Frontierado, which is on August 5th this year, is about the myth of the old west, not the grinding reality.
A neglected aspect of Wild West lore is the Alaskan Gold Rush. Klondike Kate was the only figure I’ve covered from the Yukon so it’s long past time for more. Think of dogsleds instead of stage coaches and instead of hot deserts, snow and temperatures so cold that whiskey freezes in the bottle. Think of winter storms of such magnitude that the entire city of Nome, AK was literally wiped out late in the Gold Rush. Boomtowns, gunslingers and gamblers are common to Gold Rushes in the frozen north AND in the continental U.S.
THE MONTANA KID – Dan Egan, before his Yukon fame, was a boxer during the dangerous years when the sport was illegal in many areas and boxing matches were subject to being raided by the police. He had only limited success and his career as a pugilist is distinguished mostly by his losses to THE Billy Hennesy.
Already called the Montana Kid, Egan lost to Hennesy in boxing matches from Leavenworth, KS to San Francisco, CA between 1888 and 1892. Beginning around 1896 the Kid was in Alaska and made a name for himself smuggling whiskey from Juneau and Skagway to Dawson via his notoriously fast dogsled team.
Egan became a legend from his escapades eluding Canadian Mounties and American authorities with his ever-expanding inventory of smuggled goods. The Montana Kid would spend his down time between smuggling runs drinking and gambling in the many saloons in the Gold Rush boomtowns.
When he was on a winning streak Egan would reward his sled-dogs with prime steaks from the best available restaurants.
This amiable but deadly man was a frequent participant in the marathon, multiple-day card games held at the Bank Saloon, along with equally colorful Klondike figures like Silent Sam Bonnifield, One-Eyed Riley, and the gambler known only as the Oregon Jew.
The Kid added to his legend by getting the (comparatively) latest newspapers to the Yukon city of Dawson after they arrived in coastal towns. Dan was the first in with newspaper accounts of the sinking of the Maine in 1898.
Since there were never enough newspapers to go around AND because many gold prospectors and boomtown rats couldn’t read, the Montana Kid launched a lucrative side business. He provided newspapers to his friend Judge Tom Maguire and the pair rented a Hall where people would pay admission fees to listen to the Judge read aloud from the latest news. These proto-newscasts would be held at 7pm, 9pm and 11pm local time.
Dawson’s remoteness meant that with each Spring thaw a harvest of dead bodies would be discovered in the wilderness surrounding the town. Some were cheating gamblers or thieves or con artists who had tried to flee aggrieved victims but failed.
Others were men slain in gunfights or knife fights and whose corpses were then dragged out into the falling snow to make them disappear for a few months. Still others were men taken out into the wild at gunpoint and shot for various personal reasons. And still more were the losers in duels held out in the freezing wasteland, where the combatants and their witnesses would gather for the deadly exchange of gunfire.
The losers’ bodies would be left where they fell and none of those present would ever discuss what had happened. A form of Yukon Omerta.
For the Montana Kid’s part, he had a reputation for surviving many such duels with gamblers who questioned his honesty at card-playing. Periodic clashes with Chilkoot and Chilkat Indians plus rival smugglers and outright bandits added to his reputation. And the Kid’s former career as a pugilist made it futile to be on the wrong side of him in saloon brawls.
SWIFTWATER BILL – William Gates (yes, really), long-haired and sporting a handlebar moustache, was easily one of the most notorious figures from the Klondike Gold Rushes. The irrepressible gambler, adventurer and ladies’ man told different accounts of the origin of his nickname, varying the tale to suit his current audience.
One version held that he was called Swiftwater Bill because of his skill at piloting canoes over the deadly White Horse Rapids. When Gates wanted to charm his listeners with self-deprecating humor he would instead claim that the nickname was given to him sarcastically because he avoided those rapids religiously, even walking around them to dodge their peril.
In 1896 Swiftwater Bill was working as a cook at a Circle City roadhouse after striking out at prospecting and being robbed of his gear. When the new gold strike southeast at Bonanza Creek became known he joined the Gold Rush there.
Wanting to get in on the ground floor of the gambling business in the area, Bill convinced nouveau riche prospector Jack Smith to bankroll a casino to be run out of the huge tent saloon (“The Bonanza”) the man had just leased. Swiftwater Bill proved almost unbeatable as a gambler AND a casino manager and nearly doubled Smith’s initial fortune of $155,000 (in 1890s money).
