"The year was 1935
and the golden days of Hollywood
were at their height. Movie stars such as Clark Gable, Claudette
Davis, and Mae West sat atop Hollywood's throne. People from all over
flocked to Southern California's movie colony that year, but one of
most well-loved visitors hailed from the far-off gold rush town of
Alaska. That visitor was once a gold miner himself, but years before he
tossed aside his gold pan in favor of other pursuits.
Itjen was his name, and he warrants our attention
today because he, and others like him, have been sorely neglected in
of Alaska's history. Itjen was a tour guide, the best and most skilled
breed. When he rode into Hollywood, he was invited to meet Mae West and
the world about the custom-made bus he called the Skagway Street Car.
But to a
decade or more of Alaskan tourists, he was already well known. He was a
fun-loving and humble man, but despite his "aw-schucks" stile of
humility, he was a pioneer, a harbinger of a new Alaska. It was Martin
and those that followed his example, who ushered in today's
dollar Alaska visitor industry....Itjen was and unlikely candidate for
was born in Sievern, Germany, a small village in Germany, north of
in 1870. He emigrated from Germany to South Carolina in 1890 and then
in Jacksonville, Florida to set up and operate a grocery store. In 1898
decided to follow the tracks of perhaps 100,000 others that
year---north to the
Klondike gold fields. He was engaged at the time, and the idea, as he
was to earn a sizeable nest-egg before returning home. But like the
the Klondike tide, he never made it to Dawson; instead, he lingered in
awhile, then joined the Atlin stampede.(Atlin was in British Columbia).
failed in any attempts he made to get rich quick, but
the longer he remained in the north country, the more he loved it. He
journeyed to Chicago, where he and Lucy were married, and soon
returned to Skagway. He worked for the railroad for awhile, but when
of the Alsek-Kluane gold strikes, he took Lucy north to seek fortune
....Over the years, Itjen engaged in a host of jobs, most of which had
to do with tourism. One of his jobs was operating an undertaking
parlor, but as
he liked to tell his street car patrons, "it was such a healthful place
that I could not keep busy at this work." In addition, he was a
house keeper, a boat builder, the local Ford dealer, the wood and coal
deliverer, and the operator of a small sawmill. He owned a number of
town and served as a landlord. But despite his many involvements, he
frugally. The Itjen home, for instance, was fairly modest in size. It
originally located at the north end of the White Pass wharf, the only
Skagway which remained active after the gold rush. The house was moved
wharf to town after the Army took over the dock in the 1940's, and it
recently been moved to 1st and Broadway for restoration by the National
who rode Itjen's streetcar saw the best of
Skagway. For 50 cents--25 cents each way, it was advertised-- they got
two-hour tour that featured the town's finest points of interest. The
common questions centered around the Klondike gold rush and the many
buildings in town. Itjen delighted in describing the old Arctic
Hall, the railroad depot, the courthouse and other reminders of the
stampede. But even more, people wanted to know about Soapy Smith, so in
response he deluged his customers with stories surrounding the bad
In reality Smith
was in Skagway for a very short time.
Soapy arrived in October, 1897, and he was shot to death nine months
one of Skagway's wharves. But Itjen glorified Smith before the eyes of
visiting public. He drove his streetcar to the house where Smith's
Reid, had lived, and he also took them to the spot where Reid and Smith
out. In 1935, Itjen restored Soapy's tavern, converted it into a museum
incorporated it into his tour. The museum had a mannequin of Soapy
held a glass of beer in one hand and a revolver in the other. As guests
through the front door, the mannequin raised his glass in salute before
shooting "Dangerous Dan McGrew" who was sitting at a nearby card
table. He also restored the old gold-rush cemetery at the north end of
where both Smith and Reid are buried.
If the Skagway
visitors had not yet heard enough about
Smith during the two-hour tour on Itjen's streetcars, they continued
at the Pullen House, perhaps the best tourist hotel in Alaska at the
owner, Mr. Pullen, loved to tell dramatic stories of the gold rush, and
her favorites revolved around her supposedly eyewitness account of the
Smith shootout. Mrs. Pullen was spellbinder, and never let the truth
with a good story. Locals were not allowed to sit in on her many
to the assembled tourists. In her own museum were displayed a revolver,
roulette wheel and a hat that had once belonged to the bad man.
historical aspects, Itjen's tour ran the gamut
from the beautiful and educational to the odd and curious. It included
several of Skagway's flower gardens--Skagway at the time was the Flower
Alaska --and tourists were able to view the lovely 300-foot Reid's
back of the cemetery. Here Itjen gave a gold-panning demonstration,
pea-sized nugget that he had mined in Atlin to show how the process
successful because Skagway was not only a major
stopping point of the principal tours of Southeast Alaska, but a major
point for tourist trips throughout Alaska. After 1920 the Canadian
International ships stayed in port in Skagway, while passengers headed
to Lake Bennett, Whitehorse, or Atlin. Of those who took advantage of
extended port stay, Itjen had plenty of customers for his tours.
entertained his customers by writing poetry.
His verse was witty and homespun; author Archie Satterfield has
as an "intentionally terrible poet" whose poems were so bad they were
good. As an example, Itjen placed the following advertisement for his "
Days of '98 Tour" in the 1919 Skagway Alaskan.”
- Martin with his streetcar for a
fifty cent fare
- Will show you when and show you where
- The High Spots were, for he was
- He'll start at nine and takes till
- To show you Skagway in the Klondike
- If you miss this, you have missed it
- And have not seen Alaska at all.
- Take a bite if you can't take it all.
The more years he
gave his tours and wrote his poetry,
the better-known Itjen became. He had a natural flair for publicity and
written up in several publications.
But his most
successful advertising coup was his famed
Hollywood trip in late February, 1935. He went out to dinner with Mae
pictures of the two of them were printed in more than two hundred
The two made an excellent publicity shot as they posed in front of his
streetcar--she the star of stage and screen, he the eccentric,
Alaskan, sporting his oversized moustache and gold nugget chains.
Itjen wrote his
own pamphlet in 1938 entitled, "The
Story of the Skagway, Alaska, Street-car", which he sold to tourists.
prominently featured pictures of himself with Mae West standing next to
streetcar, and the words coming out of her mouth are, "come up and see
sometime." Itjen's pamphlet also contains a poem he wrote describing
Mae West told him:
- She said to me, "Now Martin,
- If it wasn't for your wife
- I'd take you and your moustache
- For the rest of your sweet life.
- But I'm different from other movie
- For I took a solemn vow
- That I would never come between
- A husband and his frau."
running his streetcar and museum through
the summer of 1941. Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War II forced
shut down his tourist operations, and just a year later, on December 3,
Itjen died. He was 72.