After eight years, a new foundation, hours of restoration and endless dedication, Martin Itjen and George Rapuzzi’s vision of Soapy Smith’s Parlor is ready to be unveiled for the first time since its closure in the mid-1970s.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Chief of Interpretation and Education Ben Hayes said, minus some last minute changes and additions, the building is finally ready for the public to see.
When the Park first purchased the building in 2008, Hayes said it was literally melting into the ground. The ceiling was leaking, pests and water had caused serious damage, and the foundation had to be completely replaced. The interior was a maze of antiques and relics, most of which required restoration.
While the building was home to Jefferson “Soapy” Smith’s Parlor for three months in 1898, by the time KGRNHP purchased the building in 2008, all signs of Soapy were long gone. The long structure was once a saloon, café, parlor and fire department garage before coming under the ownership of Martin Itjen in 1935. Itjen and later George Rapuzzi attempted to recreate Jeff Smith’s Parlor as a museum, which was operated by Edna Rapuzzi until 1975. George Rapuzzi remained caretaker of the building until his death in 1986.
The building was part of a a purchase of the Rapuzzi estate by the Rasmuson Foundation, which turned it over to KGRNHP. Now the park has given life to the Itjen-Rapuzzi legacy.
But with 30 years of neglect and dust, recreating Itjen’s quirky scene was no easy feat. Curators referenced photos of the old museum when they could. But for certain walls, no photos existed. Fortunately, mirrors did.
One photo of Itjen’s prized moose fight depicts two bull moose locked in each other’s rack, but in the back is a mirror, showcasing a north wall in the museum. It was the only source curators had available to assist in recreating the scene. And so they began the painstaking process of placing photos, posters and memorabilia.
Changes are made often, with new discoveries and placements realized daily.
Red bulbs illuminate empty eye sockets of a moose skull, reproductions of original newspaper clippings line the walls, century-old glass bottles and jugs stand empty behind the bar as animatronic characters welcome you to an age once forgotten.
Upon entering the original museum, guests were greeted by an animatronic Soapy Smith. When one door opened, Soapy raised his glass, Hayes said. When another door opened, he “shot” Dangerous Dan McGrew, his animatronic nemesis huddled in the corner. Opening the bathroom door provided a shock, with a wooden Lady Lou seated on the toilet.
How the animatronics once worked lives on in oral history, Hayes said, with many of the details unconfirmed.
Though they no longer move, visitors can now see them as they once were: Soapy standing at the bar, pint glass in hand, Dan huddled in the corner and Lou still keeping the pot warm.
“What he created is unique and significant as one of Alaska’s first and most unique museums,” he said.
Today the building and its artifacts are kept in a museum quality environment, complete with temperature and humidity control so as to keep the pieces protected and in tact.
“The artifacts themselves are almost all original,” Hayes said. “You’re not going to find another Soapy Smith in the world.”
The museum will open to the public for tours tomorrow from 1 to 3 p.m., with a dedication ceremony at 4 p.m. A reception at the Red Onion will follow, and more tours will be offered from 5 to 9 p.m. Those wishing to attend are encouraged to pick a time slot on a sign-up sheet, as only two groups of 10 will be able to tour at one time.
Formal tours requiring paid tickets will begin May 9, but weekends will remain free.
“You will be overwhelmed with all of things and stories inside,” Hayes said. “You’re going to want to come back, and that’s what we want.”
Skagway School’s fourth graders were the first to tour the museum on April 13. As part of the national “Every Kid in a Park” campaign, which encourages kids and their families to attend national parks, the students will help give tours during the first two hours on Saturday. Hayes said they each picked an item of interest and will explain it in detail to visitors.
The event is just one of many in celebration of this year’s National Park Service centennial celebration. Ted Harrison’s “Cremation of Sam McGee” paintings, on loan from the Yukon Arts Center, are on display inside the Park’s museum on Second Avenue. On May 13, the park will participate in a “bioblitz,” a nationwide effort to gather data from the parks. This year the focus is water invertebrates. Students will join Park rangers in Dyea and will count how many organisms live in the park.
KGRNHP employees are busy readying Broadway for a new “ton of goods” statue which will be unveiled in 2017. Created by local artist Pete Lucchetti, the bronze statue will feature an overwhelmed miner on his sled, surrounded by his ton of goods and his loyal dog. As with all park exhibits, the statue will be ADA accessible, providing all visitors with a potential photo op.
“He has created something that really fits in within the broader story,” Hayes said. “He is surrounded by all of the things he has to get up the mountain. Getting here on the boat was only the beginning of their struggle. Certainly everyone felt that.”
The Klondike Park will celebrate 40 years on June 30.