As the port of entry to the fabulously rich gold diggings of the Klondike, Skagway basically sprang up overnight. Travelers would purchase provisions there before heading to the White Pass in the Alaska Coast Mountains, 17 miles north of town. One of only two passable routes into the Yukon, the White Pass trail was littered with dying and injured horses left by tenderfoots in a hurry to become rich. A young Jack London on his way north dubbed it “Dead Horse Trail.”
Jefferson “Soapy” Smith had run criminal gangs in Creede and Denver, Colo., before moving to Alaska to exploit the Klondike Gold Rush. He set up false businesses such as ticket offices, outfitting firms, and supply depots that relieved newcomers of their money. He even set up an Information Bureau by the docks that handed out maps telling newcomers where to camp along Dead Horse Trail so his gang could rob them. One lawman recounted 10 robberies and one murder in a single day along the trail. But Smith also nursed a reputation for being a latter-day Robin Hood, paying for funerals of those found dead along the Dead Horse Trail. He’d sometimes pay passage home for the destitute and even stopped a lynching at the point of his gun.
His best con, though, was the Dominion Telegraph Service. Smith’s men ran a wire from an old building to a tree one mile out of town and told newcomers they could wire home news of their safe arrival—a $5 fee for 10 words. A little while later, a “messenger” would find the newcomer and give them the family’s usual reply, “please send home money.” This ruse caused many newcomers to pay for funds to be “wired” home from the fake telegraph. According to legend, Smith’s greed even caused him to murder his mistress, Ella Wilson, for the money she had rat-holed. She was found tied up, with her throat cut and her money gone. He also interfered with the construction of a railroad to the Klondike in order to extort his cut.
Soapy Smith’s antics cost Skagway business when leery prospectors returned home via different routes. And when his men blatantly robbed traveler John Stewart, a vigilante committee formed at the docks. Smith went to scatter the vigilantes, but town surveyor Frank Reid barred his way. Smith slammed his rifle barrel into Reid and shot him in the groin. Reid got off two shots, one striking Smith in the heart and the other just above the knee. Curiously, an autopsy found three bullets in Soapy. Years later, it came out that a railroad worker in hiding had also shot Smith. A hero, Reid died 10 days after the attack.