Rapuzzi collection brings back Skagway’s history

They’ve died and gone to heaven down in Skagway these days. I’m talking about the folks who work at the museum and the US National Parks…

They’ve died and gone to heaven down in Skagway these days. I’m talking about the folks who work at the museum and the US National Parks Service.

That’s the conclusion I came to after a recent visit to Skagway.

The weather was as pleasant as the dispositions of the friends I made during the weekend trip to the Alaskan gold rush port city, with a gentle breeze and sunny blue skies.

Skagway citizens had much to be proud of when it was recently announced that the George and Edna Rapuzzi collection had been purchased for $1 million by the Rasmussen Foundation and the city of Skagway.

Theresa Thibault, the chief of resources at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park directed me to her staff to learn more.

The collection, which was started by colourful Skagway resident and tourism promoter Martin Itjen, and carried on by Skagway-born George Rapuzzi, contains an estimated 450,000 artifacts and five historic buildings, including Jeff (Soapy) Smith’s Parlour.

Rapuzzi was a fanatical collector. He made trips along the aging Chilkoot Trail gathering items the stampeders left behind. He was also famous for going to the local dump and taking home things others had thrown away.

The collection contains an amazing variety of items, as revealed during an insider’s tour of the new curatorial facility and several old buildings stuffed full the past.

US Parks Service museum curator Debbie Sanders led me to a number of non-descript buildings containing these amazing treasures.

The doors to one building were opened, and I peered in. There, amid the rubble, was Martin Itjen’s famous touring streetcar. Converted from a 1906 Packard, the quirky streetcar is a rolling advertisement for Skagway, proclaiming in large letters: “Nothing Like It In The World.”

We stepped into another building and Sanders flicked on the few banks of fluorescent lights, which cast a dim glow over the rows of shelving.

We donned small headlamps to enable us to peer into the shadows and unlit side rooms. The array of stuff was amazing.

Darkened shelves contained rows of lamps, lanterns and lighting devices. There was a handheld megaphone next to a hand crank phonograph. More shelves contained tins of every description. I recognized one of the cans as a Canadian product, and we started exchanging information.

The bottles were on the back rows, including several wooden crates, divided into four compartments, each containing a bottle from a local establishment.

Park service historian Karl Gurcke pointed out that these are rare. On the collector’s market, he said, they would demand a high price — he gave me a number and I whistled.

To a museum specialist, such items are priceless because of the information they impart about the community’s history.

In a back room my headlamp highlighted an old wooden cabinet with a big glass window on the front — a turn of the century slot machine. I offered to look it up in the Parks Canada curatorial library in Dawson and pass the information along to Sanders.

I asked about the benefactor who made the acquisition of this collection possible.

Elmer Rasmussen got his start with the bank in Skagway and parlayed it into an Alaskan financial powerhouse. On his 90th birthday, for instance, Rasmussen gave away 90 million dollars to charitable causes.

His foundation teamed up with the city of Skagway to make this purchase possible.

I asked what was to happen to this newly acquired collection. Over the next few years, a team consisting of both park and city of Skagway Museum employees will sort through the material.

Sanders and Skagway Museum director Judy Munns have already started the enormous task of dividing up the collection. The park focuses on gold rush era, the museum on community history, including the Second World War.

“If we’re not so sure (who gets what),” said Sanders, “we are colour coding the interest level on them — blue’s the city and red’s the park; we’ve got these coloured dots … and there are just a few items that have both blue and red on them and I think we will be able to figure it out ourselves.”

In some cases, there is enough material that both the park service and the museum will get what they want, said Gurcke.

Gurcke told me they had already copied 1,000 photographs from the collection. One of these showed the interior of the Mascot Saloon.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have this photo before they restored the interior? Yes, said Sanders, but they came pretty close to its historical appearance anyway.

The potential of this collection is enormous, and they are already formulating ways to put it to use.

Since there is too much material to display in a meaningful way at one time, the park service can develop revolving exhibits.

As well, it can restore Itjen’s streetcar, complete with animated figures and a recording of Itjen’s tourist spiel from an old 78-RPM record.

There is talk of a joint research centre, and the potential there, too, is tremendous. Both Gurcke and Sanders raved about the collection of ship’s registers and manifests, and hotel ledgers.

With thousands of names listed, they make an excellent source for both research and genealogy.

There is the possibility of restoring Jeff Smith’s parlour to the museum that it was during Itjen’s time. The building itself has been moved a number of times and has expanded through the years.

Their work will be augmented by the knowledge and expertise of Ron Klein, Juneau photographer, and a friend of the Rapuzzi family heirs, who worked with the collection for many years.

Collections such as these contribute greatly to the memory of a community, and provide a legacy for future generations to remember the past.

I encountered the same thing when I started my work as a curator for Parks Canada in Dawson City in 1977.

Contained within Dawson’s numerous old buildings were the relics of the past — blacksmithing tools, undertakers supplies, tinware and hardware store goods, printing presses and printers’ supplies, mining paraphernalia; more than 100,000 items in all.

Many of the buildings and their contents were brought to Parks Canada by long-time resident Fred Caley.

Caley was a modest man, but without his largesse the community would be a far poorer place.

It took more than 10 years to organize these collections, develop storage and use them to develop exhibits.

If the same holds true in Skagway, then many of the people working with the collection may have to defer retirement for years!

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.