“He Takes ‘em for a Ride”

by Lois Hudson Allen
Alaska Sportsman September, 1940

Martin Itjen of Skagway, Alaska takes people “for a ride” and they like it. But—he takes good pains to “bring ‘em back alive.” For thirty-five years he has met every boat that docked at Skagway during the tourist seasons, has loaded his home-made “Skagway, Alaska, Street Car” with passengers eager to take his two-hour ride over Skagway and learn about the city from Itjen’s humorous and informative lectures. Usually he conducts four, even six tours a day. The bus he uses today accommodates thirty to thirty-five people.

Up and down Skagway’s main streets he takes ‘em—pointing out landmarks of the ‘days of ’98—relating the highlights of Skagway’s enthralling history.

He waves a hand toward Chilkoot Pass and tells his passengers of the hardships endured by the heroes and heroines who scaled the Pass in ’97-98, climbing on steps cut out of the snow, on their way to the golden Klondike.

    He takes them for a ride up the old Brackett Wagon Road which led over the White Pass to Lake Bennett and the Klondike and which was a rival of the Chilkoot Pass route. For twelve miles out of Skagway the old Brackett Road could be traveled by teams, oxen, and dog-teams.

    Typical of Mr. Itjen’s running commentary as he drives along is –“We are now on the old Trail of ’98. All of those who went over the White Pass had got to go over this road. It was a toll road and was called the Brackett Wagon Road. It went as far as White Pass City—nine miles to the  foot of the Summit. From there you had to pack. It is twenty miles from Skagway to the Summit and forty miles to Lake Bennett. From Lake Bennett you can travel around he world in a boat.” A notable amount of information in a few words and the tourist “eat it  up.”

    “How do you pronounce the street car man’s name?” a tourist at the Pullen House asked one of Mr. Pullen’s small sons, one day long ago. Mrs. Pullen was horrified to hear the youngster reply, “Oh, just like itchin’ and scratchin’.” He was right, so far as the “itchin’” was concerned, and no one gets a bigger laugh out of that story than does Mr. Itjen. He is Austrian by birth and a thorough American by adoption (not true! He was born in Dorum, Germany: Bob Wieking 2011).

    Mr. Itjen was running a neighborhood store in Jacksonville, Florida when he decided to seek gold in the Klondike. He was engaged to be married, and quick riches appealed to him. His bride-to-be agreed with him that it would be nice to have a lot of gold so, in the early spring of ’98, he closed out his store and left for the Klondike.

     Martin was sidetracked by a gold rush to Atlin, B.C. He prospected, but his heart wasn’t in it because there was no recorder there to record mining claims, and if a man was lucky enough to make a big strike he would certainly be unlucky enough to have his claim jumped by main force and would have no legal redress. That had happened several times to finders of rich lodes and, there being no promise of a recorder coming to Atlin, Mr. Itjen with other prospectors returned to Skagway.

    The White Pass Railroad was under construction from Skagway to Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, and the Florida storekeeper got a job at laying track. His letters to his sweetheart were such wails of loneliness that she proposed she should join him. That met with his approval. Immediately he set about preparing a home for Lucille.

    Lots in Skagway were selling for $2,500, up. Not for Martin! He picked out a plot of unclaimed land on the tide flats and got permission to front on Moore’s wharf, now the White Pass wharf. He erected pilings that stand fifteen feet above the ground—I don’t know how far into the ground—but they have stood for forty years while the tides pounded them twice each day. He built a platform over the pilings and mounted a tent on it. He built a four-room cabin around the tent. The roof of the bedroom-living room is the shape of that tent-top.

    After getting his home in order he went to Chicago where Lucille, properly chaperoned on the long trip from Florida, met him and they were married. They returned to Skagway to live a busy and thrillingly interesting life. They own lots and houses in Jacksonville to this day, but prefer to live in the golden North.

    The bride still thought there was “something” in gold mining. She thought her Martin perhaps had not given it a thorough trial. He thought so himself and they joined the Burwash stampede for gold, into the Kluane Lake district. They bought a horse and light wagon at Whitehorse and set off practically across country.

    “The covered wagon,” Mrs. Itjen said, was equipped with a stove, a bunk, a few dishes and our food supplies. The road was little better than a trail, very bumpy and beset with willows. I sat on the bunk with a needle for sewing canvas always threaded. When a vicious willow branch would tear a hole in the canvas top, I would sew a patch on it.” ”And you have to hand it to Lucy, “interposed Mr. Itjen, with pride in his voice, “because she tackled that job forty times a day and didn’t once complain.” “Complain!” exclaimed Mrs. Itjen. “I was having the time of my life!”

