from the numerous dead mounts along the way. He eventually set up a restaurant-bar in Whitehorse with an attached bordello that catered to the wants of would-be prospectors. Drumpf left the Yukon in 1900 for Germany to marry and then returned to New York City, where he got into real estate using funds earned during the gold rush.
Many of the Old West holdouts came from Arizona. John Clum, who had been the editor of The Tombstone Epitaph during the famous shootout between the Earps and the Clantons and forcibly disarmed Geronimo in 1877, went to Alaska as a postal inspector. He traveled a record 8,000 miles through unmapped wilderness in order to set up 12 post offices. Fellow Arizonan Ed Schiefflin, who found the silver strike that gave birth to Tombstone, sailed up the Yukon River searching for gold. Wild West showman and rodeo champion Charlie Meadows arrived from Arizona with a portable saloon, which he hauled over the near-vertical Chilkoot Pass in order to open the Palace Grand in Dawson. There, he impressed patrons by shooting tiny glass balls out of the hands of dance hall girls with his six-shooters until the inevitable accident occurred, forcing him to provide different entertainment.
Famed dance hall girl and singer Honora Ornstein, aka “Diamond Lil” Davenport, worked Skagway for a season before returning to Chicago. She eventually got caught up in a scandal when a former lover, a Chicago police detective, shot and killed her then lover, mobster Big Joe Hopkins. Her wealth faded, and she ended her days as a scrubwoman for a Seattle bank.
Self-proclaimed Old West madam Mattie Silks brought her brothel business from Denver to Dawson for one very lucrative season in 1898 after a stopover in Skagway. The temporary brothel proved highly profitable, netting Silks $38,000. Unable to stand the cold weather and fleeing unsavory characters in the Klondike, she left Skagway for Seattle. She eventually returned to Colorado, where she got back in the business of selling “gentlemanly goods,” in Denver, along with real estate and sometime ranching. Though she was married to rancher and gambler John Dillon “Handsome Jack” Ready when she died in 1929, she’s buried (as Martha A. Ready) next to con man and longtime on-and-off lover Cortes Thompson, who had accompanied her on her Alaska adventure.
Such an epic land as Alaska deserved and got an epic bad man, Old West con man Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, whose checkered path actually crossed Silks’ at one point. Smith had been a confidence man during the Colorado silver booms, working his way up until he owned a saloon in Creede. When the silver boom collapsed, he operated his own gang in Denver until the rival Bonger gang ran him out. News of the Klondike Gold Rush came within weeks, sending him north.
He soon controlled two towns: Wrangell and Skagway. Wrangell already had a tough reputation. There, dance hall girls performed nude on bar tops for the right price. White miners had earlier raped a Native woman in her home, and then set the place on fire, watching her burn alive. A whiskey dealer was dragged into court on the charge of breaking Alaska’s prohibition law. As a witness began testifying against him, the accused pulled a pistol and shot the witness as he sat in the stand. Smith’s men surprisingly calmed things down with a few murders so that would-be gold seekers would not be frightened off. His men then demanded a 10 percent cut of all profits from the saloons as protection money. Interference from the law was not a worry. Deputy marshals were either found dead floating in the harbor or taking the first available boat out of town.
But Skagway was the rough-and-tumble place Smith called home. He controlled most of the saloons and operated some of his own. His gang roamed the Dead Horse Trail, robbing lone travelers. Yet it was his confidence schemes that earned him his reputation. Smith’s men hired out to unload incoming ships. Smith opened his own visitor’s bureau, where one of his men would hand out free maps of the Dead Horse Trail with campsites marked. He had his own outfitting company for prospectors and would rob them as soon as they left sight of town heading north along the very same trail he had mapped for them.
Smith’s best scam was the Dominion Telegraph, which amounted to an office with a copper telegraph wire running from it to a tree about a mile out of town. For a $5 charge, people just arriving would send home messages that they were safe. The “operator” would then ask where they could be found in case of a reply. There always was a reply: A fake message would state things were financially bad at home and ask that money be wired, which the unsuspecting usually did from the fake telegraph office.
