Martin Itjen the Star of the Skagway Streetcar

by Frank Norris, Skagway Alaska

In the golden days of Hollywood  in the mid-1930's movie stars such as Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis and Mae West were the top attractions. People from all over the world flocked to southern California in 1935 to look  at the reigning kings and queens of the silver screen, but one of Hollywood's most notable visitors of the year was a celebrity himself. He came from Skagway, Alaska, and his name was Martin Itjen, the owner of the Skagway Streetcar.

Itjen was the best known of several entrepreneurs in Southeast Alaska who attempted to capitalize on the growing tourist trade to the region in the 1920's. He did it by becoming himself one of Skagway's biggest tourist attractions.

He was born in Austria in 1870, and in 1898 was operating a store in Jacksonville, Florida. He followed  tens of thousands of others that year;, and headed north toward the Klondike gold fields. He was scheduled to be married at the time of the rush, and wanted to earn a sizable nest egg before returning home. Like the majority of Klondikers, he never made it to the Klondike. Instead he lingered in Skagway awhile, then joined the Atlin stampede. He failed in any attempts he tried to get rich quick, but the longer he remained in the North Country, the more he loved it. He therefore returned to Chicago, where he and his fiancee, Lucy, were married.  Son afterward they settled down to life in Skagway.

He worked for the White Pass Railroad for a time, but news came of the Alsek-Kluane gold strikes, he came down with gold fever again. But as before, he had little success as a miner, and by 1905 he and Lucy were settled in Skagway, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Throughout the years Itjen engaged in a host of jobs before he found his true calling. Once he operated an undertaking parlor but as he like to tell his streetcar patrons, Skagway "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 oil and coal deliverer, and the operator of a sawmill.
Itjen's interest in the tourist industry developed slowly over the years. Skagway has enjoyed some summer tourism ever since 1898, and Itjen worked as a hack driver as early as 1915. He like tourists, and had such a facility for describing the area to visitors that his services were in increasing demand on the few summer days when tourist steamers called at Skagway.
As late as 1923 he was still driving his combination truck and coal wagon when President Warren G. Harding arrived in town. Local opinion has it that Itjen, upon hearing the news of the President's arrival, simply washed out the back of his coal wagon, installed some seats, then headed down to the wharf and picked up various members of the President's entourage. It seems that the publicity he received from the visit may have enlightened him to the possibilities of the tourist trade.
Itjen's so-called streetcar, actually a customized Ford or Pontiac holding up to thirty passengers, was a natural outgrowth of his taxi business. Over the years Itjen built four of them.  They were memorable to tourists because his later model featured a stuffed mechanical bear that waved and had glowing eyes. On the rear end of his tour bus, he rigged up a life-sized mannequin of the well-known outlaw "Soapy" Smith;  it featured a puffing cigar as part of the streetcar's exhaust system.
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.
The tour included some more bizarre attractions.  Near the dock was a rock painted black and white with the rather farfetched name of "Soapy Smith's skull."  Near the railroad yards there was a small pond with trout so tame that tourists could feed them small bits of hamburger. By the cemetery was a large chunk of granite that Itjen painted gold. He painted a label on it, "The largest nugget in the world. To  supposedly prevent his massive "nugget" from being stolen, Itjen imbedded a chain into the rock and then hooked the other end onto a nearby sapling. Customers seemed to appreciate his sense of humor.

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.

But Itjen's legacy lives on in Skagway. He is remembered fondly by nearly everyone in Skagway who has lived there long enough to remember him. Although his streetcar was retired, Skagway residents George and Edna Rapuzzi continued to run his Soapy Smith saloon for another thirty years!

2011 Bob Wieking. All rights reserved