Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
For nearly 40 years, a short, slight German man met new arrivals at Skagway on their way off the boats. Before the visitors could reach land, they endured a spiel on services best provided by him in addition to other local recommendations. He offered them a ride to their lodgings and wiggled his bushy walrus-like mustache while boasting of his connections to history. Gold nuggets sparkled on his watchchain. In one way, he was a rare relic, a member of the Klondike gold rush who stuck around. In another way, he was ahead of his time, tapped into the future. He was Martin Itjen, Alaska’s first proper tour guide.
Martin Georg Itjen was born in 1870, in the small German town of Sievern, in Lower Saxony, not far from the North Sea. In 1885, he and his older brother, Henry, arrived in New York City, spent some time in South Carolina, and finally settled down in Jacksonville, Florida. He might have remained there, unnoticed by history, if not for the Klondike gold rush. He ran a store and, with his fiancée, lived a comfortable life. However, comfortable was no match for supposedly easy fortunes waiting in the Yukon goldfields.
With his future wife’s agreement, he closed the store and headed toward Alaska, accompanied by his brother. Per his account, he arrived in Skagway on July 4, 1898, a momentous time in the town’s brief history. Gangster and conman Jefferson “Soapy” Smith was an honorary marshal in that Fourth of July parade. Skagway was his base of operations, and he had the town rigged in his favor though his time was running out. Four days later, Smith died in a shootout on a wharf.
Skagway was a key waypoint to the Klondike, the start of the White Pass, or Dead Horse Trail, to the Yukon River headwaters. In the summer of 1898, during the peak of the gold rush, there were as many as 10,000 people in the town. By 1900, the population was down to 3,117 and below a thousand residents by 1910. In his 1959 book “Friendly Feudin’: Alaska vs. Texas,” Texan humorist Boyce House declared, “The most famous event in the history of Alaska was the Klondike gold rush. And the Klondike isn’t even in Alaska; it’s in Canada!” Though more than a century has passed, the gold rush boom times remain the most significant period in Skagway history, and Soapy Smith towers as its near mythological main character.
When Itjen arrived in Skagway, the readily apparent and harsh reality of the gold rush crushed his prospecting ambitions. Reaching the Klondike was too difficult and expensive, and all the best areas were long since claimed. Very few people left the Yukon with more money than when they arrived. Smart enough to read the situation, he only intermittently tried prospecting in his early years in the north. He notably found a “nugget worth $50.50″ in 1905, per the Skagway Daily Alaskan. Fifty dollars then would very roughly be $1,700 in 2023 money.
Itjen instead made his way in Alaska by hustling. When existing homes were expensive and rare in Skagway, he and his wife built a house on a previously unwanted plot of tide flat land near a wharf. Tall pilings lifted them above the muck. He then bought a barge, placed it on more pilings, and converted it into the Bay View House, the cheapest hotel in town. The eight-room hotel and occasional prospecting were not enough to make a living, so he was an undertaker, operated a delivery and taxi service, and sold coal, gasoline, and second-hand wood around town.
Most gold rush fortune hunters limped home, wiser if not richer for the experience. Despite their struggles and the properties they still owned in Florida, the Itjens remained in Alaska. Even the death of Henry from tuberculosis in 1908 did not deter them.
The first documented tourists in Skagway, like Itjen, arrived in July 1898. Even as the town dwindled from its heyday, visitors continued to come, drawn by the scenery and romanticized history. By 1905, Itjen was greeting each new ship as it docked. At first, he simply offered his services in whatever way might separate tourist from dollar. As most of the residents present during the days of the gold rush moved on, Itjen was increasingly asked to speak about the old-timey days, something the natural raconteur was delighted to offer.
The impromptu lectures became a routine and, by the early 1920s, were part of a tour. The mechanically inclined Itjen built a tour bus on a Ford chassis, then built three more, which he called streetcars. Like a theme park engineer wanting to make Walt Disney proud, he added animatronic elements, far outstripping any other manufactured tourist attraction in Alaska. Each streetcar was unique, but the most outlandish edition featured a bear attached to the front that could signal a turn. His eyes would light up, and mouth open at the push of a button. At the back was a life-sized Soapy Smith mannequin that could nod and wave. Itjen further connected it to the streetcar’s exhaust so that it looked like it was smoking.
The streetcars were not the only example of his showmanship. He recited poetry, legends, and history mingled together into an extraordinary show. At the town cemetery, he painted a boulder yellow and labeled it as the “largest nugget in the world.” A heavy chain anchored the stone, as he explained to the chuckling tourists, so that no one would steal it. He bought and refurbished Smith’s parlor, his Skagway base, into a museum featuring another animatronic of the gangster. Inside the men’s restroom there, he placed a female mannequin that startled many male visitors into a quick exit. Itjen also wrote and self-published a companion book, then released a record, a veritable one-man media empire. One of his poems declared:
If you’re going to the Klondike I’ll tell you what to do,
Be sure you take a ton of grub,
Or better yes, take two.
For you’ll find that you’ll be hungry,
Morning, noon and night,
And you’ll soon have what the people
Call a Klondike appetite.
Though Skagway was and is a small town, an Itjen tour lasted a full two hours. It also cost 50 cents, though tourists got something close to their money’s worth from the experience. In 1953, Bob Atwood of the Anchorage Daily Times opined, “The late Martin Itjen gained national fame by doing the impossible in Skagway. He conducted a two-hour tour of that city, which has hardly more than a colorful history and the grave of Soapy Smith.”
Still, Itjen wanted more, more fame, customers, and money. In early 1935, he loaded one of his streetcars on a boat and ventured down to Seattle. From there, he drove to California, a journey that took four months before he completed his goal to meet notoriously buxom movie starlet Mae West. As Itjen told the press, “But don’t tell my wife, she might not like it.”
West saw the publicity potential and posed for a series of photographs published in stories across the country. Reporters enjoyed Itjen’s quick wit and country charm. The Alaskan told the Bakersfield newspaper, “I came down in the winter because I’m the undertaker in Skagway and up there the ground is frozen too hard to have any funerals this time of year. I’ll have to get back before the middle of May, though, because the ground will thaw, and I’ve got several citizens who are scheduled to buried at that time.”
Between the gold rushes and strategic importance revealed during World War II, Alaskans were hungry for relevance, and an Alaskan meeting a genuine celebrity, even if not in Alaska, was headline news. Already well known in the territory, Itjen became Alaska famous. He told the Alaska press, “They all laughed at me when I boarded the steamer with my street car! But they’re not laughing now when I’m back with all this,” gesturing to his collection of press clippings and photographs.
Back in Alaska, Itjen said, “Yes sir, Mae is a swell little girl, and I had a great time. From Skagway to Agua Caliente, I saw all the sights, played the theatres, talked on the radio, told ‘em about the gold rush days, stayed three weeks at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and had the best time I’ve had in 36 years. Now I’m taking the street car back to Skagway and start telling it to the tourists for the summer.”
A year later, Mae West coincidentally starred in “Klondike Annie,” which has nothing to do with the Klondike despite the title. She played a woman who escapes to Nome after killing a man in self-defense.
Itjen died from a lingering illness in 1942 and was buried next to the giant gold nugget. He was Alaska’s first true tour guide, a man who saw the potential for a then nascent industry.
“Alaska Street Car Has ‘Mummy’ Conductor.” Popular Mechanics, January 1937, 88.
“Alaskan Eager to See Actress.” Bakersfield Californian, February 20, 1935, 8.
Allen, Lois Hudson. “He Takes ‘Em for a Ride.” Alaska Sportsman, September 1940, 14-15, 22-27.
“Death of Henry Itjen.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, December 7, 1908, 1.
House, Boyce. Friendly Feudin’: Alaska vs. Texas. San Antonio: Naylor Company, 1959.
Itjen, Martin. The Story of the Tour on the Skagway, Alaska Street Car. Skagway: N.p, 1938.
“The Hub for Tourist Travel.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 18, 1953, 6.
“Itjen’s Most Prized Picture.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, May 4, 1935, 1.
“Mae West Is a Lady Says Martin Itjen After Visit.” Nome Daily Nugget, June 19, 1935, 1.
“Martin Itjen Passes Away.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, December 4, 1942, 1.
“Skagwayan Finds Big Nugget.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, August 21, 1905, 3.