Smith eventually became so thorough in his stealing and killing that those returning from the gold fields began to find routes that avoided Skagway, which hurt business in the town. A citizens meeting was called for a Friday night down on the wharf. Drunk, Smith ran down to break it up, only to be confronted by soldier, teacher, engineer, and vigilante Frank Reid. The two shot it out. Smith shot Reid in the groin; Reid would die from the wounds a few days later. But Reid had managed to get his own shot off, directly in Smith’s heart, ending the con man’s reign of terror over Skagway, and the incident — on July 8, 1898, at 9:15 p.m. — became known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf.
The Gold Rush also drew in Wyatt Earp and his wife, Sadie. The Earps made it as far as “hell on wheels” Wrangell before running short of funds. Earp was offered the job of deputy marshal until the actual one arrived, and he served as a lawman in Wrangell for 10 days. Today, Wrangell promotes itself as the last place Wyatt Earp was a lawman, while local wags declare the town was “Too Wild for Wyatt.”
In Juneau, the Earps learned Sadie was pregnant and returned to San Francisco, where she had a miscarriage. After, Wyatt decided to make another go for Alaska, this time on the derelict freighter S.S. Brixom. Sadie boasted that Wyatt helped put down a mutiny before changing ships at Dutch Harbor. At Saint Michael, they took a riverboat bound for the Klondike, but became iced in until sourdough legend Al Mayo rescued them and had them stay over the winter. At Mayo’s, they met Tex Rickard, noted bootlegger Charlie Hoxie, and soon-to-be novelist Rex Beach.
Spring found the Earps back at Saint Michael with Wyatt managing a canteen selling cigars and beer until Hoxie’s and Rickard’s letters enticed them to the Nome Gold Rush. The Saint Michael cabin the Earps lived in is still in use as a residence today. In Nome, Wyatt partnered with Hoxie, opening the only two-story saloon in Alaska. Earp and Rickard staged the aforementioned boxing matches when the long winter hit, along with drinking contests and food drives. Earp was on the watch committee keeping an eye out for claim jumpers
and was arrested once for interfering with a local law officer.
The Earps left Nome (and Alaska) in 1900 with $85,000. Today, the Red Dog Saloon on Juneau’s dock displays a pistol claimed to have been owned by Earp and surrendered on one of his trips.
The streets that Wyatt Earp, Soapy Smith, and others walked down can still be found in Wrangell, Juneau, and Skagway. The buildings they frequented still stand. Juneau’s Imperial Saloon and the Alaskan Hotel are authentic echoes of the Old West. But, to genuinely experience it, go into Skagway’s Red Onion Saloon. The Onion serviced Jack London as well as Soapy Smith. A patron inclined to entertainment beyond liquid courage could choose one of 10 dolls behind the bar. When he went upstairs to the brothel rooms, the bartender would lie the doll down to show that the girl it corresponded to was occupied (and then stand her back up when the patron had finished).
Today the historic spot tends to overload with tourists from the nearby cruise ship dock, but the Red Onion Restaurant and Bar and Brothel Museum might be worth braving the crowds. Patrons no longer request dolls behind the bar, but there’s Freeride APA (from Juneau’s Alaska Brewing Co.) and Madam’s Martinis to drink and Streetwalker Salmon Dip and Harlot ham sandwiches to eat. Upstairs, you can tour the rooms, filled with original and period furnishing from when this place was the best bordello in Skagway.
There are also echoes of the Old West along the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks, where low-roof log cabins dating back to its gold rush line the banks. Cordova, though, holds a real gem from the Old West. Besides the massive rosewood bar inside The Alaskan, there’s the Red Dragon. On a hill overlooking downtown in ornate Edwardian style, the landmark was built for alcoholics and drug addicts to dry out. Local historians claim Yellowstone Kelly was once a tenant. Today, the Red Dragon serves much the same purpose. You’d be advised to knock first before entering.
Barely more than 100 years after the Alaska Gold Rush ended in 1914, today’s Alaska in some respects could be any modern U.S. state. Fast-food signs clutter the streets of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and other towns. Tour guides speak to visitors about the Last Frontier in the past tense. But travel off Alaska’s road system into the Alaska bush, which is larger than Texas, just west of the Alaska Range, or off the beaten path to towns such as Eagle, Cordova, and Tenakee Springs, and you will encounter the state’s past.
There, people struggle to keep warm or find enough food as they live off the land, communicating with loved ones without cell phones. They are living in this massive raw-boned land beyond the mountains, seeing what man is really made of, much like those Old West adventurers who risked it all for the freedom and opportunity of the untamed wilderness
From our October 2017 issue.