The pair bought and opened the plush Monte Carlo Dance Hall & Saloon, which became one of the best-known casino/ bordellos north of Seattle. Gates loved flaunting his own newfound wealth and was a fixture along Front Street, strolling and glad-handing in his Prince Albert Coat, opera hat, starched collar, spats and diamond-pinned tie.
Swiftwater Bill made a point of being seen all around Dawson, buying drinks for the house at each saloon he visited. His standard greeting/ challenge when welcoming gamblers at the Monte Carlo was “The sky’s the limit, boys! If the roof gets in your way, tear it off!”
Bill’s skill at gambling became famous throughout the territory and in his travels he even stopped by the notorious Ophir Saloon in Nome, AK. His successes with ladies became even more legendary.
Back in Dawson, Gates was bedding down with famed and voluptuous entertainer Gussie Lamore. She met his tastes so well that he was determined to get her to marry him and in that cause offered her literally her weight in gold dust.
Gussie was being pursued by other wealthy suitors and put off answering Bill’s proposal while she fished for better offers. Warming to the game, Swiftwater Bill outdid his rivals by managing – through the Montana Kid’s smuggling efforts – to procure some eggs for Miss Lamore, who had made known her hunger for those rarest of delicacies this far into the frozen Yukon.
When Gussie hesitated to accept the eggs she and Gates quarreled. In his anger, Bill ate a few of the eggs himself and let the Montana Kid feed the rest of them to his sled-dogs. Reconciling in the wake of this absurd spat, Lamore agreed at last to marry Swiftwater Bill.
Another of Gussie’s diva demands was to move to San Francisco, so while she went on ahead with Bill’s dowry of gold dust he lingered in Dawson to sell his interest in the Monte Carlo and break the hearts of his other female admirers with the news.
When Gates arrived in San Francisco he learned that the conniving Gussie Lamore had skipped town with the fortune in gold he had gifted to her. No one ever knew where she had run off to. Angry, Swiftwater Bill wooed and then wed Gussie’s sister Grace in a spite wedding and the two set up housekeeping in a mansion in Oakland, CA.
Three weeks later the pair separated followed by a divorce. Having lost at least $100,000 between the two Lamore Sisters, Gates returned to Alaska nearly drained of funds. In Skagway he seduced and ran off with a beautiful 15 year old girl named Bera Beebe, whose mother and sister had come north with $35,000 to start a hotel.
Bera’s determined mother and sister pursued her and Bill to Dawson, where the couple had married. Swiftwater Bill charmed his new mother-in-law and convinced her to lend him her $35,000 so he could open a new saloon/ casino.
Gates thrived again in the gambling trade and he and Bera had two children together. Around the turn of the century, however, the couple moved back to the continental U.S., where Bill ran off with his 17 year old niece Kitty Bardon.
In Seattle, Swiftwater Bill was arrested for bigamy but convinced Bera to divorce him so that he and Kitty could remarry legally. They later divorced. By 1906 Gates had declared bankruptcy in Coeur d’Alene, ID, where he married 18 year old Sadelle Mercier.
Gold and silver were discovered in Rawhide, NV in December of 1906 so 1907 found Bill and Sadelle in that boom town. Gates had moderate gambling success but just couldn’t recapture his old magic. By 1909 Rawhide had gone from boom to bust, helped by a horrific fire in September of 1908.
Swiftwater Bill ran off to Peru, intent on finding Pizarro’s legendary gold mines. For years he pursued wealth around South America but eventually the aging legend was shot to death in a gunfight with a Native Peruvian in 1937.
SILENT SAM – Former steamboat captain Sam Bonnifield – called Silent Sam because of his brooding, taciturn ways and Square Sam because of his legendary honesty – started his career as a professional gambler in Kansas, Montana and California before settling in Alaska.
After gold was discovered in Turnagain Arm (pre-Gold Rush), Sam arrived in Juneau around 1888 on the same boat with the man who would become his biggest gambling rival: Louis “Goldie” Golden. The pair would clash at the gaming tables in Skagway and later as owners of saloons and gambling hells in a sort of Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird rivalry on multiple levels of their trade.