    She brought out a weird contraption made of wire and asked, “Do you know what this is?” I didn’t. “That is one of two dozen clothespins that Martin made for me after he had tracked down his shirts and socks which had often been blown through canyons and valleys and over glaciers, on my washdays. My, but I was proud of those clothespins—the first I ever owned.”

    They lived in a tent at Burwash. When the temperature went to sixty below the girl from Florida thought it was cold. They did well in Burwash and Mr. Itjen still treasures his assay office receipts for gold as something good to look at on a blue day. They preferred Skagway as a winter resort and returned to their home on the dock after a year at Burwash.

    They purchased a stock of canned goods, candles, tobaccos and fruit and opened a store in their front room, which opened onto the dock. They arranged to sell newspapers from the States, and Lucille made sandwiches and coffee to sell, and tended store. Martin again worked for the Railroad.

    In 1902, a big scow drifted into Lynn Canal on the high tide and was anchored on the tide flats not far from the Itjens. Martin visited the scow and  found a man, alone, cutting up an enormous whale. He watched with interest the process of extracting oil from the whale, blubber, whalebone and steaks—everything that could be turned into money. On the day when there was nothing left of the whale but a bad smell, he asked the captain-and-crew of the scow if he cared to sell the scow.
    “Yes,” said the man, “what will  you give me for it?”
“What will you take for it?”

    The net result of the trading that ensued between the two experts at dickering was that Martin obtained the scow for one hundred dollars. Home he went, and told Lucille.

     “What on earth are you going to do with that big scow?” she inquired. He told her just what he planned to do. She was enthusiastic.

    Mr. Itjen erected more pilings adjoining their home and, all by himself, raised that scow onto the pilings with home-made jacks and pulleys. He renovated the scow and built two double bunks, single sleeping places for four persons in each of the eight cabins that the scow contained. The captain’s deluxe cabin was made over into a reading, card, and recreation room, heated by a huge pot-bellied coal stove. Then the erstwhile scow was opened to the traveling public as the Bay View House.

    Everyone has heard of the high prices charged at Skagway and Dawson in the days of ’98. Believe it or not, the young Itjens charged just twenty-five cents night for a bed. If he had no bedding, the Itjens cheerfully supplied him at no extra cost.

    It has always been the Itjen theory that “enough is enough” to charge for anything.

    They bought dressers, beds, tables, chairs, carrying, in five or six trips in as many days, as much as their boat would hold. Mrs. Itjen says that she will never forget the mystical beauty of those trips. Frequently they were on Lynn Canal at three or four o’clock in the morning, with summer daylight all night.

    Later, they learned that the man whom they paid for the furniture had no right to sell it. He had just walked into an abandoned hotel and conducted a successful sale for a week or two.

    Of course, the young Itjens met all kinds of people while operating the Bay View House. They told me of one incident that was etched sharply in their memories:

    One young fellow, who stopped at the hotel on his way to the Klondike, was so homesick for his native New England that he tried to drown his sorrow in hard liquor. He drank until pink elephants paraded before him. While taking care of his sick and homesick guest, Mr. Itjen who had been puzzled as to where all the whiskey came from, one day surprised an errand boy receiving a $50 bill for delivering a quart of whiskey. He thereupon moved a sizable roll of money from under his guest’s pillow to his own strong-box, for safe-keeping.

    That night, the sick and staggering guest appeared in the Itjen bedroom and demanded whiskey and company. Mrs. Itjen made a pallet-bed for him and Mr. Itjen made a toddy. He sweetened it mildly, but when the toddy was tendered to the guest, the guest demanded more sugar. Mr. Itjen obligingly threw in a heaping teaspoonful.

    The guest drank it, but shuddered. Over and over again that night, he roused Mr. Itjen and demanded more toddy. Each time the sick man drank the toddy he said, “Ugh-h-h!” shuddered, and demanded more sugar until Mr. Itjen was pouring three and four teaspoonfuls of sugar in the cup.

    Next morning the Itjens saw that their guest was really ill-so Mr. Itjen went for the one Skagway doctor. While the doctor was visiting his patient, Mrs. Itjen was working in her kitchen and noted a sugar bowl which she seldom used, on the kitchen table. A most unhappy thought struck her.

    “Martin,” she said, “is this the sugar bowl from which you got the sugar for that poor man’s toddy?”

    “Yes,” said Mr. Itjen, “why?”

    “Oh Martin, Martin!” she cried. “No wonder he shuddered and groaned. That is Epsom salts in this sugar bowl.”

    “Such a place to keep salts!” said Mr. Itjen.

    They calculated the number of teaspoonfuls of salts the sick man had swallowed with the half-dozen toddies he drunk during the night and were appalled.

    “Oh, Martin, Martin!” Lucy cried. “We have probably killed him.”

