Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chasing Ghosts - Part III: Thomas Flyer

by Nancy DeWitt

Fairbanks boasts an impressive list of the first automobiles to arrive in this Gold Rush town, including Pope-Toledo, Franklin, White Steamer, Pierce Great Arrow and Thomas Flyer. We have been fortunate to track down photographs of all but the Thomas, and its fate remains a mystery.

© Bettmann/CORBIS
Many know about the Thomas Flyer that came to Valdez, Alaska in 1908 during the famous New York to Paris automobile race. Alas, she never made it beyond the wharf. Whoever thought that automobiles could travel from Valdez to Nome across 1,000 miles of winter trails was seriously mistaken. It didn't help that the Thomas and her crew arrived in early April, two weeks behind schedule. The only way an automobile could have made it through 15-foot, melting snow drifts was in pieces, pulled by several dog teams. So, the Thomas and her crew caught the first steamer to Seattle, where they would resume and eventually win the race. (This historic auto now resides at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.)

© Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS
Meanwhile, a Thomas Flyer had already made it to Nome, having arrived there by steamship in 1905. The Alaska Automobile Transportation Company in Olympia, Washington had big plans to develop a passenger stage between Nome and Solomon City on a 32-mile toll road. The road was never completed though, and the Thomas came under the ownership of A.E. Boyd, the general manager for the Alaska Telephone and Telegraph Company. Other than providing rides up and down Nome's beach, this car's fate remains unknown.

The Nome Thomas Flyer   © Bettmann/CORBIS
In 1908, Fairbanks undertaker Hosea Ross established a passenger-stage between Fairbanks and Fox with his Franklin touring car. The following year, he ordered a Thomas Flyer, "a big 70." He had to take out a loan to cover its $4,000 cost and $600 freight charge. Ross did daily runs to Chatanika with the Thomas, earning about $100 per day and quickly paying off his debt. His biggest expense involved tires, which cost him $300 for a set and only lasted about a month due to the poor road conditions. In the fall of 1910, Ross took the Thomas to the new mining camp of Iditarod. He broke through the river ice on his first run to Dikeman, while snowstorms stymied his attempts to drive between Iditarod and Flat. Pronouncing his Iditarod venture a failure, Ross bought a dog team and returned to Fairbanks in the spring of 1911.

Did Ross leave his Thomas Flyer out in the Iditarod Mining District? Not likely, as a 1914 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner includes it in a list of 25 automobiles "in actual running condition in Fairbanks today." How we would love to find it, tucked away in the shed of a willing seller!

1 comment:

  1. Check out Dermot Cole's "Hard Driving" book about the New York to Paris race for an in-depth read about the Alaska portion of the Great Race route. His book is out of print, but used copies are available through Amazon and other sources.


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