They followed the gold, which meant they ran competing establishments in Juneau, Circle City and Dawson. Bonnifield lived on the edge, often losing or winning tens of thousands of dollars (in 1800s money) within a few days.
He even won, then lost the Yukonia Hotel itself in a single night. Tex Rickard was one of the future Klondike legends who learned the gambling trade at Silent Sam’s elbow.
Eventually a particularly hard losing streak discouraged Goldie Golden so much that he asked Sam for $1,000 traveling money and headed south, vowing no one in Alaska would ever see him again. And they never did.
Silent Sam, meanwhile, kept coming out SO far ahead that in the early 1900s he opened the First National Bank in Fairbanks, AK. Millions of dollars ran in and out of the bank before the 1906-1907 Depression hit, and the near failure of the First National crushed Bonnifield in a way the gambling life never could.
He suffered a nervous breakdown, at one point kneeling in the snow outside his bank asking God what he should do. He wound up in and out of mental institutions for the rest of his life. An October 1911 headline in the Alaska Citizen read “Sam Bonnifield Is Insane Once More” after his most recent breakdown.
In June of 1914 Silent Sam was released from Morningside Hospital in Portland, OR. He died in 1943 in Seattle after being struck by a car.
TEX RICKARD – George Lewis “Tex” Rickard – like Klondike Kate – went on to later fame which eclipsed his early life. Born in 1871 in Clay County, MO, Rickard stated his mother forever maintained that the minute he was born a posse went by outside the house pursuing their neighbor Jesse James and his brother, Frank.
The 1875 firebombing of the James home convinced the Rickard family to move, and they resettled in Texas. In 1882 George’s father died and the 11 year old had to go to work on a ranch. By the time he was in his teens Rickard was a Cowboy on cattle drives to Kansas and Montana.
After nearly getting crushed and/or drowned on a cattle drive in 1894 Tex -who had earned a name for gunslinging against would-be rustlers and in Cowtown saloons – quit cowboying and became a Marshal in Henrietta, TX. The following year George’s wife and newborn child died within a month of each other, so he fled the unpleasant memories by heading for Circle City, Alaska. Even before the official Gold Rush had started, miners were finding precious metals here and there.
Accompanied by a former fellow Cowboy, Will Slack, Tex traveled by train to Seattle, WA and then by ship to Juneau, AK. The pair arrived in November of 1895, so they had to wait until Spring to continue their journey inland. They spent their time until then drinking and gambling in assorted Juneau saloons and gambling hells.
With the arrival of Spring a tugboat took Tex and Will to the Indian town of Dyea, and from there they hiked to nearby Chilkoot Pass. After laboriously dragging all of their supplies up 3,500 feet they sledded down the other side with them.
Amid heavy winds and nighttime temperatures which dropped to 50 below Zero the two adventurers traveled to the Yukon River’s headwaters, where others bound for Circle City were congregating. Will Slick decided Alaska was not for him, said goodbye to Tex and departed for Mexico, where he was shot to death in a saloon gunfight.
Rickard and the others built rough boats and drifted downriver to Circle City, which in 1896 had just two General Stores and three Blacksmith Shops … but TWENTY-EIGHT saloons and casinos. Tex found his element in the gambling profession and began his climb to the top as a dealer.
After experiencing various highs and lows as a gambler in Circle City, come 1898 Tex decided to open his own gambling saloon to the west in Rampart, AK after fresh gold finds there. For opening night Rickard showed signs of his future career in sports promotion. In addition to drinking and gambling he provided for music (a harmonica playing prospector), dancing (with Siwash Indian ladies) and a boxing match between two locals.
While running his Rampart Saloon, Tex became friends with Wyatt Earp, who was on his way to Dawson but whom the harsh winter weather forced to stay for a time in Rampart. Another friend that he made during this period was Rex Beach, second only to Jack London in capturing the Klondike Gold Rush period for readers around the world.
Spring of 1899 saw Tex Rickard selling his Rampart saloon and moving to Nome, AK, where much more gold was being dug up. By July 4th Tex and his new friend Jim White opened a tent saloon called the Northern. Poker, Faro and Roulette were played on the premises and Rickard went on the longest winning streak of his life.
Jim White soon sold his share and shipped out but Tex made the Northern a huge success. By May 1900 he had erected a larger wooden building where the tent had stood. The Northern stayed open around the clock and now boasted six bartenders on duty day and night.
