Southeast in Sepia: Skagway tourism

Tourism in Southeast Alaska dates back to the 1880s with cruises up the Inside Passage to see the varied sights. By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush tourism was a well-established business in the region. Probably the very first tourists to visit Skagway were on the steamer Queen, which arrived in Skagway’s harbor on the afternoon of July 26, 1897. The Queen carried an estimated 200 stampeders and 230 tourists. What an interesting perspective they must have had seeing the birth of a new town in the midst of a wild gold rush stampede.


Almost exactly one year later, another group of tourists got front page billing in Skagway’s Daily Alaskan newspaper of July 25, 1898. The headlines for this story read: “Summer Tourists Come to Skaguay, They Ride Up the Railroad and are Enchanted. They see the Nuggets. And Could Say Nothing Too Good of this Lovely City and the Wealth of Gold Back of it.” In an extraordinarily long article running a full column and a half the unnamed newspaper reporter relates the story of this tourist party numbering 60 that started out from Boston on June 29. The party was gotten up by G. S. Houghton, the principal of a boy’s school there. The reporter goes on to state that:

“It only needed a few brass bands and a few more flags to give the city yesterday the appearance of a National holiday. There were the Yukoners in their rough but often picturesque clothes in contrast with fashionably-dressed professors and capitalists from cultured Boston, and handsome women, wearing the latest creations of Worth and Felix and Redfern. …

“And how those excursionists did enjoy themselves. They never expected to see so large a city… they expected to find here [only] tents and log cabins and temporary business buildings, they said. And the ladies were met here by friends as refined and well dressed as themselves, which was another surprise. Yes, they had heard of the railroad, some of the gentlemen said, but they thought of it but as another scheme gotten up to catch the unwary. … But they were invited to take a free excursion in the direction of the Klondike on the railroad, and the Yukoners in town … who had braved all the hardships of the interior and returned rosy and hearty and burdened with gold, were invited to accompany them. The ride on the new railroad was one thing; to meet and talk to these brave men of whom they had read so much was another and perhaps a keener enjoyment.

“Engineer Hawkins, Mr. Whiting and in short, the whole of the railroad officials took pleasure in welcoming the excursionists and in preparing the trip up the line. Temporary seats were placed on three box cars [probably flat cars I suspect], and on these about one hundred and fifty people were comfortably seated. These included many of the Yukoners [and], some leading citizens who in other ways entertained the visitors…. The train pulled out just before noon and proceeded as far as the rails are laid, where most of the passengers then alighted and walked a distance along the road bed… On their return to the city the tourists were shown specimens of gold dust and nuggets, and the ladies especially were in ecstasies. When they boarded the City of Seattle again, they were gleefully exchanging their experiences with the miners and some who had been able to purchase nuggets as souvenirs were much envied. … Mr. Houghton said he should come again next year, with a party that would surprise us.”

Whether Mr. Houghton came to visit a second time is unknown but by 1900 Skagway was ready to organize the first annual city wide systematic cleanup day to help beautify the city for the coming tourist season. In addition, the Daily Alaskan of May 12, 1900 reported that:

“The railroad expects to do a very large business in summer travel this season. It has extensively advertised the magnificent scenery of its road all over the United States and also in Europe, and the rich people of the east have only two propositions before them this season, the one being the new land of gold, Alaska, with all the romance of its glaciers and snow clad peaks, interwoven with the hardships and adventures and the glamour of gold hunting; and the Paris Exposition. Nearly all of them have been to Paris time and time again: few have visited Alaska; and as the tendency is to get away from the beaten track, to travel in the lands comparatively little known and view the natural objects that have not become hackneyed by continual description, the chances are that the railroad will find its enormous disbursement for advertising Alaska a paying investment.”

A couple of weeks later in the Daily Alaskan of May 26, 1900 we find that:

“… the White Pass & Yukon road has prepared two new observation cars, and will build at least two more. Last season the company had nothing better … than flat cars with rough improvised seats and no roof over the car. The new cars will each seat forty passengers with comfort, and are provided with a roof and canvas sides which may be let down or up at pleasure.”

By 1908, tourists were visiting the grave site of the infamous Soapy Smith resulting in the inevitable. The Daily Alaskan of July 20, 1908 exclaims that:

“The headstone [actually headboard] over the grave of “Soapy” Smith has been carried away – stolen. Jack Keller visited the grave yesterday and only a hole in the ground remained where he had seen the headstone [on] a visit …Wednesday last… The head piece was a simple wooden slab bearing the inscription: Jefferson R. Smith Aged 38 Died July 8, 1898. The grave is at the south edge of the Skagway burying ground and is largely overgrown with shrubbery. There has been a constant stream of visitors to the place all spring and summer evidencing the interest felt in the outlaw and the tragedy of his taking off. That there should be a vandal so foolish as to steal a gravestone that could not be shown to another without stamping the owner as a ghoulish vandal – that is to say thief – is one of the queer things we hear of as we travel the trail.”

