Pioneering tourism with Alaska's first streetcar
Aunt Phil's Trunk
September 1, 2022 | View PDF
A three-hour stopover in Skagway in July 1923 by President Warren G. Harding turned into a booming business for one Alaskan sourdough. Martin Itjen, an immigrant who came north from Florida in 1898 to join the stampede in search of riches in the Klondike, took the President on an excursion in a painted coal truck.
After seeing how much Harding enjoyed the tour, the mustached Itjen figured he could make a living off tourism in the famous gold rush city and started the Skagway Streetcar Co.
The local coal delivery man, rooming house operator and undertaker built his first marvel of transportation on a Ford chassis. It resembled a bus and contained fanciful gadgetry.
Itjen, who also became Skagway's first Ford dealer, eventually had four streetcars decked out with oddities to delight and amaze his clientele. One picturesque car carried a bear cub on the front that growled and pointed to the left or right as the car turned. He also had a life-size mannequin of Soapy Smith that performed when Itjen worked a series of foot pedals. It nodded its head, waved a flag, rang a bell and puffed exhaust smoke through a cigarette.
Itjen gave his customers quite a show as he recited poetry, told stories and related humorous anecdotes of Skagway during the gold rush era. He published a booklet to accompany his tour, too. Following is one of his original pieces of poetry:
If you're going to the Klondike
I'll tell you what to do.
Be sure you take a ton of grub,
Or better yet, 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.
After purchasing Soapy Smith's parlor in 1935 and converting it into a museum, Itjen decided to travel to Hollywood and extend an invitation to movie star Mae West to come north. A Seattle newspaper covered his arrival in its fair city:
In Alaska's 'only street car,' the 65-year-old sourdough, who was Skagway's undertaker in the roaring days of the gold rush, has come to the United States to see Mae West, the movie actress.
"I'm just itchin' to see Mae," said Martin Itjen on his arrival here by steamer. "She's got something the others haven't."
His vehicle, unloaded from the steamer, is a bus constructed to resemble a street car. In it he plans to drive to Hollywood to see Mae.
Itjen indeed drove his street car to California and spent two weeks with West, but he couldn't convince her to come north with him to be a hostess on his streetcar.
He returned to Skagway and continued operating the Skagway Streetcar tours. The Soapy Smith Parlor Museum became a highlight of Itjen's tour, with its preserved gold rush era memorabilia. He became, and still is remembered as, the premier leader of Skagway tourism.
The sourdough tour operator died in 1942. In keeping with Itjen's sense of humor, a large rock painted gold sits next to his grave in Skagway. On it is written: "The largest nugget in the world" and "Property of Skagway Streetcar."
This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk," available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.