Tom Clark points to a photo of his grandfather, John D. Stewart, his Atlin assay office, and a receipt for gold from the master of a ship that took Stewart back from Alaska after the trial of the men who robbed him. – Jeff Brady
By Jeff Brady
In the summer of 2013, I was in Whitehorse on a book tour after the release of Skagway: City of the New Century, and an elderly gentleman came up to my table and said, “I am the grandson of the last man robbed by Soapy Smith.”
My jaw dropped, of course. Descendants of gold rush stampeders come through our area all the time, but here was a man who was the grandson of John D. Stewart, one of the most significant, and least understood, characters in the Soapy Smith drama.
He stood in front of me and said he had been living in Whitehorse for some 50 years. His name was Tom Clark.
“We have to talk,” I said. “I want to know your story.” And I took down his name and address.
It took a couple of years, but we finally sat down last December in the living room of the house he has occupied in the Riverview neighborhood of Whitehorse since the 1960s. He first came north in 1942 as an aircraft mechanic for Yukon Southern Air Transport (later Canadian Pacific). Bob Cameron, the author of Yukon Wings, set up the interview. Clark was an old buddy of Cameron’s dad, a fellow air mechanic. What intrigued me the most about Tom Clark, a spirited 93-year-old, was why, after living or flying in the North all these years, he had waited so long to tell anyone about the conversation he had with his grandfather about Skagway. But we’ll get into that a little later.
This is what he told me, and it’s a different version of the events leading up to the July 8, 1898 shootout than what’s been written before, in newspaper accounts of the shootout, reported versions of Stewart’s trial testimony, and in books by other descendants and even scholars:
“For the most part, the stories about my grandfather were about how he went into Soapy Smith’s to see the eagle – newspapers said much the same thing – or (Pierre) Berton’s account. But every one of those stories had him coming in as a prospector from the Yukon. Now he had been in the Yukon (early in the gold rush), but he didn’t come from the Yukon. He came from Atlin.”
Stewart, originally from Nova Scotia, was a big man who had worked his way west and north as a coal miner. He was first lured north to the Yukon from Nanaimo, British Columbia in 1896 in a party with William Sloan, and they prospected the Stewart River, according to one account. Clark said the Nanaimo prospectors went down the Yukon River to Fortymile and were there on August 17, when George Carmack came in with his “pocketful of gold” from the Bonanza Creek discovery. The town emptied out, including Sloan and Stewart. They boated upriver to the Klondike and followed the muddy tributary on up until “the water got clear and they staked their claim,” Clark said. That was Eldorado No. 15 on the richest creek in the world. Stewart worked the claim that winter, thawing ground and killing game for the camp. When they “cleaned up” in the spring of 1897, they made plenty and decided that was enough. Sloan sold his interest in the claim for $50,000 and left with $85,000, according to Hub City: Nanaimo 1886-1920.
Clark said he never knew how much his grandfather made, but he told his grandmother that he was “going to retire, so he didn’t come out hurting either.”
Despite being home with a wife and three young girls, Stewart was drawn north again later that year by two brothers who somehow knew there were prospects in the area of Atlin, British Columbia. They had an assay furnace and they wanted Stewart to run it. So he accompanied them to Dyea, hiked back over the Chilkoot Trail, built a boat, and sailed it around to Atlin by way of Taku Arm before freeze-up. That winter of 1897-1898, he ran the furnace to thaw frozen dirt from Juneau prospectors who had come over the coastal range to test the diggings there. This was before the “rush” to Atlin that summer. When springtime came, the furnace was no longer needed, so Stewart was ready to leave. He took his payment – a sack of gold dust worth about $2,700.
– and joined a party of four Juneau men heading on an overland trail to Log Cabin and Skagway in late June. But Clark said they weren’t as tough as his grandfather and wanted to turn back after a few days. When Stewart said he wanted to keep going, they took his rifle and said he had to go back with them. That night he camped on the perimeter and made his escape.
“Anyway, it didn’t get totally dark then, and he waited till he thought everyone was asleep and set up his bedroll with food in there so it looked like it was occupied, and with just the clothes on his back, no food, no rifle, he headed out for the highest mountain in that area,” Clark said. “And he thought if he could find the inlet that Skagway was on, then he would follow that inlet on into Skagway, which he did.”
