Monday, February 18, 2013

The Skagway Street Cars

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Courtesy of Candy Waugaman
Alaska's automotive history is full of colorful characters, most notably Robert Sheldon. Skagway pioneer Martin Itjen, however, surely deserves to be among the top five. Itjen was born in Dorum, Germany and came to Skagway by way of Florida for the Klondike gold rush in 1898. After unsuccessful attempts at prospecting and then working for the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, he started an undertaking business. In his spare time he ran Skagway's first hack, which doubled as a taxi and coal delivery service.

Itjen was also Skagway's Ford Dealer and worked as a boat builder, boarding house keeper, and sawmill operator. It's possible that Itjen's first automobile was the Veerac light delivery truck pictured at right. In one of his tour books he claimed it was the "first gasoline car in Skagway," even though Sheldon's runabout predated it by several years. This truck probably helped inspire Itjen to expand his hack service, and around 1923 he built a "street car" from a Packard and began giving tours of the gold rush town. Well-known for his enthusiastic stories about Skagway and its characters, Itjen was also described as a warm, humble and inventive man with a knack for poetry.
Courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush NHP, Rapuzzi Collection

For 50 cents, Itjen provided a two-hour tour of Skagway's points of interest, including the wharf where Soapy Smith was shot to death. He built up to four street cars. One had an effigy of Soapy Smith that saluted on command and blew the bus exhaust out his cigar. Another had a growling, animatronic bear mounted on front that signaled with the appropriate paw when the bus turned (you can see a video of it in our museum).

Courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush NHP,
Rapuzzi Collection

In 1935, Itjen took one of his buses to Hollywood as a publicity stunt to promote Skagway tourism. He boldly called on Mae West to "come up and visit me sometime," and she did! Photos of the pair appeared in more than 200 newspapers around the country, and Itjen paid for his entire trip from selling postcards of them together. Itjen continued to run a street car in Skagway until the onset of Word War II forced him to shut down the business in 1941. He died the following year.

Courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush NHP,
Rapuzzi Collection
Itjen collected numerous Alaska artifacts and passed these on to his good friend and fellow collector, George Rapuzzi (shown at right with Street Car #1). In 2007, the Rasmuson Foundation purchased the Rapuzzi collection and donated it to the Municipality of Skagway. The Skagway Museum and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park have been carefully inventorying the collection ever since. In October they identified a 1908 Packard engine as belonging to Street Car #1, which is also in their collection.

Martin Itjen may be long gone, but his legacy lives on through the current Skagway Street Car Tour. If you're ever in Skagway, don't miss it!

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.

Street Car #2 (built on a Ford chassis)

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