- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Skagway’s legendary outlaw, Jefferson Randolph Smith, gained his fame for cons like telling newly arrived Gold Rush stampeders that a family member had just telegraphed in distress and required quite a bit of money. The newcomers, unaware that Skagway’s “telegraph cable” ended just offshore, would rush to pay Smith.

His nickname came from another con, a kind of soap lottery, in which he sold bars of soap, one of which had a $100 bill beneath its wrapping. That $100 was inevitably won by an employee pretending not to know him, the Capital City Weekly reported (https://bit.ly/1XhdvcR).

During the Klondike Gold Rush, he and his band of conmen and thieves ruled Skagway. All that came to a quick end on July 8, 1898. After his men robbed a returning stampeder, John D. Stewart, of about $2,700 in gold, the town met to deal with the Smith situation. Smith tried to crash the meeting and ended up in a gunfight with Frank Reid. He died on the wharf. (In true Skagwayan fashion, the site is marked with a plaque.) Reid succumbed to his wounds days later.

It’s the stuff of legend - and as I learned at the opening of the Jeff. Smith Parlor Museum, two men named Martin Itjen and George Rapuzzi helped turn that legend into a money-maker for the town.

Smith’s parlor, Skagway’s story

The National Park Service, which was donated the museum and all its contents by the Rasmuson Foundation in 2008, recently completed an eight-year preservation and reconstruction effort. It reopened the museum April 30.

It might interest you to know, that while it is the same building Smith ran his cons from during the Gold Rush, the museum is neither in its original location nor does it contain any of the original Smith artifacts.

“The obvious expectation for people is that we were going to recreate Jeff Smith’s parlor back from 1898,” explained Ben Hayes, chief of education and interpretation at Klondike Gold Rush National Park. “But that building was lost in 1900 when the fire department took it apart. What we have is essentially Rapuzzi’s interpretation of Itjen’s museum to Soapy Smith.”

The history is a little convoluted. Built originally to house a bank on 6th Avenue, the building was acquired by Smith after the bank outgrew the tiny premises. He converted it into a bar and gambling parlor. After Smith’s death, several businesses tried and failed in the space.

So in 1900, the fire department took over the building, converted it to a garage and stored their hose cart inside. They even moved it across the street in 1916.

That’s where Martin Itjen found it. Itjen came to Skagway as a stampeder. He knew the building’s nefarious past, and decided to become something that would figure hugely in Skagway’s future: a tourism promoter.

Itjen incorporated the parlor into his streetcar tours of the city, advertised with this snappy jingle: “Martin with his streetcar for 50 cents will tell you when and show you where the high spots were for he was there. It starts at nine and takes till noon to show you Skagway in the Klondike boom. If you miss this, you’ll have missed it all and not seen Alaska at all for Martin’s records will tell you all.”

The lack of original material didn’t slow him down. Hayes calls him as “a weird inventor type, very imaginative.” He filled his parlor with artifacts, some strange, some wonderful and some not connected to the Soapy Smith story. There’s a “weird diorama of some terrible taxidermy,” Hayes said. “All these weird animals. Two moose locked in combat with their horns, and newspaper clippings from the Gold Rush era are just used as wallpaper. But his most interesting creations are three animatronic mannequins.”

Itjen created those moving mannequins himself. The first represents Soapy Smith. He greeted visitors from the bar with a raised glass before turning to point his gun at the second mannequins, Dangerous Dan McGrew, (inspired by a Robert Service poem) a shifty character in the corner. And as a final touch, any tourist who wished to visit the restroom was greeted by the outraged screams of the third mannequin, Lady Lou, as she sat upon the toilet.

“So this is truly one of the most unique museum experiences in Alaska,” Hayes said. “It is one of the first museums in the state in 1935 and it certainly is noteworthy in Alaskan tourism just in its own right, not even if it had the association with Soapy Smith as the original parlor. … It really reflects a period where Skagway was transitioning from gold rush town to a town that was now marketing its past as its future.”

When Itjen died in 1942, the museum was taken over by George Rapuzzi, a first generation Skagwayan born in the Gold Rush. As Hayes puts it: “he was a hoarder, for lack of better word. He just collected everything.” Under Rapuzzi’s leadership, the miniature museum added to its collection “a lot more even weirder things.”

Rapuzzi also moved the museum to its current site on 2nd Ave off Broadway, to get it closer to the cruise ships.

But after Rapuzzi died in 1986, the museum fell into disrepair. “For really 20 years, no one was taking care of this place,” Hayes said. “The building began to rot into the ground, and by the time 2007 rolls around the building kind of looks like a sinking ship slanted over. There’s all this water coming in through the ceiling. And all this fascinating stuff is still inside.”

