No town of the Wild West is complete without a few saloons, dastardly villains, dashing heroes, violent shootouts, and at least one bank heist. Skagway certainly fit the bill during the Klondike gold rush except for the bank heist. In the summer of 1898 the town had at least 80 saloons and witnessed the famous shootout between the notorious con-man “Soapy” Smith and Frank Reid, “who gave his life for the honor of Skagway.” With the passing of Soapy and Reid, the town’s citizens may have thought their Wild West days were over. Little did they know.
It was a clear afternoon on the Sept. 15, 1902. It was nearly 3 p.m., closing time at the Skagway branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce at 516 Fifth Avenue and the two employees inside were beginning to close up shop. George Wallace, a veteran of the South African war, sat working the ledger at his desk while Charles R. W. Pooley opened the large iron safe in the bank’s back room, getting ready to put away the cash and gold dust from the teller’s cages. The bank’s manager, Harry M. Lay, was away on a hunting trip and L. M. de Gex, the accountant from the bank’s Whitehorse office had not yet arrived to temporarily take over management of the bank during Lay’s absence.
Pooley was still putting the money and gold dust away in the safe when a stranger entered the bank’s front door. He wore dark clothes and a slouch hat pulled down over his head and walked up to Wallace’s teller window. He stuck his left hand through the cage and was holding two sticks of dynamite. “Do you know what this is?” he asked and Wallace answered “Yes, that’s dynamite.” “Well, I want you to give me $20,000” the unknown man said. “Now be quick … or I will blow up the building.” At this last remark, the man raised his right hand, and partly concealed in his coat-sleeve, was a revolver.
Wallace quickly swung around and made a dash for the back door, yelling to Pooley, “Look out, he’s got a gun!” Unfortunately just at that moment, Skagway attorney John G. Price walked in the door with $350 cash in his hand which he intended to deposit. Price’s entrance so close on the heels of Wallace’s dramatic dash apparently startled the would-be robber and he fired a shot from his revolver. Whether the bullet was intended for Wallace, Pooley, Price, or simply discharged by accident, we will never know because instead it hit the dynamite in the man’s left hand.
The explosion was horrific. The large display windows at the building’s front shattered, blowing glass and Price out onto the sidewalk as well as cutting Price’s face, temporarily blinding him. Bleeding and deafened by the shock, he was soon taken to the hospital. In the back room Wallace was blown out the back door, and behind the safe’s big iron door Pooley was both deafened and dazed. The would-be robber, lying face down a full 10 feet from where he was standing at the time of the explosion was “a horrible sight to behold.”
The bank’s side door splintered and was blasted off its hinges. Plaster from the walls and ceiling was almost completely blown away and the wooden planks of the ceiling above the explosion were also splintered and hung down into the room or were in pieces on the floor. The explosion re-arranged the furniture, shifting every visible surface and books were strewn across what was left of the counters. Part of the agent’s office collapsed in on itself, although an umbrella that either Wallace or Pooley had hung from the door remained in its place. Price’s cash was scattered. The $2,800 in gold dust from the teller’s cages that Pooley had been about to stow away was blown all over. Covered in plaster dust, it settled throughout the wrecked business and littered the sidewalk beyond.
Soon a crowd of people, dogs, and photographers crowded around the outside of the bank while members of the 106th Coast Artillery stood guard both outside the doors and inside the wrecked building. The people of Skagway were nothing if not enterprising and they soon hosed the building down and gathered all the dirt and dust around and hauled it in buckets and barrels to the nearby creek. Sluice boxes were quickly built and under the direction of Herman D. Kirmse, one of Skagway’s pioneer jewelers, the debris and dirt were processed for the gold. What was remarkable was that more gold was recovered than what was supposed to have been on hand in the bank. In addition, every single one of Price’s bills was found and returned to its owner. Neither the bank nor Price lost a single dollar.
Despite the destruction, the bank reopened the next day at temporary quarters next door in the post office. There was a run on the bank as depositors demanded their money. All were paid immediately, but when they later tried to redeposit their funds, accountant de Gex refused to accept them. He indicated that he did not want to do business with customers who had so little faith in the bank and told them to go put their money someplace else.
The man who had attempted the holdup survived for a little more than an hour, dying at the railroad hospital. No one could recall his name or where he had come from. Doctors guessed his age at about 35. He was tall, powerfully built and had the appearance of a man who at one time had money. He had a short, dark mustache and his teeth were gold filled and had been well cared for. The revolver, a .38 Colt, had been purchased in Skagway. He was either American or Canadian, judging from his command of English.
The Daily Alaskan reported that Bob Wright of Dyea had told officers that he talked to the man in the Last Chance Saloon three days before the explosion, and that the man had inquired about finding a way to reach Dyea quickly so he could go up the trail, and if there was anything to eat at the summit. On a second meeting the man inquired about a boat. Suspicious, Wright asked if the man was fleeing the law, but the man said he might just need a ride. After going down to the harbor to look at the boat, he said it was too slow. During their third meeting in the bar, 20 minutes before the explosion, Wright said the man asked him to meet him at the Bishop Rowe Hospital at 3 p.m. “He said he wanted to be shown the trail to Dyea and that he would have $1,000 or be in hell in a few minutes.” The dealers at the Board of Trade Saloon also had encounters with him, saying the unknown man had played blackjack there for about two weeks. It seems that he lost his last $80 at the table one night and then had to sell his gold nugget chain. Jeweler H. D. Kirmse came forward and said he purchased it for $22.50, and then sold it to a Klondiker. Railroaders also came forward to say that the dynamite had been stolen from the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad.
