Monday, December 16, 2013

Early Cadillacs in Fairbanks

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
1909 White Model M steam car.

Visitors to our museum are often surprised to learn that the first automobiles to arrive in Fairbanks were big expensive touring cars, rather than spunky little Model Ts. Prestigious names like Pope-Toledo, Franklin, White, Thomas, and Pierce were among those first arrivals between 1908 and 1910. Navigating what passed for roads in the mining district required the high-horsepower engines that powered these cars; plus, their owners weren't looking for a Sunday-drive pleasure craft, but rather a workhorse that could haul paying passengers and freight to outlying communities. A little Brush runabout and a Chalmers-Detroit roadster were imported here during this period, but they were most likely limited to in-town excursions until improvements were made to the roads.

J.H. Groves at the wheel of his 1910 or '11 Cadillac Model 30. Three of the
passengers are A.J. Nordale (mayor of Fairbanks from 1910-11),
Dan Driscoll (mayor from 1912-13) and Theodore Kettleson.
Photo courtesy of Frances Erickson
The first Cadillac in Fairbanks, a 5-passenger touring car, arrived by sternwheeler for J.H. Groves on July 3, 1913, just four days after the first Ford Model Ts were delivered here. Not surprisingly, Groves planned to use it as a passenger stage. Within weeks of its arrival, he decided to see if he could be the first to drive an automobile to Chitina. Alas, Bobby Sheldon and his Model T had a head start of several hours on him. Groves left town on July 30 with three passengers and then turned over the wheel to his nephew, Berkley Manford, at McCarty. The auto party rolled into Chitina on August 4, two days after Sheldon.

A glacial stream crossing in the Alaska Range that
didn't go so well. Photo courtesy of Frances Erickson.
Although Sheldon would go on to start his Fairbanks-Valdez passenger stage service with Fords, he was sufficiently impressed with Groves’ Cadillac to purchase it in 1915. “Business is increasing rapidly and I find it necessary to give my passengers the best accommodations possible,” he said, preferring the heavier, more comfortable cars to the light Fords and Dodges. In 1916 he added a 7-passenger Cadillac to his stage line. A competitor, Henry Williams, imported a Cadillac the following year for his own passenger business. 

We have five vintage Cadillacs on display in the museum. Our 1909 Model 30 (named for its horsepower) is very similar to the first Cadillac in Fairbanks, but has a shorter wheelbase and demi-tonneau body. When it was introduced in 1909, the 'Thirty' was a remarkable success, with sales that year far outstripping those of every earlier Cadillac model. It's not surprising that one of these popular cars founds its way to Fairbanks over 100 years ago. The Thirty remained the sole model in Cadillac’s catalog for six years, and in 1912 became “The car that has no crank” with the introduction of the Delco electric starter motor. 

We hope you'll come check out our Cadillac display!

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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