Which is where the Rasmuson Foundation comes in. They acquired the museum as one of five buildings and all their contents from the Rapuzzi family and gifted it to the National Park Service. But there was a lot of work to do before it could open to the public.

Eight year’s effort

When Hayes first worked at Klondike National Park in 2009, “they were doing some of the initial emergency stabilization, putting tarps over the roof and trying to shore up the foundation.”

The floors and foundation were rotted and the National Park Service had to lift the entire building to repair and replace them with today’s concrete foundation. The roof also needed extensive repairs, and the artifacts inside were sent south for preservation and restoration after the years of environmental and water damage. “That was a big task and we’re not a particularly large park,” Hayes said.

There were archaeological and historical surveys that needed to be done. A complete new climate control system was also added, as was a new security system.

“It actually did require eight years of painstaking work to get it to where it is today,” Hayes said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Diane Kaplan, who attended the grand reopening. “I remember coming to see the collection probably in 2006 or so. It didn’t look nearly as nice as what is behind me today. I was telling Mike (Tranel, Superintendent of the Klondike Gold Rush National Park) it looks much nicer without all the mouse poop in it. It’s really a miracle what’s been accomplished here.

“What you don’t see is the one million objects that came with it and the daunting task that the park service had and the city to figure out how to make something of this collection. If you haven’t been inside yet, I think you’ll agree that they’ve done just a beautiful job.”

Hayes returned to Skagway in 2015 and witnessed the end of the museum’s transformation.

“It’s been really awesome to see how it’s come full circle. I saw how it looked - very sad - and now it is a beautiful restored building and you can’t make this stuff up inside.”

Though the National Park employees did have to guess a little.

“To put it back together was difficult for us because some of the things were not in there - they were in other buildings - so our curators had to look at old pictures (to see how the museum had been set up). There are even pictures taken where there’s a mirror in the room and we were looking at the mirror in the picture to determine how the other wall was,” said Hayes.

Another difficulty lay in determining how to manage the museum once it opened. Skagway and the Klondike National Park can get more than 10,000 visitors a day during the summer, but only 22 people at a time can fit inside the museum.

“There’s so much to see … you could spend hours looking at all the things, reading all these newspapers, and not even see it all. So that was also a challenge. We let 22 people inside but we can’t let them hang out there all day,” Hayes said.

The park decided to try ticketed guided tours that “let you experience it with at least half an hour inside.” The tours, which can be booked ahead of time (at https://1.usa.gov/1WDiDaD) are $5. Weekends, with the lower cruise ship volume, will be free and more of an informal open house.

Opening with a bang

There was almost too much to do in Skagway on April 30. The community started at 9 a.m. with the clean sweep, and then people bopped over to the Rec Center sale before hitting the Kone Kompany opening and ending their evening with the May Day Dance. But the tiny Jeff. Smith Parlor Museum let itself be felt.

The events started at 1 p.m. with special tours. 2016 is the National Park Service’s centennial, and its ‘Every Kid in a Park’ campaign, which offers free park passes to 4th graders and their families, started just last year. But Skagway went one step further than just having their 4th graders visit. Each kid picked an object within the museum and gave its history to the first visitors.

Some were objects that could have been easily overlooked - like a coffee grinder that looked more like a piece of industrial machinery or an antique gum ball machine that dispensed gum in two flavors, but only stick form. “Round gumballs weren’t there yet,” our youthful tour guide informed us.

The block was closed off and a 1967 (the year Rapuzzi reopened) street scene was recreated with vintage cars provided by community members.

Tranel, Kaplan and Dr. Herbert Frost, director of the National Park Service for Alaska, spoke to a packed crowd at the dedication ceremony, where Karl Gurcke was awarded the Appleman-Judd-Lewis award for NPS employees who excel in cultural resource management. Tom Clark, the grandson of Smith’s last victim, the miner Stewart, was also in attendance.

The highlight was when Soapy Smith emerged from his parlor to be confronted by Frank Reid and Jesse Murphy.

“Smith!” shouted Reid, played by Jeff Brady. “Told you to stay away from down here!”

“You have no right to keep me away,” replied Smith, played by Jonathan Baldwin.

“Don’t come any nearer. I’m warning you.”

“For the love of God, don’t shoot!” Smith shouted before the inevitable.

Pop. Pop. Pop went the guns in a cloud of smoke. Smith/Baldwin and Reid/Brady both ended on the ground, to cheers and laughter from the crowd. Friend and foe then retired to the Red Onion Saloon for the reception.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide