Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alaska's Most Treasured Car

Willy is off to the Chickasha Swap Meet in Oklahoma, so I thought I'd write about an ultra-special car that he mentioned in an earlier post: the 1905 Sheldon Runabout. I'm guessing that few museums can claim that they have their state's very first car on display. The survival rate among our nation's earliest automobiles is fairly small, and only a handful of early first-production cars still exist. Fortunately, the little runabout built by Skagway resident Bobby Sheldon has survived the test of time -- and will soon be on display in the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum!

Sheldon was only 22 when he assembled buggy wheels, bar stools, a two-cycle marine engine and some wood and tin into a functional runabout. Amazingly, he had never seen a car before other than in magazine photos. What he did have was mechanical skills, ingenuity and a romantic goal: to win the attentions of a young lady who was being courted by a competitor with a fancy horse and carriage. Sheldon did take the lass on some rides and later drove the car in the Skagway 4th of July parade, but the car apparently didn't see much action after that. Above photo courtesy of Candace Waugaman.

After the car spent a few years in storage in Juneau, Sheldon donated it to the Alaska College Museum in Fairbanks in 1934. For the past 30 years the little buggy has been part of the Southeast Alaska Gallery in the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Thanks to a generous 5-year loan from their museum, we will soon be displaying this treasured artifact as part of an exhibit about Bobby Sheldon. The man was truly Alaska's foremost automotive pioneer, and we think visitors will love learning more about Sheldon's colorful life. The exhibit opening will be May 17 at 5:30 p.m. Several of Sheldon's descendants will be present, and Fairbanks historian and journalist Dermot Cole will give a talk about Sheldon.

Until then, we are trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the car's original engine. Apparently it was removed before the car was shipped to Fairbanks, so it could be in either Skagway or Juneau. If you have any leads on the engine's whereabouts, please let us know as we would like to reunite it with the car.


P.S. Did Sheldon win the young lady's heart? You'll have to come see the exhibit to find out!

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