Without historical records, how can we as a society know where we've come from, how we got to where we are today? When you consider the gold rush that descended on Alaska beginning in the late 1890s, you can distill some of that history through Jack London's wonderful novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang.
Or, for a more thorough understanding, you can visit Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Monument in Skagway, Alaska. Such a visit is a bit more timely today, thanks to a donation of four historic buildings and a treasure trove of gold-rush era memorabilia to the national monument.
The donation, from the Rasmuson Foundation, comes 111 years after Stampeders struck it rich in the Klondike gold field. National Park Service officials say the George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection is extraordinary in its scope, encompassing the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the early tourism industry in Skagway, and early Skagway life. The foundation acquired the collection in 2007 with the intent that it would be made available to the public.
Here's how Park Service curators describe the gift:
Beginning in the early 1900s, the collection was amassed by Martin Itjen, a Gold Rush stampeder who later became involved in Skagway's budding tourist trade. Itjen had a keen sense of the historical nature of the Gold Rush and collected objects from the Chilkoot Trail and surrounding area for his tourist trade.
Itjen’s contemporary and longtime friend George Rapuzzi was born in Skagway in 1899. Rapuzzi followed in Itjen's footsteps as a Skagway tourism promoter and tour guide. A consummate collector in his own right, Rapuzzi, who died in 1986, left an estimated 450,000 objects housed in four historic buildings and one non-historic warehouse.
Spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, the collection includes a number of unique articles, including:
* An original Martin Itjen streetcar with costumed animated mechanical mannequins, including one wearing Itjen’s driving cap.
* Early firefighters’ equipment and garb.
* An original silk banner of the Arctic Brotherhood. The Arctic Brotherhood was founded as a fraternal order of Klondike Stampeders in 1899 that soon focused on politics and supported self-governance in Alaska. In 1909 President Taft was installed as "Honorary Past Grand Arctic Chief". The Alaska Native Brotherhood may have used the Arctic Brotherhood as a model for its own organization, established in 1912 in Sitka.
* Bar back paintings including a large Civil War battle rendering.
* Gold rush era Chilkoot Trail and Skagway business signs, small Skagway beer bottles and huge acid transporting bottles, and the literal nuts and bolts of George Rapuzzi’s mechanical workshop.
“Over the next several months, we will be bringing into our curatorial collection scores of photographs, hotel registers and ship manifests that add depth, texture, and personality to the story already told by Skagway's historic architecture,” says Park Superintendent Susan Boudreau. “For the park and the municipality, and in fact all Alaskans, this donation by the Rasmuson Foundation is a tremendously important step in preserving the history of a key period in Alaska and American history.”
The collection also contains numerous objects representing the Native Alaskan contributions to the Gold Rush story, including “Native Packers for Hire” signs that had been placed in Dyea, Tlingit carvings and baskets.
The National Park Service has accepted the donations of two historic buildings – Skagway con artist and entrepreneur Jefferson “Soapy” Smith’s Parlor and the Meyer Building – the joined YMCA & Meyer Meat Market buildings. Historic photographs in the collection will be used to guide the NPS restoration of the parlor to how it appeared in the 1920s, when Itjen ran it as the “Jefferson Smith’s Parlor Museum.” The Meyer building will eventually serve as the Klondike Gold Rush Historic Research Center.
The Municipality of Skagway was given two additional buildings, the George Rapuzzi home and a World War II Commissary building. The municipality plans to begin a preservation plan for the buildings and working towards a World War II museum in Skagway.
“Skagway has had a long and colorful history, and the Rapuzzi collection will help us show what life has been like here to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come each year,” says Mayor Tom Cochran. “There’s no other collection like this in the world, and we’re honored to work with the Rasmuson Foundation and the Park Service to preserve and display these items.”
The National Park Service will focus on adding Gold Rush era artifacts to its collection, while the municipality will add items that illustrate the later history of day-to-day life in Skagway, including its role as an important port in World War II.
"We are pleased to partner with the National Park Service and the Municipality of Skagway to preserve and make accessible this very unique collection. Each artifact tells a story about Alaska's past and we are happy that they can now be enjoyed by Alaskans and by those who visit our state,” said Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president.
The park will display a small portion of the collection this summer in its visitor center. Work on the buildings will also begin this summer. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was established in 1976 and includes 15 historic buildings in downtown Skagway. Additionally, it manages the U.S. side of the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail. Nearly 1 million visitors a year visit Skagway and the park.