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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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,
“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
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
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
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 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
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
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
“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
“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!