Martin and Lucy's career in the Northland

by Frank Norris, Skagway Alaska
Skagway Alaskan, 1986

"The year was 1935 and the golden days of Hollywood were at their height. Movie stars such as Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, and Mae West sat atop Hollywood's throne. People from all over the world flocked to Southern California's movie colony that year, but one of Hollywood's most well-loved visitors hailed from the far-off gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska. That visitor was once a gold miner himself, but years before he had tossed aside his gold pan in favor of other pursuits.

Martin Itjen was his name, and he warrants our attention today because he, and others like him, have been sorely neglected in the tell of Alaska's history. Itjen was a tour guide, the best and most skilled of that breed. When he rode into Hollywood, he was invited to meet Mae West and to tell 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 warm, 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 Itjen, and those that followed his example, who ushered in today's multi-million dollar Alaska visitor industry....Itjen was and unlikely candidate for fame. He was born in Sievern, Germany, a small village in Germany, north of Bremerhaven, in 1870. He emigrated from Germany to South Carolina in 1890 and then settled in Jacksonville, Florida to set up and operate a grocery store. In 1898 he 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 saw it, was to earn a sizeable nest-egg before returning home. But like the majority of the Klondike tide, he never made it to Dawson; instead, he lingered in Skagway awhile, then joined the Atlin stampede.(Atlin was in British Columbia).

He 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 therefore journeyed to Chicago, where he and Lucy were married, and soon afterwards they returned to Skagway. He worked for the railroad for awhile, but when news broke of the Alsek-Kluane gold strikes, he took Lucy north to seek fortune again. ....Over the years, Itjen engaged in a host of jobs, most of which had nothing 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 boarding 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 homes in town and served as a landlord. But despite his many involvements, he lived frugally. The Itjen home, for instance, was fairly modest in size. It was originally located at the north end of the White Pass wharf, the only dock in Skagway which remained active after the gold rush. The house was moved from the wharf to town after the Army took over the dock in the 1940's, and it has recently been moved to 1st and Broadway for restoration by the National Park Service.

Tourists who rode Itjen's streetcar saw the best of Skagway. For 50 cents--25 cents each way, it was advertised-- they got a two-hour tour that featured the town's finest points of interest. The most common questions centered around the Klondike gold rush and the many historical buildings in town. Itjen delighted in describing the old Arctic Brotherhood Hall, the railroad depot, the courthouse and other reminders of the Klondike stampede. But even more, people wanted to know about Soapy Smith, so in response he deluged his customers with stories surrounding the bad man's rise and fall.

In reality Smith was in Skagway for a very short time. Soapy arrived in October, 1897, and he was shot to death nine months later on one of Skagway's wharves. But Itjen glorified Smith before the eyes of the visiting public. He drove his streetcar to the house where Smith's rival, Frank Reid, had lived, and he also took them to the spot where Reid and Smith shot it out. In 1935, Itjen restored Soapy's tavern, converted it into a museum and incorporated it into his tour. The museum had a mannequin of Soapy Smith who held a glass of beer in one hand and a revolver in the other. As guests came 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 town, 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 the tour at the Pullen House, perhaps the best tourist hotel in Alaska at the time. Its owner, Mr. Pullen, loved to tell dramatic stories of the gold rush, and one of her favorites revolved around her supposedly eyewitness account of the Reid Smith shootout. Mrs. Pullen was spellbinder, and never let the truth interfere with a good story. Locals were not allowed to sit in on her many presentations to the assembled tourists. In her own museum were displayed a revolver, a roulette wheel and a hat that had once belonged to the bad man.

Aside from historical aspects, Itjen's tour ran the gamut from the beautiful and educational to the odd and curious. It included stops at several of Skagway's flower gardens--Skagway at the time was the Flower City of Alaska --and tourists were able to view the lovely 300-foot Reid's Falls in back of the cemetery. Here Itjen gave a gold-panning demonstration, using a pea-sized nugget that he had mined in Atlin to show how the process worked.

Itjen was successful because Skagway was not only a major stopping point of the principal tours of Southeast Alaska, but a major transfer point for tourist trips throughout Alaska. After 1920 the Canadian Pacific and International ships stayed in port in Skagway, while passengers headed inland to Lake Bennett, Whitehorse, or Atlin. Of those who took advantage of the extended port stay, Itjen had plenty of customers for his tours.

He further entertained his customers by writing poetry. His verse was witty and homespun; author Archie Satterfield has described him 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 there.
He'll start at nine and takes till noon

To show you Skagway in the Klondike boom.
If you miss this, you have missed it all
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 was 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 West, and pictures of the two of them were printed in more than two hundred newspapers. 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, awe-struck 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. It prominently featured pictures of himself with Mae West standing next to the streetcar, and the words coming out of her mouth are, "come up and see me sometime." Itjen's pamphlet also contains a poem he wrote describing what 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 gals
For I took a solemn vow
That I would never come between
A husband and his frau."

Itjen continued running his streetcar and museum through the summer of 1941. Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War II forced him to shut down his tourist operations, and just a year later, on December 3, 1942, Itjen died. He was 72.

2011 Bob Wieking. All rights reserved