Tex’s reputation as a gunslinger AND as an honest man meant many prospectors entrusted him with their bags of gold dust when they returned to their claims to dig for more. The Northern was now a makeshift bank as well as a saloon and casino. Anyone foolish enough to try to steal from Rickard’s establishment soon learned the error of their ways and was never seen again.
George’s friend Wyatt Earp resurfaced in Nome and with Charlie Hoxie opened up the Dexter Saloon, which proved to be the Northern’s biggest competition. The Dexter was Nome’s first 2-story building, with the 1st Floor just for the barroom and the 2nd Floor for the gambling and related entertainment.
In the years ahead Tex Rickard made multiple fortunes, lost many of them, but always landed on his feet again at some point. Much later in life he became legendary as a promoter of boxing and other sporting events back in the Continental U.S.
EAT ‘EM UP JACK – Jack Blackburn was a gambler/ gunslinger with a mysterious past and hands so large that many accounts held each one was “as big as a Bible.” Blackburn at first seemed a capable enough gambler but at Dawson he was caught cheating and grifting and was turned over to the Mounties.
At their station in Dawson the Mounties made locals who were jailed for short sentences work away at chopping firewood while serving their time. After fulfilling his time in the pokey, Eat ‘Em Up Jack made his way around Circle City and Rampart before his reputation as a cheat spread far enough that he was banned from all gambling hells.
Jack got his nickname “Eat ‘Em Up” once during a high-stakes poker game when he had accidentally been dealt six cards instead of five. He got a strong hand of 3 aces and decided to keep it but had to conceal his 6th card before he got called out for it, which would invalidate his entire hand.
Blackburn ordered sandwiches and booze for all the players at his table and while eating his sandwich he used sleight-of-hand to push his 6th card between the pieces of bread and ate the evidence. His 3 aces won him the pot.
Once tagged everywhere as a card-sharp, Blackburn spent the rest of the Klondike Gold Rush days in the seaside cities of Alaska, where heavy turnover among the transient population meant he could get away with cheating and grifting for awhile AND it meant he had access to quick getaways in departing ships, unlike the snowbound towns in the interior.
Juneau, Skagway, Nome and Saint Michael saw the most of Eat ‘Em Up Jack and his fellow “exiled” card-sharps for the rest of the Gold Rush period. Legend has it that Blackburn – like Tex Rickard – was on hand in Nome when gambler/ gunslinger Policy Bob himself died in an Opium Den from his habit.
KLONDIKE KATE – Kate Rockwell eventually became one of the best-known entertainers of her day. Most of her career is outside the purview of this article, which will concentrate on her dangerous years in Alaska and Canada during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s onward.
Kate was born in Kansas in 1876 and by the early 1890s her wealthy stepfather was paying for her education in the musical arts in Osage. The stock market crash of the 1890s wiped out her stepfather’s fortune and ended her education. The young lady took to dancing and singing in cheap saloons, winding up in Spokane, WA, where she first took to performing with a Derringer pistol tucked somewhere in her costume to deal with occasional rowdies or overly amorous fans. After stints in Seattle, WA and then British Columbia in Canada Kate got bitten by the Gold Bug and joined the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897.
Rockwell arrived in Skagway, Alaska by ship and performed at some of the saloons and theaters there, most of which were crude shacks or simply tents at that early stage in Skagway’s history. With more and more frequency Kate was forced to use her concealed Derringer while on stage because the men in search of Klondike gold had generally not seen women in years. Rockwell also took to carrying around a .38 caliber pistol when she was off-stage and it came in handy several times up there in the gold territory, where life was cheap.
Owing to the heavily snowed-in roads people involved in a shooting could not just skip to the next town like they could in the Lower 48 States so a clear-cut case of self-defense was necessary to avoid jail time or deportation. Kate’s good looks drove men wild and she gained a reputation for resorting to gunplay only when other means of subduing an aggressor proved futile. Thus Klondike Kate made her way from mining boomtown to mining boomtown, braving the elements and the trigger-happy thugs along the way.