Clark thinks it took Stewart only one day to make the journey, and there is only one account of someone encountering him on the lower White Pass trail or Brackett Wagon Road. He very well may have come down through Warm Pass, which connects over to the Fantail Trail from Atlin, and pops out near White Pass City, the end of the wagon road. That route has been used by modern-day cross-country skiers going from Skagway to Atlin.
“He got down off the mountain and on the beach at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of whatever day that was, the day before Smith was killed,” Clark said, and continued his grandfather’s version of the events.
“He had that sack of gold, and he got a hotel room and went to have something to eat, and he paid for it with the gold. And then he went from there to get some clothes. And when he came back to the hotel, there were three people in the lobby, one behind the desk and two sitting in chairs against the wall. He remembered that quite clearly and he implanted it in my brain. But they weren’t the same persons he had checked in with. And these people were very affable and very friendly and outgoing, and it was then that he heard of Soapy Smith. He never knew of him at all, but they told him what a terrible person Smith is and he should put that gold – they knew he had it because he had flashed it – in the safe in the hotel. And so he thought that might be a good idea, and he gave them the gold and he went up to bed. And when he came down in the morning, there was another man there. He went down to get the gold and the guy there didn’t know what he was talking about.
“And so there was a marshal in Skagway, all bought and paid for by Smith, and my grandfather says, ‘as soon as that guy opened his mouth I knew I was wasting my time.’ So he started stopping people on the street. Why and who I don’t know. He had a purpose. Initially, they brushed him off. And finally, one person said, ‘Go up to City Hall and see a man by the name of Frank Reid,’ which he did. And he told him the story. And immediately Frank Reid knew who these three men were. And his parting words to my grandfather were, ‘Mr. Stewart, I’ve heard this story from many people,’ he says ‘I want Soapy Smith, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, the people who say they will go after him back out.’ And my grandfather says, ‘I won’t back out. I want my gold.’ And Reid directed him to somewhere, and Reid did his thing. There was a group of people and he saw them and they organized to meet on the Juneau wharf that evening. Wherever my grandfather was I don’t know but he went to the Juneau wharf (site of the shootout with Reid), and that was the first and only time he saw Soapy Smith. He was never in his saloon in Skagway. He was never in Soapy Smith’s place till after. He may have been in it after, when they returned his gold.”
At this point, I stopped Tom Clark and asked him about newspaper accounts from the December 1898 trial in Juneau of the three men – Bowers, Foster and Tripp – in which Stewart reportedly testified that he had been lured by Bowers into the saloon for a beer, and then went out back to see “the bird,” where a game commenced with Foster and Tripp. When Stewart didn’t have money for the game, they asked him to go get his dust, which had been stored in the safe at Kaufman’s store.
The December 14, 1898 Alaska Mining Record, the Juneau newspaper, had Stewart saying this in court: “We came back with the dust and I unrolled it and showed them the sack, and the old man (Tripp) said he did not know if that was gold and Bowers said, ‘Open it and show it to him, as he don’t know gold dust when he sees it,’ but I did not open it, and was just about to roll it up again, when Foster grabbed it and handing it to the old man said, ‘Git!’ and I started to grab the old man, when they held me and said if I made a noise it would not be well for me.” He then said he started after the old man but could not catch him and started looking for help.
Clark did not want to hear this version of the story again; he had heard it many times before. “He was never in there,” he said. “There’s one thing you Americans are exceptional at. You can lie convincingly.”
I assured him it was not I telling a lie, only what I was reading from the reporting at the trial, but we decided to move on.
“Anyway, he got his gold. There was about $500 missing from his poke. He made arrangements to go Outside and got on a boat. But he had made arrangements with Frank Reid. When he was talking with Frank Reid he said he would be a witness. There must have been arrangements for fare and a boat somehow. He went back to Nanaimo in July and shortly after he got a letter from Skagway threatening his life. My grandmother, his wife (Dolena), said, ‘You don’t owe those people anything. You don’t have to go back.’ And he said, ‘I gave my word to Frank Reid that I would go back and I’m going back.’
“After that, a month or so, he got another letter and in it the letter said they would have somebody in Nanaimo and attack his family and throw acid in his children’s faces. Christ, did that get my grandmother up tight, and my mother. She was a young girl of three and carried that to her grave, that they were going to blind her.”
