Jeff Smith’s Parlor is set to open in Skagway on April 30. The museum will feature thousands of Klondike Gold Rush-era artifacts, bringing visitors and locals back to the wild days in the Gateway to the Klondike.
Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith was perhaps the most notorious character in the motley crew that dominates history books about the Klondike Gold Rush.
“So, he was involved in prostitution, gambling and he was involved in a several saloons, but he was also involved in some interesting cons.”
That’s Karl Gurcke, a historian with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. Gurcke says Soapy Smith came to Skagway in 1897 with no intention of staking a claim in Dawson City. He simply saw a chance to make a fast buck off hopeful, gold-seeking Cheekchakos.
Gurcke says one of his most famous scams was his telegraph company. Weary would-be gold miners could send messages and, if needed, money home. Smith would charge for each message out and each message received.
“Of course, as it turns out, that the telegraph wires just went a little bit beyond the house. They never went down to Seattle, so it was all a con.”
His nickname ‘Soapy’ also came from a con. He sold soap with the lure of a $10-bill wrapped inside, causing a frenzy. Of course, there was no money, and Smith’s soap stand was long gone when the mob came to protest. Remnants from those days and much more are set to be housed in the renovated museum, opening in May.
Ben Hayes is chief of interpretation and education at the Klondike Gold Rush Historic Park. The Park Service has been working since 2008 to restore the old parlor and refurbish a large collection of artifacts.
The building dates back to 1897 when it was built to house the Bank of Skagway.
“In 1898, it was leased to Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith, who ran his con artist … his gang of nefarious people who were fleecing some of the stampeders from that very building until he was killed in a gun fight on July 8, 1898,” says Hayes.
The building served several different purposes over the decades, including as a bar, a French restaurant, and the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department’s Hook and Ladder Co. garage. Long after the death of Skagway’s top con man, the building was acquired by a German tour promoter. It became Jeff Smith’s Parlor museum in the late ‘30s and, back then, was even complete with working robots.
“Like robotic Jefferson Smith who would stand at the bar and greet you when you came in,” says Hayes. “He had a gun in one hand and a beer in the other. There’s this guy in the corner sitting, his name is Dangerous Dan McGrew, he kind of looks like Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses. He would greet you as well and then there was Lady Lou in the restroom, who, when you open the door would scream at you.”
When the overhauled museum opens in the spring it will include those old robots, though they’re past their gun-waving, bathroom-screaming primes.
“Unfortunately, at over 80 years old, we can’t operate them, but we did some interesting work with the community to figure out how they once worked, including we took them over to the Dahl Memorial Clinic and had the m X-rayed to figure out, without taking apart these handmade, delicate machines, how they functioned,” says Hayes.
The building was moved in 1963 to its current location on 2nd Avenue, across from the Red Onion Saloon. Hayes says refurbishing it has been a painstaking process.
“This building helped preserve that legacy and build a legend.”
The collection that came with the building includes 450,000 items. It was acquired, along with the building, by George and Edna Rapuzzi after the original museum proprietor died in the ‘40s. The Rapuzzis ran the museum in the ’60s and ‘70s. It then went to the Rasmuson Foundation, which transferred it to the Park Service and the Borough of Skagway in 2008.
Tours of the museum will be guided and cost $5. The fee to enter helps with cost recovery, Hayes says. The Park Service held a community forum last month in Skagway so people could weigh in on the decision to charge for a tour. The comment period is open until the end of January. But, Hayes adds that 19 free days are planned over the summer, including the entire first week of May and a week in mid-August when the Park Service celebrates its centennial.
Hayes and Gurcke agree that the rough and tumble Gold Rush history is still very much alive in Skagway, and with the opening of the revamped museum, visitors and locals will be able to experience it for themselves, without the menacing con men, of course.
For more information about Jeff Smith’ Parlor or to comment on the entry fee, click here.