    Martin thought they probably had and he patted Lucy’s shoulder and said, “there, there.” When the doctor came out of the bedroom, they awaited his pronouncement with dread. A vision of the gallows hovered over them. But the doctor smiled.

    “He’s a pretty sick man,” the doctor said, “but he’ll come out of it all right. Just give him a big dose of Epsom salts!”

    After the affairs of the Bay View House had settled down into a routine business that Lucy could handle, Martin bought a hack of the barouche type. Trips in his hack became so much in demand, since they were accompanied by descriptive lectures in Martin’s inimitable style, that the “Skagway, Alaska, Street Car” was a natural evolution. Mr. Itjen, by himself, has built four street-cars. He has been Skagway’s Ford agent since the time of Ford, A.D., so he mounted the cars on Ford chassis.

    Martin is a wizard with electricity. The most picturesque of the cars he has built carried a bear cub on the front, the bear growling, and pointing to the right or the left when the car turned. A little manikin on the front was operated by a foot pedal. He nodded his head, waved a flag, rang a bell with his left foot and the exhaust of the engine came out through a cigarette in his mouth.

    The next car was larger, as the patronage required. Another bear rode on the front and a life-sized effigy of the ill-famed “Soapy” Smith on the back operated electrically to salute, at regular intervals, in military fashion.

    “The bear,” Mr. Itjen says, “is another creation from the products of Henry Ford. It consists of one Ford starter, two ring gears, two Bendix drives, two spindle bolts, one horn, one auto wheel, one switch, two headlight bulbs, and a few braces, hooks, levers and bolts, all concealed in a bear hide.”

    Of course, this ensemble on a street car, standing on the dock when the boats came in, provoked a mad rush for the street car. Everybody wanted to take a ride with Mr. Itjen, Soapy, and the bear.

    The White Pass Railroad, which owns the dock, promotes a railroad trip into Canada and evidently saw, in Mr. Itjen, a formidable rival. A “crabby Hinglish huffical huv 30 years ago” ruled Mr. Itjen and his street car off the dock. Mr. Itjen scratched his head. His car was his livelihood.

    By that time, three of Skagway’s four docks had been abandoned, so Mr. Itjen bought himself a dock; the old Sylvester dock, about a mile long. It didn’t connect with the White Pass dock but ran to within a hundred feet of it. He made a stationary car and ran it out to the end of the dock. There it stands today. At its windows are effigies of Klondike’s Liz and Lou, and Mag and Rose, and Pete and Bill. He dubbed them “Soapy Smith’s Gang” and stationed a bell-ringing grizzly bear in front of the car. When the boats came in, the bell-ringing bear, operated by a button placed somewhere uptown, certainly called attention to the Skagway, Alaska Street car ride.

    Mr. Itjen waited for passengers at the town end of the dock.

    The boat’s passengers would bolt for the car which depicted Soapy Smith’s gang but were caught up short when they found that there was about 100 feet of deep, deep sea between them and the car. The White Pass “hufficial” saw that that would never do. Someday some tourist might enthusiastically step off into the drink, so they invited Mr. Itjen to bring his car back to the boats.

    Mr. Itjen begins his personally-conducted tours by saying, “Now, folks.” and goes on from there. Right away, they feel homey. He takes them on the ramble over the long dock, (the White Pass dock is seven-eights of a mile long) and presently they arrive at Jeff Smith’s Parlor, which they enter.

    “You’re right. Jeff Smith was “Soapy.” Mr. Itjen bought Jeff’s parlor, the real parlor, and restored it in 1935. In it is the bar with its foot rail. There, are the gambling machines of the days of ’98. Better still, there is another life-sized effigy of Soapy standing at the bar with one foot on the rail, a schooner of beer in his left hand, a gun in the right one.

    When the front door opens (Mr. Itjen’s electrical wizardry again), Soapy raises the schooner of beer in salute to the incoming visitors, then turns and very deliberately shoots Dangerous Dan, sitting at a card table in the rear of the “parlor.” Poor Dan! He gets shot a half-dozen times every day, Sundays included, during the tourist season.

    If, up to this point, any tourist feels that he is being “gypped” on this ride with Mr. Itjen, Soapy’s startling performance changes his mind and he decides that he has had his entire fifty cents worth upon entering Jeff Smith’s Parlor.

    The Itjens collect Alaskana. On display at Jeff Smith’s Parlor are hundreds of newspapers of the days of ’98, the more valuable ones protected by glass, many more of them pasted on the wall so that everyone may read them. There are editions which carry special news of interest of the old days- of The Klondike Nugget, The Dawson News, The Dyea Trail, The Skaguay Daily Alaskan, The Skaguay Guide. Yes, Skagway was spelled Skaguay (the Thlinget Indian spelling) in the days of ’98.

