A Brief History Of Tourism In Skagway

A photo of a ship with mountains in the background
Tourism was an early part of Skagway history, and arriving on a steam ship was the easiest way to get there.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, Inv. # 00631-K. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

An Early History

Tourism in southeastern Alaska dates back to the 1880s with cruises up the Inside Passage to see totem poles, the Treadwell Mines in Douglas, and Glacier Bay. By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush tourism was a well-established business in the region. The first documented tourists to come to Skagway were mentioned in the Daily Alaskan newspaper of July 25, 1898 just about a year after the town's founding. 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 extraordinary long article running a full column and a half the unnamed newspaper reporter relates the story of this tourist party numbering sixty 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 and again:
Well dressed men stand on top a mountain ridge

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park,Whiting Collection, KLGO 0004.

"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. Sitka and Juneau were much older, so they expected to find here 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 and 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.
a trail rolling past a station with men standing outside
The train used to run along Broadway and over the White Pass Route. To the right is a building that once acted as the train depot. Since the relocation of the train tracks, this building has been converted into the modern day visitor center for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Whiting Collection, KLGO 0004.

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, and on these about one hundred and fifty people were comfortably seated. These included many of the Yukoners, 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 where rails are already laid, but not ballasted. 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."

An Upgrade To Tourism

By 1900 Skagway was ready to organize the first annual city wide cleanup day to help beautify the city for the coming tourist season. The Daily Alaskan of May 12th reported that:

"Mayor Hislop says there will be a meeting of the city council on Monday evening, and that then steps will be taken to have a systematic cleaning up of the streets and alleys of the city before the advent of the summer tourists."
The paper also went on to state:
"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 few weeks later the Daily Alaskan of May 26, 1900 notes 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."
A grave stone in a cemetery

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 59784. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

By 1908, tourists were visiting the grave site of the infamous Soapy Smith resulting in the inevitable. The Daily Alaskan of July 20, 1908 notes:
"The headstone 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 at a visit on 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."

A well dressed man sitting in a chair

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 55922. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Martin Itjen Tells The Story

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 travelogues to promote 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 two attempts at stampeding in British Columbia 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 became the premier figure in the town's growing tourist industry. Possibly in the early teens he acquired a Veeracmotor coach (Veerac trucks were built from 1910 to 1914 in Anoka, Minnesota). By the 1920s he had developed a tour of gold rush Skagway and built a "street car" to carry tourists around. This street car was built on a 1908 Packard chassis but the Veerac coach body appears to be part of it.
A man standing in front of an old street car made from a train car
Martin Itjen was "a little man with a big wit". He created street cars from old train cars and would drive tourists around Skagway to excite them about gold rush history.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 55776. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Martin Itjen smiling and standing next to Mae West
Itjen's time in Hollywood made Skagway even more popular to the world, which helped increase tourism to the area.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 557722. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

In 1930 he built a second and much larger street car and then later in that decade purchased and remodeled the former Jefferson Smith's Parlor into a gold rush era museum as one of the highlights of his tour. In 1935 Martin traveled down the West Coast with his Skagway Street Car Number 2 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 Skagway Street Car Number 3. 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. The park recently installed a temporary exhibit on Martin Itjen in the park headquarters on Second and Broadway.

Rapuzzi Continues Tradition

During the 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. 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 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 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. 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 promotion that George Rapuzzi reopened Martin Itjen's Jefferson Smith's Parlor Museum, for the most part closed since Itjen's death in 1942. George was born in Skagway, Alaska, 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 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.
George Rapuzzi stands in front of a street car with a mountain in the background

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 55784 . Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

A park ranger and visitors outside of a historic building

NPS/R. Harrison

The National Park Service

In 1972, Skagway became the first city in Alaska to establish a Historic District by city ordnance and the following year the city created the Historic District Commission with an eye to preserving the historic character of the town. In 1976, after numerous studies and reports, 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, developing building condition assessments, stabilizing, and then eventually restoring the old buildings it had acquired to their gold rush era splendor. The NPS also sent archeologists underneath buildings in Skagway, over to Dyea, up the Chilkoot Trail and over to the White Pass Unit to document the precious artifacts and features found there.

All this hard work by people in the private and public sectors has really paid off for Skagway's economy. In 1982 just over 49,000 people visited Skagway during the summer. The visitor count in 2012 was 866,132 a far cry from those 60 pioneering tourists from Boston that arrived one Skagway morning on July 25, 1898.

Toursim has transformed drastically over the last century in Skagway. The municipality recieves over one million visitors each summer, and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park offers a variety of walking tours and historic sites for visitors to enjoy!

About This Article

This program was researched, written, and edited by our park historican, Karl Gurcke. Information for this program was 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 "Historic Preservation in Skagway, a Guide to Planning" 2000 (pages 69-79) and Frank Norris' Legacy of the Gold Rush published in 1996 (pages 33-34).

Last updated: August 22, 2018