Monday, August 12, 2013

Valdez or Bust, 100 Years Later: Part 1

by Willy Vinton
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

On July 29, 2013, a group of intrepid travelers departed Fairbanks at 10:15 AM to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Robert Sheldon's pioneering drive down the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (now Richardson Highway). Sheldon made the trip in a Ford Model T, but we chose one of Fairbanks's very first Dodges--a former Valdez Trail stage on display in the museum--as our honorary chariot. We were able to leave 12 hours ahead of Sheldon's evening departure time for an interesting reason. Unlike Sheldon, who had to wait for creek levels to fall at night in order to ford them, we knew we'd have easy crossings thanks to bridges.

We only made it about five miles before we had our first flat tire (you can see the tire getting low in the photo at right). We were running on new old stock tires that had never been used, and the old tube in one failed.  We stopped in North Pole, removed the tire, and sent Don back to Fairbanks for a new tube and repairs. Thanks to TDS, we were back on the road before long.

As we progressed down the road to Delta and Rika's Roadhouse, the old Dodge started to run rough. We were traveling at a slower pace than we liked, but the car still pulled the hills in high gear, running best at a slow pace of around 20 mph. Several stops to attempt to correct the problem didn't improve things, even using FORD parts (i.e., baling wire).  Once at Rika's, we let the car sit and figured out the problem. Once again Don was sent to find repair parts. He located a coil and condenser at Delta's NAPA store, and after a few modifications we got the parts installed and once again had a great running old Dodge.

We spent our first night by the Lodge at Black Rapids, where we had a very warm welcome and a rare evening with no wind. We took a tour of the original Rapids Roadhouse, which Lodge owners Mike and Annie Hopper are working to restore. It is one of the few historic roadhouses along the Richardson Highway that is still standing. The photo at right was taken a few decades after Bobby Sheldon first drove by it.

On the second day we continued through the Alaska Range, climbing up to Isabelle Pass and Summit Lake. The weather was perfect, and there wasn't a wrinkle on the lake. A tour bus stopped while we were there and lots of pictures were taken of us. We enjoyed sharing information about Sheldon's drive with all with the tourists. Shown here is our group (l-r): Don and Nancy Cameron, Steve Carey, Ray and Jill Cameron, Dave Stone (with the halo) and me. Bobbie Hasselbring, a travel writer who came along to write a story for  Motor Home Magazine, took the photo.

Don has a very determined look in the photo at right, as if he is just going to walk the rest of the way. Maybe that was how Sheldon felt about this time on his trip! For us, we had encountered enough challenges to make the trip interesting, but nothing like Sheldon must have experienced on that first drive down the Trail.

At this point in the trip we all agreed it had been a great adventure so far, getting to know the car, how it reacts and what it likes. It had to be satisfying for Steve to know that all the work he had done on the Dodge's engine was first class, and that the car just might make it all the way to Valdez.

Read Part II here.

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