Monday, January 30, 2012

Alaska Motorcycle History

by Nancy DeWitt

Our 1917 Cleveland motorcycle, pictured at right with docent Mark Cosson aboard, has inspired us to try tracing the history of motorcycles in Alaska. We've only gathered a few pieces of information so far, but what we've found is interesting.

In April of 1909, more than four years before Bobby Sheldon would complete the first automobile journey between Fairbanks and Valdez, two men attempted the first motorized trip over the trail. With a sled in tow, S.M. Wheeler & W. L. Le Sage started out from Valdez on a 3.5-hp machine. "The plan worked like a charm for the first few miles... Then we began to encounter heavy snow and a blinding storm." They had to freight the motorcycle over the summit but were able to ride it until hitting more deep snow near Pollard's. There, a strap on the engine broke, so they freighted the motorcycle the rest of the way to Fairbanks. Still, Wheeler claimed a motorcycle equipped with chains could make the trip in under four days.

One motorcycle was already in Fairbanks in April 1909. "The only motorcycle working in the Tanana" belonged to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, one of several newspapers published in the young town. A carrier named Frank Cotter used it to deliver papers to other carriers in the Goldstream Valley. "It would be impossible to get a quicker or better delivery service on those creeks than is ours," bragged the News-Miner about their motorcycle delivery service.

Motorcycle accidents also made the news in 1909, including one involving an Indian motorcycle in Valdez. In Fairbanks, rider Ray Erchinger was hospitalized after "the front wheel got mad and started to run away. The afterpart of the machine didn't like it so stopped right there and Ray hit out for Sawyer's on an air line at an angle of umpty-three degrees." He might have been riding the used 3.5-hp M&M motorcycle that had been advertised in the newspaper one week prior, or possibly an Indian purchased from Smith's Gun Store.

After riding from Chitina to Fairbanks in April 1914, Joe Schultz's 7-hp Harley-Davidson was billed as the "first power machine to make the trail in winter." Schultz equipped his bike with a runner to fit in one sled track, while his wheels ran in another. As seen at left, it wouldn't be the last time an Alaskan would attach skis to a motorcycle.

Probably the most epic motorcycle ride made in Alaska was that by Clyde "Slim" Williams and John Logan. In 1939, Slim, John and Slim's dog, Blizzard, set out to pioneer a route through Alaska and Canada for the future Alaska Highway. We have video clips from their adventure playing in the museum, and I guarantee it will make your kidneys hurt watching them bounce over the tussocks. At right, Slim is walking his motorcycle across some trees he just chopped down by hand.

If you know of other Alaska motorcycle tales from the early 20th Century, let us know!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Coming Unhinged: Our 1908 Rambler

by Nancy DeWitt

While Willy is away at the Scottsdale auctions, I thought I'd present a short profile on one of our Brass Era automobiles. This 1908 Rambler Model 31 five-passenger tourer is in amazing condition for a 104-year-old car. Its original owner had the misfortune of letting the block freeze before he had driven it a mere 1,000 miles. Rather than repair the car, he left it sitting on blocks in storage for the next 67 years.

The Rambler's next owner acquired it in 1975 and refreshed the car with a new paint job and rubber products. Otherwise, it remains in all-original condition to this day. The photo at right shows how well the seats and woodwork have been preserved.

Bicycle maker Thomas Jeffery was among the first Americans to become interested in automobiles, building his first one in 1897 and moving into production of Ramblers in 1902. Jeffery quickly gained a reputation for building high-quality, medium-priced automobiles and became the second manufacturer after Oldsmobile to build cars on an assembly line.

