Monday, May 13, 2013

The Abbott-Detroit Bull Dog

 by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
William B. Norton Photographs, P226-099
Alaska State Library
When I began working with the Fountainhead Museum during its development stage, one of my first tasks was to research which automobiles were the first to reach Alaska. I found the intriguing photo at right in the digital archives of the Alaska State Library. It is labeled "Chas. C. Percival. Skagway, Alaska. Enroute 100,000 mile durability run. The Abbot-Detroit Bull Dog." I had never heard of an Abbott-Detroit before, and was curious to know why it was in Skagway in 1911. It turns out it was in Alaska during a famous publicity stunt.

1912 Abbott-Detroit, courtesy of
The Abbott-Detroit was a luxury automobile produced in Detroit from 1909-1916. Most were powered by Continental four or six-cylinder engines (a few carried eight-cylinder Herschell-Spillmans), considered by many to be the most durable engines of the time. Indeed, the company advertised that "Durability...stands out pre-eminently as a designating characteristic of all Abbott-Detroit cars." To prove this point, Abbott-Detroits were entered in numerous endurance contests, most notably Charles Percival's cross-continent adventure in the car above, nicknamed the "Bull Dog."

Percival was a journalist who "combined the chest-thumping machismo epitomized by Theodore Roosevelt's hunts in Africa and South America with an enthusiasm for the quickly emerging, fast-changing, and experimental technology of the early automobile." (Ducker 1999) The Abbott Motor Car Company had recruited him to drive a 1910 Model "30" stock touring car around the continent until 100,000 miles had been logged. The ambitious plan included a trip to Alaska, where Percival hoped to become the first person to drive an automobile from Skagway to Dawson City. He wrote a colorful account of his northern adventure in a book titled The Trail of the Bull-Dog.

Percival and his mechanic/driver, George Brown, arrived in Skagway via steamship in late September of 1911, where he proclaimed (incorrectly) that "The Bull Dog was the first automobile ever in Skagway."  After giving rides to many of the townspeople, they departed a few days later with Mr. J.J. Chambers of Skagway as an observer. Percival had hoped to cross the White Pass on snow, with runners on the Bull Dog's front wheels and spiked tires on the rear, but they had arrived too early for snow. Instead, they received permission to drive on the narrow-gauge railroad to get over the pass. The bumpy ride included crossing the 297' high steel bridge over Dead Horse Gulch, which they did at a brisk 15 mph in heavy fog.

It was a difficult trip. Between Lake Bennett and Caribou, Percival and Chambers walked alongside the car, laying down planks to cross bridges and culverts where the railroad ties were widely spaced. From Whitehorse to Carmacks they had to build corduroy sections to get across muddy portions of the old government trail. The unfrozen Yukon River prevented them from traveling beyond Carmacks, so they were forced to turn around. Despite their failure to reach Dawson, Percival and Brown were presented with a trophy from the Daily Alaskan for being the first to drive an automobile from Skagway to the Yukon River over the White Pass. While sailing south, the Bull Dog was supposed to become the first automobile to drive the streets of Juneau, but it never left the ship while docked there.

Percival logged only 50,000 miles on his journey, but that did not dissuade the Abbot Motor Car Company from boasting of the Bull Dog's feat. Sales did well, and in 1916 the company moved its operations from Detroit to a larger factory in Cleveland and renamed its cars Abbotts. As with many auto manufacturers of the time, this proved to be the company's undoing. Overextended, the company was bankrupt by 1918.

This is just one of the 80 or so large photographs from Alaska's pioneer days that we have on display. Be sure to budget an extra hour in the museum if you want to see them all and read their captions!

Ducker, James H. 1999. An Auto in the Wilderness. The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 90(2): 77-88.
Percival, Charles C. 1912. The Trail of the Bull-Dog. American Chauffeur Publishing Co., Cincinnati, OH.

1 comment:

  1. Great story with nice photographs! I will check out the book written of their journey as well.
    Thank you,
    R. Kent Abbott


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