Showdown on a Skagway dock

In 1898, the North West Mounted Police had a problem. They were overwhelmed with work. They watched over the well-being of every stampeder on their way to the Klondike.

In 1898, the North West Mounted Police had a problem. They were overwhelmed with work.

They watched over the well-being of every stampeder on their way to the Klondike. They apprehended criminals; they held court and tried those charged with minor offences. They handled, sorted and distributed mail.

They also collected duty on foreign goods entering Canada over the coastal passes and they gathered fees for other mining and timber licences. It was this that led to one of the most dramatic confrontations during the pandemonium of the Klondike Gold Rush.

By the summer of 1898, the Mounties had accumulated large sums of money and gold from various fees and royalties. They had to ship it south as soon as possible, but that meant transporting it to Skagway, where it could be loaded aboard one of the ships docked there. The trouble was that Skagway was notorious for its violence and lawlessness. Soapy Smith and his shifty band of criminal confederates had a well established crime syndicate. The money would have to run the gauntlet through Soapy’s network in order to reach the docks.

Superintendent Sam Steele and Inspector Zachary Taylor Wood were situated in Bennett when, on June 4, Sergeant Pulham brought the order to ship out the money that had been collected from stampeders. With the more than $27,000 Pulham carried with him, that brought the total to $130,000. The assignment to transport the money safely to Victoria fell to Inspector Wood.

Inspector Zachary Taylor Wood was the grandson of the 12th president of the United States, but had grown up in Canada, trained at the Royal Military Academy in Kingston, Ontario, and served as a lieutenant in the 90th Regiment of Infantry in the Riel Rebellion. Appointed an Inspector in the North West Mounted Police in 1885, he had served under the command of Superintendent Steele on the Prairies before coming to the Yukon in October of 1897.

To mislead Smith and his gang, word was discreetly put out that Inspector Wood was being recalled to headquarters, but this ruse was not entirely successful.

Wood departed Bennett the morning of June 9, accompanied by constables Chalmers and Young, carrying the money in ordinary Mounted Police dunnage bags. Due to the dreadful trail conditions on the White Pass route, they chose to go out via the Chilkoot Trail, which meant that they would have to ferry their payload the short distance from Dyea to Skagway by boat.

When they reached the Mounted Police post at the Chilkoot summit, Inspector Belcher gave an additional $94,000 to Wood, bringing the total to nearly a quarter of a million dollars. They lashed the two regulation dunnage bags and two bulging Gladstone bags onto sleds for the journey down from the snow-laden summit.

Wood, accompanied by Sergeant Pringle and Constable Chalmers, struggled over the summit with their precious load. At the Scales, they transferred the load to packhorses, and proceeded to Dyea where they stayed for four days, deeming it safer than Skagway.

Sam Steele’s strategy to mislead Smith’s gang failed. Information from Sergeant Green, who travelled from Skagway to update Inspector Wood on what was happening, revealed that Smith’s gang had cottoned to the nature of Wood’s journey and were shadowing every move the police made. Wood and his men maintained an around-the-clock watch over the money. Tension mounted as they waited impatiently for the arrival of their ship in Skagway. Finally, at 6:30 a.m. on the fourth day, they received news that the S.S. Tartar had docked.

Hurriedly, the three Mounties hauled their precious cargo to a small boat which they rowed to a tug waiting offshore. As they chugged slowly toward Skagway, a party of Smith’s henchmen approached them in a small boat. Pringle and Chalmers shouldered their rifles, and Wood ordered the men to back off. The toughs withdrew to a respectful distance.

The tugboat laid anchor in Skagway harbour. From the hurricane rail of the Tartar, Captain Pybus had armed and arranged his crew, ready for action. The three policemen rowed to the wharf in a small boat, but their troubles were not yet over.

Soapy and more of his gang members waited for the Mounties on the wharf. Climbing onto the dock, Wood, with Gladstone bags in hand and accompanied by Pringle and Chalmers, approached Smith. The mob enclosed them. Wood was face-to-face with the leader of the Skagway underworld.

Things were looking bad for the three resolute policeman, who were encircled by the crowd of Smith associates. Then orders were barked out aboard the Tartar and a squad of heavily armed Royal Navy reservists advanced along the wharf on the quick march. Now backed by a squad of trained military, and the seamen assembled on the hurricane deck of the Tartar, with their rifles trained on the desperados, Wood now had the advantage.

Smith, still standing nose to nose with the inspector, realized that his chance was lost. He backed away from Wood and bowed slightly in “mock courtesy.”

“Why don’t you stop in Skagway for awhile, inspector?” he is quoted as saying. Wood did not reply. The mob parted as the blue-jacketed reservists escorted the policeman along the wharf to the Tartar.

Wood took a brief stroll along the streets of Skagway after the gold and money was safely locked in the ship’s hold, but he did not tarry; the Tartar, with Wood and Constable Chalmers aboard, sailed at one o’clock and arrived safely in Victoria five days later.

That this display of Canadian military force on American soil did not lead to a diplomatic incident is worthy of note, but at the time, the precise location of the international boundary was still being negotiated, and Canada was claiming the saltwater port of Skagway as her own.

Wood was already noted for his “tact and resolution.” This confrontation with the most notorious figure of the Klondike Gold Rush served to consolidate his reputation. He was promoted to Superintendent of “H” Division, and then in 1900, he took over command of the force in the Yukon. He held that position for the next 12 years, during which time he also served as acting commissioner. In 1915, five years after leaving the Yukon, he died and is buried in Kingston, Ontario.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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