We love telling the story about how young Bobby Sheldon built his runabout in 1905, but was this truly the first automobile in Alaska?
Several months ago I came across a story about the first attempt to reach Dawson City by automobile--in 1900. Now, the only way an automobile could get to the Klondike then was either by a Yukon River sternwheeler or a train ride from Skagway over the White Pass and Yukon Railroads--both of which require travel through Alaska. Intrigued, I uncovered the following details.
The expedition was led by E. Janne de Lamare of Paris, who had already traveled to the Klondike twice before. Joining him were E. Crom and Raphael Merville, also of Paris. According to the New York Times, they had "a special vehicle...constructed for the purpose, and is of an extraordinarily heavy pattern. The automobile is specially arranged so that the front wheels can be transformed into sled runners, while the pneumatic hind wheels can be replaced by spikes. The automobile will pull a sledge behind it on the ice." It weighed 450 lbs and was powered by a 5-HP gasoline engine.
|1898 Leon Bollee Voiterette on display|
at the Gilmore Car Museum
A "motor-tricycle" was also shipped from France for the trip, a 3-HP Leon Bollé Voiturette. Both vehicles were transported to Skagway by steamship, and then by rail to Canada's Lake Bennett, the starting point for the planned 640-mile drive to Dawson. As best I can tell, only the voiturette attempted the drive from Lake Bennett, accompanied by an oxen team pulling their gasoline supply on a sled. After enduring extreme cold, overflow, snow drifts, broken parts and a fire, they were thwarted by an early thaw on the Fifty-Mile, less than 100 miles into their journey. They detoured south to Atlin, arriving on April 4, where they made repairs and drove back to Lake Bennett. Lemare apparently shipped the heavier vehicle back to France, while a 1904 article in the Dawson Daily News claims that his voiturette was eventually brought north to Dawson City and abandoned. This photo does appear to be the automobile in Dawson.
|A screen shot from the Motor-Car Journal,|
Vol. 2. January 19, 1901
Do either of LeMarre's vehicles qualify as "the first automobile in Alaska?" I would say the answer is yes if they traveled under their own power from the dock to the rail station in Skagway. But what if they were pushed, or crated (perhaps even disassembled) and transported to the train by wagon?
There are further references to automobiles in Dawson from 1901 on, and I'm researching the possibility that an automobile was shipped to Valdez in 1903. Any of these might dispel the claim that Sheldon's was the first automobile in Alaska, but there is little doubt that his runabout was the first automobile built here.