Monday, August 11, 2014

The First Automobiles in Alaska

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

I've started to compile a book about Alaska's automobile history, based on research I've done for signs in the museum and for this blog. While digging through my notes recently I started reviewing what I've learned about the first automobiles to arrive in different Alaska communities. Here's a summary:

Skagway - the first automobiles to pass through Skagway--and Alaska--were likely the Leon BollĂ© Voiturette (right) and another car brought north in 1900 by Count Emile Janne de Lamare of Paris. As best I can tell, neither vehicle was driven in Skagway. Instead, they were transported from a ship directly to the train for shipment to Whitehorse, where de Lamare planned to drive them to Dawson City. You can read about his (mis)adventure here.

The first automobile actually driven in Alaska was also the first one built here: Bobby Sheldon's runabout, built in 1905 in Skagway. Thankfully, the car still exists. Sheldon donated it the University of Alaska's museum in 1935 and it is on loan to us from the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Nome - The next automobile to be driven in Alaska appears to be this Thomas Flyer. It was shipped to Nome in the spring of 1904 by the Alaska Automobile Transportation Company of Olympia, Washington. It was later purchased by A.E. Boyd of the Alaska Telephone and Telegraph Company.

Valdez - There is a bit of debate about the first automobile in Valdez. Pioneer Ken Rudolph wrote in his memoir that James Fish brought the first horseless carriage there "along about 1904." He then goes on to describe what sounds just like Fish's IHC high-wheeled Auto Buggy, which didn't actually arrive in Valdez until June 9, 1912 (IHC introduced their Auto Buggy in late 1906). I believe that the Thomas Flyer driven by the American team in the 1908 around-the-world race was the first automobile seen in Valdez, arriving April 9, 1908 on the steamship Bertha. In driver George Schuster's written account of the trip he quoted Valdez freighter Dan Kennedy as saying, "It's the first automobile I have ever seen."

Unfortunately the Flyer never made it off the wharf. Likely the first automobile to cruise the streets of Valdez was the 1909 White Model M steamer owned by the Valdez-Fairbanks Auto Transfer Company, shown at right. I have no record of when this car arrived in Valdez.

Ketchikan - The photo of the highwheeler at right is labeled "First automobile in Ketchikan, Governor Wildred B. Hoggatt driving, ca. 1908." I have my doubts about the date and "first auto" claim, as the car pictured is a 1911 IHC Auto Buggy. A Ketchikan Daily article dated June 13, 1908, noted: "Well, well, well! With the advent of a yellow-backed two seated touring car, Ketchikan has again cinched her title as the first city in Alaska. The car is speedy one, though run with only one horse power." I only wish I knew what kind of car they were describing. Perhaps a REO?

Fairbanks -  The first automobile in Fairbanks was this Type XV Pope-Toledo that arrived on August 6, 1908, on the sternwheeler Cudahy. It was shipped in for David Laiti, owner of the Fairbanks Flume Hose Factory. Laiti had also ordered a Franklin and White Steamer that would arrive on a later boat. The photo at right of the Pope-Toledo was taken in 1910, after the car had been sold to Dave Courtemanche.

Cordova - The first automobile in Cordova was a White Model M steam car, purchased by Captain Austin Lathrop to ferry passengers between the docks, railroad, and hotels. It arrived on March 21, 1910 and is shown here with a load of school children on Flag Day that year.

Sitka - The May 21, 1910 issue of Automobile Topics magazine reported that an Ahnut "Six" had been ordered by someone in Sitka. I would love to find a record of it arriving there, and to determine if it was the town's first automobile.

Juneau - Reportedly the first automobile seen by the residents of Juneau in their coastal town was the Abbott-Detroit Bull Dog (right), driven by Charles Percival during his cross-continental durability run in 1911. Percival originally planned to offload the Bull Dog in Juneau for a spin around the town while traveling south from Skagway, but the steamship schedule didn't allow time for that. Instead, the townspeople could only admire the boat on its perch on the City of Seattle's forward deck. A few sources state the first automobile to be driven in Juneau was a second-hand Pope-Toledo brought in by William Burridge, a mechanic working at Martin Lynch's Machine Shop. It appears to have arrived in 1911. I would think that automobiles would have arrived in Juneau earlier than that. I need to follow up on reports of some homemade motor cars and a note that a man named Charlie Rudy had the first automobile in the area.

Ruby - The first auto in Ruby was purchased by a group of citizens to carry freight and passengers between the town and mining camps on the winter roads. Newspaper articles I have do not mention the make of the car, but give a colorful description of its first outing on November 16, 1914 with Morton Adams at the wheel. "With seven men in the car she swung around the corner at the N.C. bridge and was off on the government road up the hill. She flew like a duck; she sang like a bird; she stopped like a mother's cradle and ran like a scared wolf." 

Seward - This photo is labeled "April 24, 1915 arrival of the first automobile in Seward." One source says that Robert Ashland's Model T truck was the first auto in Seward (likely the truck in the photo), while another claims the Pete Ogle's black Ford four-door touring car came there first. 

Circle - In the spring of 2015, a Ford Model T (right) owned by John Palm arrived in Circle, I assume by riverboat on the Yukon River. He used it to transport people and freight between Circle and Miller House at mile 114 of what would later be called the Steese Highway. Palm was driving it in August of 1915 "when suddenly, for some unknown reason, it swerved and jumped into the river," nearly killing him. The car apparently suffered little damage.

Nenana - William Coghill brought the first automobile, a Ford truck, to Nenana on the steamer Tanana on October 14, 1916. That following January, Bob Scanlon drove a Bob Sheldon car with skis under the front wheels from Fairbanks to Nenana--the first automobile to make the overland journey.

Anchorage - Joe Spenard is credited with bringing the first automobile to Anchorage in 1916, a REO truck. Spenard also brought in a 1915 Ford Model T (shown at right), which became the city's first taxi.

If you have information about and/or photos of the first automobiles in any Alaska communities, or corrections to the above, please let us know!

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