The Ship’s Register by Moore’s Wharf began to be developed in the teens, perhaps earlier, and the White Pass & Yukon Route took advantage of the newfangled motion picture to develop travelogues promoting tourism at the same time. After a brief period of decline during the Great Depression, tourism in Skagway picked up again in the latter half of the 1930s. This was undoubtedly due in large part to Martin Itjen’s famed trip to Hollywood in 1935. Martin Itjen arrived in Alaska in 1898, and after several attempts at stampeding he returned to Skagway to settle down. He served as the town’s undertaker, wood cutter, coal deliverer, and first and so far only Ford Motor Car dealer and he became the premier figure in the town’s growing tourist industry. Sometime in the early teens he developed a tour of gold rush Skagway and built a “street car” to carry tourists around. This street car appears to have been originally built on a Veerac chassis, engine and drive train. Veerac trucks were built in Anoka, Minnesota, from 1910 to 1914. The company’s name stood for “valveless, explosion every revolution, air cooled.” The passengers were transported in a World Buggy Company omnibus body manufactured by Studebaker of South Bend, Indiana that Martin attached to the chassis. Finding the Veerac underpowered, Martin soon switched to a 1910 Packard Model 30 chassis adding a 1919 Dodge Brothers four cylinder engine and transmission later. He kept the World Buggy Company omnibus body, however, which originally was part of a horse drawn carriage that belonged to the Fifth Avenue Hotel on 5th Avenue and Main Street. In 1930 he built a second and much larger street car on a Ford truck chassis with engine and transmission also by Ford.

In 1935 Martin traveled down the West Coast of the United States with his Skaguay Street Car Number 2 (as he called it) to actively promote Skagway. Along the way, he performed at various movie theaters and participated in staged events advertising Ford Cars, Goodyear Tires, Beech-Nut Gum, and a restaurant named the White Log Tavern in San Francisco. He also poised with famed Hollywood actress Mae West. His successful tour gave him the wherewithal to build Street Car Number 3 (also based on a Ford truck) and acquire and remodel the former Jefferson R. Smith’s Parlor into a gold rush era museum as one of the highlights of his tour. Martin was an active promoter of Skagway’s frontier mythology and tourism and ran the parlor museum until his death in 1942. Martin’s wife Lucy died in 1946.

During World War II travel to Alaska was restricted by the government for security reasons, which brought tourism to a screeching halt. However, the war did bring soldiers who spent their pay in town and were curious about the town’s history. Street Cars number 2 and 3 were requisitioned by the U. S. Army for troop transport around Skagway, their bright “street car” liveries were painted over with military olive green, and they were eventually destroyed by the Army after the war. Street Car Number 1, however, has survived and has recently been conserved by the National Park Service. After the war Skagway residents again turned to tourism to help boost the town’s economy. By the late 1940s, more tourists than ever before were visiting Alaska, a change Skagway residents welcomed and encouraged through town beautification projects and building restoration efforts.

Starting in the 1930s, there had been notions to create a National Park in Skagway. Officials in Washington turned down the idea because they felt Skagway was too close to Glacier Bay National Monument. By the 1950s residents began to once again actively embrace the idea. They understood that a National Park would attract more tourists that the town depended on for its economic survival. The National Park Service also began to be interested in the idea of a gold rush park. A step in this direction was achieved on June 13, 1962, when the town and the surrounding area became a National Historic Landmark.

It was during this era of new found enthusiasm for tourism that George Rapuzzi restored and reopened Martin Itjen’s Jefferson Smith’s Parlor Museum, for the most part closed since Itjen’s death in 1942. George was born in 1899. A friend of Martin’s, he continued in Itjen’s footsteps as a tourism promoter and collector of gold rush memorabilia. Rapuzzi acquired Soapy’s Parlor following Itjen’s death. He moved the parlor museum from Sixth to Second Avenue in 1963 to be closer to the docks and the tourists, remodeled it once again and by 1967 reopened the parlor museum and ran it as a tourist attraction for another 10-15 years before he died in 1986.

In 1972, Skagway became the first city in Alaska to establish a Historic District by city ordenance and the following year the city created the Historic District Commission with an eye toward preserving the historic character of the town. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed a bill authorizing the creation of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The National Park Service then began the job of hiring staff and purchasing historic buildings in Skagway’s Historic District. After that the NPS began the long process of conducting historical research on each building, developing building condition assessments, stabilizing, and then eventually restoring the old buildings it had acquired to their gold rush era splendor (including Soapy Smith’s Parlor Museum). The NPS also sent archeologists underneath buildings in Skagway, over to Dyea, up the Chilkoot Trail and over to White Pass to document the precious gold rush era artifacts and features found all over.

All this hard work by people in the private and public sectors has really paid off for Skagway’s economy. The total visitor count in 2017 was 1,305,133 – a far cry from those 230 pioneering tourists that arrived on the afternoon of July 26, 1897.

• This article was researched and written by Karl Gurcke with information provided by articles in the Daily Alaskan newspapers of 1898, 1900 and 1908, an article in The North Wind newspaper dated July 15, 1967, Bonnie Houston’s M. A. thesis entitled “Historic Preservation in Skagway, a Guide to Planning” completed in 2000, Frank Norris’ “Legacy of the Gold Rush” (1996), and M. J. Kirchhoff’s “The Founding of Skagway: A Klondike Story of Greed, Graft, and Misery in the Summer of 1897” (2015). An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.


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