Stewart went to the police, but nothing came of the threats, and he did go on up to Juneau in December. The three members of Soapy’s gang had been brought over from Sitka for the trial. Clark said Stewart saw the men up against a railing by the wall, and all were dressed nice. When Stewart heard them tell their side, he recognized the voices, and by the time the first and second one had been identified by him, the third one changed his plea. The report in the Record confirms all three were found guilty after the jury deliberated for just eight minutes.
Oddly, the Juneau story begins with Stewart saying he came down from the Klondike via the Dalton Trail, which is suspicious reporting. The Dalton Trail leads into Haines. The Atlin story has been corroborated in another account from a packer who encountered Stewart on the lower reaches of the White Pass trail, Clark said.
I told Clark what I thought: that the reporters from Juneau and Tacoma, where a similar report of the trial was printed, probably were repeating a lot of what had been reported initially coming out of Skagway right after the shootout. In a rush by reporters to break big news stories, often the truth gets skewed, only to be corrected later after an examination of all the facts. In this case, to know the full truth, one would have to see the actual trial transcripts, and they do not exist.
But for Tom Clark, it was all about believing his grandfather, and who wouldn’t?
I asked him how his meeting with his grandfather came about. It was some time in the mid-1940s, and Clark had just returned from his first time working in the North. By then, Stewart was an old man, and his mother Dolena said he had had a heart attack and had just come home from the hospital. He wanted to see her, and he especially wanted to talk to his grandson.
Clark said he expected to spend the day watching his mom tend to his grandpa, but they found him in the kitchen standing by the stove. His grandson had not seen him for about ten years. He wasn’t the big man he once was, but he was still wearing his tell-tale vest and a pocket watch made from his gold.
“She was almost aghast. He and I talked about what we talked about today. It just came out. I didn’t ask him for it. And my mother didn’t know anything about him taking that trip from Atlin…. There he was cooking fried potatoes. I can see that day, with his watch on his vest, and he was telling me about his escapades.”
He also learned about his grandfather taking some of the gold and making a badge for Deputy Marshal Si Tanner, who stepped in to relieve the corrupt marshal and who rounded up the gang and the gold. And he learned that his grandfather had brought all that gold with him on the ship back to Juneau for the trial, as evidence.
Oddly, after the trial, Stewart was on the same ship that carried Bowers, Foster and Tripp in handcuffs back to Sitka and the jailhouse. Stewart secured the gold in the ship’s safe, getting a receipt, and the steamer continued south.
The gold made it to Seattle, where a throng of reporters greeted the ship. He got past them without saying a word. He went to a bank the next day and had the dust converted to money before heading up to Victoria. Clark said his grandfather did talk to the one reporter there who met him.
Clark has the receipt for the gold in a frame on his wall, along with a photo of his grandpa, and one of the assay office in Atlin. He also ended up with the pocket watch after his grandfather passed away a few years after their kitchen meeting. He has since given it to his daughter Carol.
“What I’m telling you, in a way, is personal. But I don’t care,” Tom Clark said. “There was a time when I was very upset by the way he was described, particularly by the American press and by Pierre Berton (whom Tom went to school with in Victoria).
“I’m emphatic about this. He was never in a bar in Skagway ever, anybody’s bar.”
At one point, Clark asked me if I was “disappointed” upon hearing his grandfather’s story.
“Not at all,” I said, though I admitted it had me confused, after all I had read before our meeting. I told him I was now convinced that J.D. Stewart certainly was not a dupe, as some writers had described him, nor a ploy in a plot to take down Soapy, as some have alleged.
“One thing about Stewart,” Clark said. “He was an honorable person who paid his way. If you had done something for him, he would do it back for you. Same the other way too, if he deserved it.”
• Alaska Mining Record (Juneau weekly), December 14, 1898 account of the Dec. 10 trial. A similar account also appeared in the Dec. 27, 1898 Tacoma Times.
• Hub City: Nanaimo 1886-1920, Jan Peterson (Heritage House, 2003).
• Alias Soapy Smith, Jeff Smith (Klondike Research, 2008)
• That Fiend in Hell: Soapy Smith in Legend, Catherine Holder Spude (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2012)
To their credit, both of the above authors have Stewart coming to Skagway from Atlin.
• Klondike Fever, Pierre Berton (Alfred A. Knopf, 1958)
• The Skaguay News and Daily Alaskan, July 8, 1898 and subsequent editions.
Skagway writer/historian Jeff Brady is editor emeritus of the Skaguay Alaskan.