Story Time with Aunt Phil: The Skagway Streetcar
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 Company.
The local coal deliveryman, 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, charged 25 cents ($3.75 in today’s money) for two-hour tours that included seeing the Pullen House, White Pass railroad station and notorious Soapy Smith’s grave. Eventually Itjen 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 nodded its head, waved a flag, rang a bell and puffed smoke through a cigarette.
After purchasing Soapy Smith’s parlor in 1935 and converting it into a museum, Itjen took his streetcar on a steamer to Seattle and then drove to Hollywood to meet movie star Mae West.
Itjen, then 65, spent two weeks with West trying to convince her to come north. But she turned down his offer to be a hostess on his streetcar.
The sourdough tour operator died in 1942. And 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.”
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