U. S. Commissioner for the District of Skagway J. J. Rogers called together a coroner’s jury composed of Thomas Ray, Theo Johnson, J. M. Moore, Hugh Caswell, and J. Nelson. With Dr. S. D. Cameron as examining physician, the jury found that:
“The deceased is an unknown man of the age of about 35 years, of unknown nationality & occupation; that the deceased came to his death in Skagway, Alaska, on Monday the 15th day of September, 1902; that in our opinion death was caused by the firing of a pistol, which deceased held in his hand discharged, causing the explosion of dynamite, which he was carrying on his person, while engaged in an attempt to blow up and rob the Canadian Bank of Commerce in the said City of Skagway, Alaska, about 3 o’clock p.m. on said day, resulting in wound from which he died about an hour later in the railroad hospital in said City of Skagway.”
The only things found in the man’s pockets were a gold filled watch, a jack knife, a silver dollar, and a yard of ribbon. These items were later sold at auction.
Now this sounds like a pretty straight forward event but there are several mysteries associated with it. The first, of course, is who was the robber? He was obviously a stranger to Skagway because nobody knew his name or where he came from. His escape plan to get to Dyea either in a rowboat or over the rough trail following the telephone line between the two communities indicates a decided lack of knowledge of the area. If he had been successful in the holdup, he would have had to run down the streets of Skagway five blocks to the harbor in order to catch his boat to Dyea or run up 9 blocks to the Bishop Rowe Hospital on 12th Avenue and Alaska Street and then ford the Skagway River somewhere or cross on the wagon bridge at 23rd Avenue, as there is no indication that he had a horse or other connivance available to speed him on his way.
If the robber had made it to Dyea, he would have found a dying town. The Dyea Post Office had closed in June 1902 and so the town was “officially dead” but that doesn’t mean Dyea was deserted. There could have been a half dozen to a dozen people or more taking down derelict buildings and farming the land. The telephone line from Skagway to Dyea was still operating allowing authorities to easily alert individuals in Dyea to be on the lookout for the escaping fugitive. The Dyea townsite was open grass land for the most part and many of the buildings for the former town had already been torn down or moved elsewhere so it was much more difficult for a person to hide then than in the forested area it is today.
If he had tried to escape over the abandoned Chilkoot Trail, he probably could have made it as far as Bennett, British Columbia after sleeping overnight in a derelict building, but finding food at the summit or at any of the abandoned communities along the way would have been unlikely. In addition, the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police would surely have been waiting for him at Bennett having been alerted in Whitehorse of the holdup by telegraph from Skagway. If the robber had tried going south down the Taiya Inlet to Haines or Juneau, he would have faced unpredictable weather in a small open boat with authorities alerted to his coming in both communities by the recently installed underwater telegraph cable. No, this robber if he had lived would have learned what members of Soapy Smith’s gang learned four years earlier after Soapy’s death, that escaping from Skagway is no easy task.
The second mystery involves the whereabouts of the holdup man’s body. This is a rather bizarre tale although well documented. Sometime after the robber’s burial, de Gex, the temporary Skagway branch manager of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, told a story to his friends and fellow bank employees of how he had helped remove the robber’s remains from the coffin at the instigation of a local doctor and then filled the coffin with brickbats and sand to approximate the weight of the body. The body was then taken to the doctor’s medical clinic for study and the coffin to the Gold Rush Cemetery. In support of his story, de Gex passed around one of the robber’s thumbs, preserved in a bottle of alcohol. In 1907, William T. White arrived in Skagway to take up the branch manager’s position at the Canadian Bank of Commerce. He knew about the attempted bank robbery and de Gex’s story. He started making inquiries and after some time found the dynamiter’s remains, reduced to bones in a gunny sack in a photographer’s woodshed. White had the remains cremated in a wood stove except for one or two bones of interest to another local doctor and the skull, which he put in the bank, possibly as a reminder to would be robbers that crime does not pay. When the Canadian Bank of Commerce closed their Skagway branch office in 1910, White gave the skull to Dr. L. S. Keller, a dentist and publisher of the local Daily Alaskan newspaper. Keller, in turn, gave the skull to Martin Itjen for display in his museum, where it stayed until the museum closed its doors around 1926. Exactly where this museum was located, we do not know except that it was not the Soapy Smith’s Parlor Museum which Itjen opened in the late 1930s. There is no evidence that the skull was ever displayed in that museum and the current whereabouts of the holdup man’s skull, the other missing bones, and his possessions, most of which were auction off in 1902, are unknown.
This article was researched and written by Madison Heslop, a volunteer for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in 2012. Information for this program comes from Skagway’s Daily Alaskan newspaper of September 16-19, 1902 (all front page news articles as you would expect), Jeff Brady’s book entitled “Skagway: City of the New Century. The True Story of Skagway, Alaska including the White Pass, Dyea, and the Chilkoot Trail” (2013), Howard Clifford’s book entitled “The Skagway Story” (1975), and T. D. Sanders’ book entitled “William White Writing Home to Dorset from the Yukon” (1990). An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.
• Madison Heslop is a volunteer at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.