Large gold rush collection will take some sorting out

Skagway relics sold to the Rasmuson Foundation for $1 million

Posted: Monday, May 28, 2007

SKAGWAY - Unlatching the padlock on the old telephone company building, Debra Sanders swings open the door to reveal a dark and dusty room packed high - a jumble of boxes, steamer trunks, a roulette wheel, wicker furniture, phonographs, mannequins dressed in gold rush garb, a wooden boat, a brass tuba and long rows of shelves crammed with curios.

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The objects belong to what is formally called the Rapuzzi Collection. But its caretakers more often refer to it all as "stuff" - not in a casual way, but with a certain awe-struck emphasis that hints at the sorting task ahead.

"This whole dresser is full of photographs and photo albums," said Sanders, museum curator for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

"There's boxes in the corner of ships' manifests from the Gold Rush in 1898. There's things like the metal signs that came off the Chilkoot Trail.

"There's stuff. Just all this stuff," she said.

Gathered by two Skagway old-timers, Martin Itjen and his friend George Rapuzzi, over the better part of the last century, the assortment - probably the largest private collection of unique Skagway objects - was sold to the Rasmuson Foundation last month for $1 million by Rapuzzi's niece, Phyllis Brown.

The plan is to distribute its contents among the National Park Service, the city of Skagway and the Alaska Natural History Association.

Itjen, who described himself as an Austrian-born shopkeeper from Florida, was an early promoter of tourism. The industry now lures more than 750,000 visitors a year to this town of 800 residents.

He first arrived as a gold rush stampeder in 1898 but settled in as the town undertaker, Model-T dealer and a boardinghouse operator, according to various accounts.

When tourists began arriving by steamship in the wake of the first rush, Itjen showed up at the docks offering tours of gold rush sights in his home-converted 1906 Packard that resembled a San Francisco streetcar.

Emblazoned with the slogan "Nothing Like It In the World," the car was complete with a mechanical bear in front signaling turns with a swing of its paws and a mechanical conductor in back ringing a bell and puffing engine exhaust through his cigarette.

Itjen expanded his enterprise with the purchase of Skagway con man Soapy Smith's original saloon, which he converted into a museum and populated with more of his mechanical gear-driven characters.

Both the streetcar and the old saloon are part of the collection, along with boxes of tour pamphlets and phonograph records with Itjens' humorous account of his trip to Hollywood in the streetcar to meet the famous Mae West.

Itjen cooked up the idea after tourism began dropping off during the depression, said park historian Karl Gurcke.

A photograph in the collection shows Itjen grinning under his luxurious handlebar mustache, the curvaceous actress clutching the gold nuggets on his watch chain.

It's the same photo that newspapers in the west splashed across their pages.

"After that tourism did start to go up a bit until World War II broke out," Gurcke said.

Itjen died at the start of the war, leaving the streetcar, historical memorabilia and museum to his friend George Rapuzzi, a machinist for the White Pass Railroad who shared Itjen's passion for history and gold rush artifacts.

The younger man continued to add to the collection though he tackled the project with more zeal than discrimination in later years, said Juneau photographer and historian Ron Klein.

Though the collection has never been inventoried, Klein started sorting through it several years ago at the invitation of Rapuzzi's niece after she had inherited the collection.

"George went every day to take his garbage to the dump and without a doubt he came back every day with more than he took because he succeeded in filling up warehouses and warehouses full of stuff," Klein said.

The Park Service plans to hire Klein as a consultant. The park and the city are also bringing on additional staff to help identify and catalog thousands of items and several buildings that also include the famous saloon, a World War II commissary, Herman Meyer's Meat Market, the former YMCA gymnasium and the old Rapuzzi house.

It could take two to three years just to sort through it all and even longer to decide on its final disposition, according to Sanders.

She said the Park Service is hoping to acquire Soapy Smith's saloon and gold rush artifacts to use in the 15 buildings it already owns.

"We are probably most excited about the photographs and documents because it is a whole wealth of information that is totally new to us," Sanders said.

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