Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Lands Windfall In Donation of Historic Buildings, Memorabilia

The "Soapy" Smith building was part of a large collection of Klondike Gold Rush memorabilia donated to the National Park Service. NPS photo.

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.

Comments

Sounds like a positive development for this park. This speaks well of the relationship between the park and the local community.

Perhaps the best news is that both the park and the town benefited, and it sounds like they are working in tandem to compliment, rather than duplicate, efforts. I hope the cost to restore and maintain the donated buildings won't make this a burden rather than a blessing. The town can use some additional "real history" to help offset the touristy stuff along the main drag.

Jim Burnett writes, "I hope the cost to restore and maintain the donated buildings won't make this a burden rather than a blessing." Reading this I have to wonder if he knows who Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith was? Naturally, being a descendant of Soapy I am a little bias but in my honest opinion Jeff Smith's Parlor outweighs a good portion of the Rapuzzi collection in importance, especially in the public eye.

I still don't understand why the Klondike Gold Rush Historical Park is making the building into an exhibit on Martin Itjen rather than Soapy Smith. When Itjen owned the building he transformed it into a museum on Soapy. Once the Park Service reopens the display it will be a museum on a museum about Soapy Smith. Tourists to Skagway have been expressing disappointment for decades in not being able to enter "Soapy's saloon." I sincerely doubt that once open tourists will be referring to the building as the Martin Itjen display, but rather will be asking one another, "did you go into Soapy's saloon yet?"

Jeff Smith
Author, Alias Soapy Smith, The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, The Biography of Jefferson Randolph Smith II.
Alias Soapy Smith website
Soapy Smith Soap Box blog

Soapy Smith was unquestionably one of the most interesting characters that America's frontier culture ever produced.

Jeff -

No intention to downplay the role of "Soapy" Smith. Anything the park can offer for interpretation in downtown Skagway would be a wonderful asset for the town and the park, and a nice alternative for tourists to the souvenir shops. No doubt Soapy's saloon would be a hit.

My comment was simply about the potential - and thus far probably unknown - cost to restore and maintain both of the donated buildings. Unless extra funds are made available for such projects, any donated historic building has the potential of being a budget buster for a park's limited funds.

Hi, Jim.

Thanks for the response. I do better understand the meaning of your original post. However, if you saw some of the photographs and read the first public made accounts of the Rapuzzi collection you will recall that along with the great early historical collectibles were toilets and items I would definitely consider trash and a waste of public funds to preserve. It would truly be ironic to allot funds for some of the collection, including the "nuts and bolts," while not being able to afford the restoration of one of the most famous buildings in Alaskan and Klondike gold rush history.

Jeff Smith

I see the choice to restore Smith's parlor to the museum stage as one which embraces the most historical material. Jefferson was certainly a major player in Skagway history, and continues to be so today, but he was not the only figure. By interpreting the 1920s tourism era, it helps to explain what happened to the physical structures over time and how Skagway becomes the town it is today. It provides room to discuss Itjen, Rapuzzi and others like Harriet Pullen and how they shaped the image of Skagway and in some cases, how they shaped the physical landscape. This gives interpreters and historians the leeway to move from not only the Gold Rush but to the following years, and shows how Skagway was indeed based on a tourism economy after the Gold Rush just like today. This story is also one which would best be told by a structure that embodies this transition like the parlor museum. Certainly visitors will continue to take away Jefferson's prominence in the town as his is a colorful and exciting story, but hopefully they will consider how history did not cease to be made when he died.

Stephanie, although I understand that Itjen, Pullen, and perhaps even Rapuzzi are important to Skagway, their stories can be told in any building in Skagway, however, Jeff Smith's Parlor is uniquely Soapy. His story belongs in his old saloon.

Jeff Smith
author of Alias Soapy Smith, the Life and Death of a Scoundrel.
Soapy Smith website
Soapy Smith blog

It's my understanding the park has almost no original "stuff" from the building as it was in the gold rush when it was Soapy's, but that they have most of the stuff from the Itjen era, including animatronics(!!), so they're replicating the era that they have the actual artifacts for.

It is true that they have no original artifacts from the building in 1898. However, nor did they have anything for the Mascot Saloon, yet they completely recreated EVERYTHING in the saloon to match the way it looked in 1910. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park has little devoted to the most famous character in the history of the city, and in fact has no buildings (to my knowledge) devoted, inside and out, to the 1898 era, like that of the Mascot display (1910). In my opinion, the best plan would be to restore the Parlor to the way it looked when Soapy owned it, and place the Rapuzzi collection in any other building. As I have said before, people write me every year expressing their disappointment in not being able to go inside "Soapy's saloon." I am not sure of the Park's exact plans but I am sure many Soapy fans will be somewhat disappointed that the building represents anything other than Soapy Smith.

I have been inside the Parlor when Rapuzzi owned it, and then when Brown had it. I guess the most important thing is that it is still standing. It was beginning to lean to one side so thank goodness Brown finally sold it. I have actually made offers to buy the Parlor in the late 80s and 90s from her, and she once told me that she wanted enough from a sale "to sit in a rocker for the rest of her life." Glad it did not go the way of the Pullen Hotel. It will take close to a decade to complete the project and if I'm still around I'll have to drag myself up there for the opening day.

Watch my sites below for the coming biography! Did you know Soapy was murdered? That Frank Reid did not kill him? Got to love history.

Jeff Smith
Soapy Smith website
Soapy Smith blog

To say that Soapy's parlor is more important than anything else in the Rapuzzi collection is not a little short-sighted and i'm glad that Mr. Smith admitted he was biased. It shows. The artifacts in the Rapuzzi collection are an incredible find and Skagway is lucky to have them in our archives now. Soapy's parlor is kind of a blip on the radar screen as far as I'm concerned, compared with some of the artifacts that show us things like what the people of the time were thinking and all of the photographs and artifacts showing day to day life.

Perhaps one of the reasons the park has, as Smith says "little devoted to" Soapy is because, with all the melodrama surrounding his story (no pun intended) it's difficult to know what parts of what we think we "know" about him (as with many gold rush characters) actually happened, and what is just part of oral tradition. No, he wasn't Grand Marshall of the parade. For instance ;)

I can understand Smith's hero worship and fandom of his ancestor; I similarly idolize an obscure stampeder whom NO ONE has heard of, simply because he and I share the last name. But do I think that the building which housed his former business is the most important building in Skagway? No... come on. I'd like to read the new Soapy book but I have a hard time with the mentality that one individual's contributions (and, let's face it, the parlor was only his for a couple months before the shootout) particularly an individual whose life and times are shrouded in myths and legends neither proven nor disproven by the historical record, are more important than a massive collection of THOUSANDS of artifacts relating to the entirety of Skagway's history.

Honestly... you can tell the story of Skagway (from 1897 to the present) through the life of the Rapuzzi family. They were everywhere! Their mark on history is far more significant than Soapy's. As for the upset Soapy enthusiasts... this is why the Days of 98 show exists.