The Rambler Model 31 was advertised as “the car for country roads.” This touring car’s most notable feature is its hinged body, which can be swung upward with ease to expose the two-cylinder, 206-cubic-inch engine and two-speed transmission. The tonneau can also be removed completely. The Jeffery Company claimed a person could convert this “utility car” from a five-passenger touring car to a two-passenger roadster or flatbed truck in three to five minutes. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Valdez Snow, Nome Ice & The Great Race in Alaska

by Nancy DeWitt

Alaska has been in the national news recently, thanks to several epic storms and snowfalls. The coastal towns of Cordova and Valdez are presently buried in snow while residents struggle to clear the streets and keep their roofs from collapsing. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard's only Arctic ice-breaker, the Healy, and the Russian-flagged tanker Renda are struggling through the Bering Sea ice pack in an attempt to deliver over one million gallons of heating oil to Nome. A hurricane-force storm in November prevented the usual autumn fuel delivery to Nome, hence this heroic effort. The ships' progress through shifting ice and towering pressure ridges has been difficult, to put it mildly.

Photo courtesy of Candy Waugaman
Massive snowfalls are not unusual in Valdez, which was the terminus for the first road connecting Fairbanks to the coast. Thompson Pass north of Valdez is renown for having the most snowfall ever recorded in Alaska: 974.5 inches (81.2 feet!) fell here during the winter of 1952-53. The first automobile stages traveling the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail were often halted by blizzards here and in the Alaska Range. In such instances, passengers were transferred to horse-drawn sleighs that met up with an automobile waiting further down the road. Even today's motorists can encounter blizzards and avalanches that shut down the highway or make driving treacherous.

Alaska's current predicament has reminded me of the absurdity of the original route planned for the 1908 New York-Paris automobile race. Organizers were convinced that automobiles would be able to travel from Valdez in March over the winter sleigh trail to Fairbanks, and then down the frozen Tanana and Yukon Rivers to Nome. From here they would cross the Bering Strait, either by ship or by dismantling the cars and sledding them across the ice! Not only can people not even WALK across the strait's pack ice without swimming because of open leads, the difficulties faced by a modern-day ice-breaker cast doubt that a steamship could have made the crossing that time of year.

Not surprisingly, the first automobile to reach Valdez by ship during the 1908 race (a Thomas Flyer now on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno) barely made it off the dock due to the deep snow and was shipped back south. Of course, that didn't make for an exciting Hollywood story, so a movie loosely based on the race took great liberty with this part of the tale. Remember "The Great Race" with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood? I'm still in awe at how easily they floated the Leslie Special and Hannibal 8 across the Bering Straight on an ice floe. If only we could get heating fuel to Nome so effortlessly! Fortunately, the pie fight later in the movie far out-sillied this scene.

By the way, you can see one of the four Leslie Specials made for the movie at the Tupelo Automobile Museum in Alabama, while one of the five Hannibal 8s made is on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum Los Angeles.

*Update* The Healy and Renda arrived at the port of Nome on January 14.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Ford Model T Seeks New Relationship

by Nancy DeWitt

Hard as it is to part with one of our beautiful museum cars, we've decided to sell our 1911 Ford Model T Runabout. We have several other Model Ts in our collection and need to make room for some recent acquisitions.

If you are looking for a Brass Era Model T that is ready for shows and/or excursions, this sporty automobile is being offered at the Gooding Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 21, 2012.

For more photos and a description of the car, click here for the Gooding auction catalog page. You'll need to spend a few seconds creating a password in order to view the full listing.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Blast from the Past: Museum Construction

by Nancy DeWitt

There isn't any news from our shop this week, so I've decided to take you back in time instead. It's hard to believe we broke ground for the museum only a few years ago. Here's a picture of the concrete work taken in August of 2008.

With summer nearing an end, our construction crew worked hard that September to get the building framed and enclosed before the cold temperatures hit.

As you can see, snow had fallen before we completed that goal.

Once enclosed, it was a busy winter for the construction crew and contractors as they worked on wiring, piping, venting, painting, flooring, etc. The rest of us were busy writing up signs and exhibit panels, ordering supplies, tuning up the automobiles and marketing this new attraction.

By the following spring, we were finally ready to start moving the cars out of storage and into the museum. Here the 1903 Toledo makes her entrance after being hauled across town. Several of the automobiles made it there under their own power.

As planned, we were ready for our June 1, 2009 opening. It had taken a village to get to that point, but the results were well worth the effort!