Monday, September 16, 2013

Highwheelers in Alaska

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

One of my first jobs when we were planning the museum was to determine what cars were the first in Alaska. We wanted to acquire identical or similar models to help tell the story of the Territory’s automotive history. One of the most challenging tasks was finding a surviving Pope-Toledo—the first kind of automobile in Fairbanks. It took several years, but I finally tracked one down in Kentucky and the stars aligned for it to become ours. My sights are now set on finding a Pierce Great Arrow and an Imp Cyclecar.

Crary-Henderson Collection,
Anchorage Museum B1962.1.1963
A few of the museum cars, such as our 1908 Brush, were purchased before we learned that they represented early Alaska automobiles. Our 1909 IHC (International Harvester Company) Model D auto buggy at right is another example. We wanted a highwheeler in the museum because of their unique design and historical role as “the farmer’s auto.” The tall wheels (40” in front, 44” in the rear) gave the auto buggy a full 18” clearance, which helped it negotiate the muddy and rutted country roads of the day. The wheels were set 60” apart to fit in the tracks made by wagons.

A few years ago I came across the photo at right at the Anchorage Museum. This highwheeler was photographed in front of the Paystreak Roadhouse near Nome in 1909. Lo and behold, it’s an IHC auto buggy, identical to ours!

Courtesy of Candy Waugaman
There was at least one other IHC highwheeler in Alaska. In July of 1912, James Fish, Jr. shipped a 20-HP IHC auto buggy to Valdez on the steamer Mariposa. In addition to holding a number of mining claims, Fish owned a dairy, poultry farm and general store, was chief clerk of the post office, and operated the Valdez Transportation Company, which carried passengers to Fairbanks by horse-drawn stages and sleds. In the early 1900s he had secured a government contract to carry mail from Valdez to Eagle by dog sled. By 1912 he must have decided that upgrading to an automobile was the way to go, as he planned to use his auto buggy to transport mail between Valdez and Gulkana.

1911 IHC Model A Auto Wagon at the National Auto &
Truck Museum. By 1910, IHC highwheelers were redesigned
with a hood up front, even though the water-cooled engine
still resided under the seat and no radiator was needed.
“... (Fish’s) machine will be able to plow through mud a foot thick,” proclaimed the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Autos were tried on the Fairbanks end of the trail two years ago in the winter time but never before have they been used on (the Valdez) end. The Fairbanks people have been agitating for an automobile road to the coast and if successful Mr. Fish will bear the distinction of being the pioneer in using autos for summer travel.” I have yet to find any photos or other mention of Fish’s IHC, so I have no idea how it worked for his mail service. 

How I wish I knew what became of the Nome and Valdez IHCs, and if either survives! If you are aware of any other highwheelers that were in Alaska, please let me know.

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying at one of the Fountainhead Hotels. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!

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