Monday, January 20, 2014

Early Bus Transportation in Alaska

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

The first internal combustion buses appeared in the late 1800s in Europe, but Fairbanks wouldn't see its first one until 1925. Until the early 1920s, locals packed themselves into wagons, narrow-gauge train cars, automobiles, and trucks for in-town transit or rides between Fairbanks and other towns. One example is the Saurer truck at right, which served as a bus on July 4, 1913, transporting passengers to the ballfield to watch the first airplane flight over Fairbanks.

A few weeks later Robert Sheldon made his pioneering drive between Fairbanks and Valdez, proving that an automobile stage line to the coast was possible. For many years he relied on Model Ts, Cadillacs, and Dodges for his business, but eventually added buses to the fleet. By the 1920s he had formed the Richardson Highway Transportation Company (RHTC) with James L. Galen and George Hazelet, and in 1925 acquired the Graham Brothers bus shown here. "First Big Bus Comes to Town" proclaimed the May 25, 1925 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that year. "A fourteen-passenger bus was received on last night's train by the Richardson Highway Transportation Company for local use throughout the summer."

The RHTC next acquired the bus at right for carrying passengers between Fairbanks and the coast. I have not been able to identify its make, nor has the Museum of Bus Transportation. The coach somewhat resembles a Flxible, which was commonly mounted on chassis from Buick, Studebaker and Reo. I don't recognize the chassis either and cannot read the emblem above the radiator. There is some resemblance to Studebaker buses of the time (and there is a reference to the RHTC owning a Studebaker bus), but the front end isn't right. Any idea what it is?

The RHTC owned two of these buses, one of which was driven on the Richardson Highway by Bill Frame in the late 20s and early 30s. Thomas Groves drove the second one between Fairbanks and Circle "to connect with up and down river boats" according to an ad in the News-Miner.

In 1925 Robert Sheldon, James Galen, and Fairbanks mayor Thomas Marquam acquired the first automobile transportation concession in Mt. McKinley National Park. The Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company (MMTTC) used a variety of vehicles to carry passengers on tours, including a fleet of Studebaker Big Sixes, the Graham Brother bus shown above (and the 2nd car in this line), and even a horse-drawn stagecoach brought in from Yellowstone. Most of their customers traveled to the Park entrance by train, and then they were transported 12 miles to a base camp at the Savage River.

One of the most intriguing early buses in interior Alaska was a ca. 1924 Fageol (pronounced "fadgl") safety coach owned by the MMTTC, shown here with driver and naturalist George Lingo*. The name derived from its low center of gravity (it had an underslung frame and "under-worm" axle) and its extra wide track. The 5-door, 22-seat coach was powered by a 4-cylinder Hall-Scott engine and sat on a 218 inch wheelbase. Sheldon's daughter, Frances Erickson, recalls that the Fageol was very upscale.

By the mid-30s the MMTTC had several buses in their fleet, including these three that need to be identified.
From Snapshots from the Past: A Roadside History
of Denali National Park and Preserve

Available from Alaska Geographic
Of course, there were other buses in Alaska before 1940, but I lack the space to cover all of them. You can read about the Skagway "Street Car" tour buses here and see a photo of Juneau's first school buses here and here.

Above photos courtesy of Candy Waugaman and Frances Erickson. May not be reproduced without permission.

*According to the University of Alaska website, "Lingo was one of the organizers for the Mt. McKinley Tourist Organization, a group struggling to put 'The Mountain' on the map as a tourist attraction as early as the late 1920s. Several winters he was assigned the job of traveling through the U.S. placing exhibits of Mt. McKinley Park in all major transportation companies, and meeting with tourist companies and the press. In 1932 George was elected to the Territorial Legislature as a Fairbanks representative. He was 31 at the time, the youngest man ever elected to the House and the first Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines' graduate to hold public office. He served two terms." Frances Erickson remembers that Lingo knew how to pick up porcupines bare-handed, which no doubt prepared him for his career in politics!

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

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