Friday, July 30, 2010

Alaska Transportation Pioneer

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

On Wednesday we held a reception in the museum to honor Robert Sheldon and celebrate the official opening of our exhibit about this fascinating Alaska pioneer. Several of Sheldon's family members, including his daughter, were in attendance.

Seven years after being left in Skagway at age 14 to fend for himself, Sheldon built Alaska's first car--even though he had never seen one in person before. This 105 year-old runabout is now on loan to us from the University of Alaska Museum of the North. There's a very entertaining story about Sheldon's motivation for building the car, and we hope you'll come visit and learn all about it.

A few years after he moved to Fairbanks from Skagway, Sheldon ordered the town's first Ford Model T. On July 29, 1913, he and three passengers left Fairbanks to attempt to drive the car over the 360-mile wagon trail to Valdez. They faced many hardships, including crossing the Tanana River at Big Delta. The ferry wasn't operating due to the river's floodwaters, so Sheldon and his crew built their own ferry out of two poling boats from the nearby Native village.

On August 2 (after a side trip to Chitina) the crew arrived in Valdez. Sheldon's pioneering trip proved that cars could navigate the trail, and within a few years he began Alaska's first automobile passenger stage on what would become the Richardson Highway. Sheldon was a vigorous promoter of tourism in Alaska, and in the 1920s he and his partners operated the first bus concession in Mt. McKinley National Park. Sheldon also served as an Alaska Road Commissioner, Territorial legislator, State Representative and Fairbanks postmaster before passing away in 1983.

Despite all of Robert Sheldon's contributions to Alaska transportation history, his name graces no highway, street or monument. Perhaps the new bridge being constructed in downtown Fairbanks could be named after him? We think that would be an appropriate honor for this remarkable man.

 Lower photos courtesy of Frances Erickson, daughter of Robert Sheldon. May not be used without permission.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lathrop High Class of 1970

by Willy Vinton

Last Saturday night was a very busy one at the museum with the Lathrop High Class of 1970 holding their reunion here. Everyone appeared to have a great time, and a lot of memories were shared with old friends. Dirk Tordoff from the UAF Film Archives put on a great program, taking everyone down memory lane with his Powerpoint presentation of places and things to do in the 60s in Fairbanks, TV shows, and toys of the day. Period music played during the event which helped bring back some memories, and even a couple cars showed up including a 56 chevy and a nice GTO to help set the mood. We hope everyone had a great time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fairbanks-Morse Engines in Alaska

by Nancy DeWitt

We had a very unique display at the Midnight Sun Cruise-In a few weeks ago. Alan James of Fairbanks brought his 1906 Fairbanks-Morse engine to the car show and talked about how these big machines were used to power the wireless transmitters along the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System. He then gave a lively demonstration on how to start the engine, which was similar to this description I found on-line:

"A kitchen match was loaded into a special plunger, and then screwed into a portal in the combustion chamber. After rotating the flywheel to bottom dead center of the compression stroke, the primer cup was filled with some gasoline, along with a little in the match hole for good measure. The match holder was then screwed into the match light portal and the flywheel was given a good heave in the reverse direction to compress the charge. The operator then hopped off at just the right time, hit the match plunger, and BLAM!!! Away it went!"

Alan discovered two of these Fairbanks-Morse engines in 2001 at the old Fort Gibbon site near the village of Tanana on the Yukon River. The engines were mounted on concrete platforms and housed in a two-story building that burned in the early 1950s. Alan had the engines barged to Nenana and shipped by rail to Fairbanks, where he restored the one pictured above. The other, a 1907 Type N-20 Special Electric, is on display at the Fountainhead Museum.  These Fairbanks-Morse engines are very impressive to see. The flywheels are 6 feet in diameter and the entire unit weighs over 10,000 lbs.

Many thanks to Alan for sharing his engine at the Cruise-In!