Kate incorporated tap-dancing, roller-skating and trick-shooting into her stage act and was such a hit with the audiences that in Whitehorse, Alaska her appreciative fans spelled out her name with bullets in the ceiling of a hotel in town. By 1901 Kate and her new beau, Alexander Pantages, were in Nome, Alaska, where another Gold Rush had begun in 1899 and the usual tableau of fast money, rowdy saloons and dangerous streets had taken shape.
By late 1902 Klondike Kate’s gunslinging days were behind her, but she continued performing in the United States and Canada. With Pantages managing her the couple amassed a fortune and that money financed Alexander’s famous Pantages Theatre chain. Unfortunately for Kate, however, Alexander still refused to marry her and eventually dumped her, keeping all the money the two had made over the years.
Kate sued but lost in court twice so she returned to the stage to earn some money just for herself. Klondike Kate died of old age on February 21st, 1957.
SOAPY SMITH – Jefferson “Soapy” Smith was one of the closest things to a 20th or 21st Century gangland chief in the 19th Century. For his extensive pre-Alaska career as a crime boss click HERE.
On the run for various offenses in 1897, Soapy fled to Alaska as the Gold Rush raged. Smith eventually built up another criminal organization centered around Skagway and Dyea, AK, but not without substantial difficulty this time. Shortly after this first attempt to keep his gambling, shell games and 3 Card Monte cons going up north, armed miners and others united to make it clear to Soapy and his men that they were not welcome. Smith returned to the U.S. for a time.
By late January of 1898 Soapy and some loyal followers were back in Skagway, where he bought the town’s Marshal and then tried duplicating the empire-building efforts that had worked back in Denver and Creede. As a new wrinkle, Jeff Smith and company opened a fake telegraph office in Skagway, charging fees to send messages along their telegraph lines … which, unknown to their victims, didn’t really run anywhere.
March of 1898 found Soapy opening a saloon called Jeff Smith’s Parlor, and, as he built up his powerbase, the establishment quickly became known as Skagway’s “REAL City Hall.”
A large vigilante group called the Committee of 101 violently opposed Smith’s attempts at carving out a new criminal kingdom for himself. Soapy built up his own gang of 317 men against the vigilantes, but, instead of fighting rival gangsters like he was used to doing, this time Smith was up against armed men who could not be intimidated OR bought.
Though Soapy and his closest men, like Policy Bob, remained rock-solid throughout this conflict, many of the rank and file of his criminal gang grew intimidated by the Committee of 101 and skipped town, preferring to pursue their dishonest trades elsewhere in Alaska or back in the Continental United States.
With the Spanish-American War raging, the disgracefully dishonest Smith used it as an excuse to launch one of his ballsiest cons. He renamed his remaining underlings the Skaguay (sic) Military Company and appointed himself its Captain, claiming he had War Department authorization for this and therefore he and his men were entitled to be armed.
While Smith’s enemies were waiting for slow word back from Washington to verify the claim – Soapy even wrote personally to President William McKinley, hoping he’d back him up on this – Smith tried to swiftly win the war of violent influence in Skagway before his bluff could be called.
The vigilantes of the Committee of 101 weren’t easily bluffed, however, and Smith was saved only by the fact that President McKinley, presumably unfamiliar with Soapy’s notoriety, okayed his Skaguay Military Company.
With the Commander in Chief cluelessly backing Smith’s latest con, it seemed he might be able to bilk money from the War Department while building upon his Skagway foothold, stalling his unit’s departure for the front through every trick his fertile mind could come up with.
Fate took a hand instead. A prospector named John Douglas Stewart lost his new fortune of $2,700 (worth much more today, of course) to Soapy’s 3-card Monte con artists and wanted it back. The Committee of 101 backed the aggrieved prospector and demanded that Smith return the man’s money. Soapy refused.
Everything came to a head on July 8th in the Shootout on Juneau Wharf, where a firefight between Soapy & some of his men and 4 of the vigilantes ended with the gangster being shot to death. Frank Reid or Jesse Murphy may have fired the fatal shots on Smith, who caught bullets through the heart, left leg and left arm.
Reid died 12 days later from the bullet wounds Jeff Smith had given him in his groin and right leg. With Soapy’s power now broken via his death, the 3 accused con artists of his in the John Douglas Stewart case got jail sentences.
Jefferson R Smith II was buried several yards away from the Skagway cemetery. Many books have been written about him yet he is still largely unknown to the general public.