    Mr. Itjen has added a room to Jeff Smith’s Parlor in which he displays two magnificent bull moose whose horns were locked during a battle, something frequently reported, but seldom seen. They are mounted to stand over simulated tundra. Skagway mountain scenes are painted on the walls around them. Mr. Itjen spent several thousand dollars to provide this extra attraction for his ride customers, Jeff Smith’s Parlor being free of admission charge. In this room is also mounted a malamute sled dog of a size so large it is unbelievable unless you see him.

    After building four street cars or buses, creating two Soapy Smiths with electrical innersprings; three performing bears and the numerous “ladies” and “gents” of Soapy Smith’s Gang in the advertising car, also Dangerous Dan, the gambler, Mr. Itjen looked around for further outlet for his talent for making good-looking manikins.

    He made an effigy of a buxom lass, attired her in a pink dress, clapped a blonde wig on her head, and sat her down under the electric light in the men’s room of Jeff Smith’s Parlor. Imagine the consternation of the rich men, poor men, beggarmen, thieves, doctors, lawyers, merchants, thieves who are confronted by a sweetly smiling jezebel when they enter the men’s room.

    Some men emerge with much speed, much to Mr. Itjen’s secret delight, but most of them readily recognize the fixed smile of the “lady” for the hoax that it is. Perhaps they first chuck her under the chin. Perhaps they enjoy the joke for, so far, Mr. Itjen has escaped assault with a deadly weapon.

    The remainder of the ride is punctuated with bursts of laughter from the men and demands to know “what happened?” on the part of the women. Mr. Itjen’s passengers may not have spoken to each other during the long boat trip from Settle, but once they are gathered together under the roof of the Skagway, Alaska, Street Car, they become buddies.

    “You have always been of a more or less inventive turn of mind, haven’t you Mr. Itjen?, I said.

    “Oh, yes,” he agreed, “and the extraordinary success of my first invention surprised nobody so much as it surprised me.” He told me about it.

    “In the days when I was running the store in Jacksonville, I had one of those old-fashioned drawer tills in which I kept my money. Money would disappear from it, now and then, and when I had had enough of that, and not much help from the Jacksonville Police, I invented a way to catch my thief.”

    “I rigged up a device of wire attached to the trigger of a shot gun, and ran the wire along the counter to the door just high enough above the floor so that an intruder would be sure to trip on it. This would pull the trigger and scatter buckshot hither and yon.

    “On the night this invention was ready for use, I set it, then took my girl to a clam bake not far from the store. In the course of the evening, some fellows got into a fight and one was cut up considerably, especially on the inner part of one arm. Blood spurted from the wound at a height that seemed to me, at the time, about fifty feet. “I got terribly excited and rushed to my store for first-aid material, forgot all about my man-trap, tripped on the wire, and got a load of buckshot. My first invention worked perfectly!”

    While Mr. Itjen is a showman whom Barnum would have loved; a genius with electricity whom Edison would have enjoyed knowing; he is, above everything else, a top-notch advertising man. Along in the 1930’s he accepted Mae West’s invitation  to “come up and see me sometime.” Only—he went down to see Mae, taking his street car with him.

    From the time the Skagway,Alaska, Street Car was unloaded from the boat at Seattle, during his drive from Seattle to Hollywood and on the return trip, he was besieged by people who wanted to know all about Alaska and the Skagway, Alaska, Street Car.

    When he reached Hollywood, Mae entered into the spirit of the plot and Mae and Martin and the Street Car were subjects of countless photographs. Mae was at the heyday of her popularity at that time. Post cards of Mae, in a slinky black velvet dress and a “picture hat,” with Martin and his gold-nugget  watch-chain and longhorn(as he calls it) moustache, standing by the home-made street car, sold like hot cakes and financed the entire trip.

    The “doings of Mae and Martin” received so much notice in the southern California newspapers that Mr. Itjen was lucky to find Mrs. Itjen at home when he got back to Skagway. He admits that he was “some worried” and that he took the precaution to throw his hat into the front room before he attempted to enter.

    Mr. and Mrs. Itjen still live on the dock, in a more modern home than was the Bay View House. It is across the dock from the old Bay View House, about half a block nearer Skagway’s business section. Two picturesque front windows of the newer home are porthole windows taken from the old scow.

    When Mr. Itjen takes his street car passengers past his home he says: ‘The President of the Skagway, Alaska, Street Car lives here. There are better places—but not for the President of the Skagway, Alaska, Street Car’ There is only one Martin Itjen. Canny, charitable, clever Martin Itjen!
September, 1940

© 2011 Bob Wieking. All rights reserved