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
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
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
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:
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