Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Charles Bunnell's Excellent Adventure

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

This photo was taken in Chitina, Alaska, on September 11, 1914. Robert Sheldon is standing on the far right. Next to him is Charles E. Bunnell, who had recently been appointed U.S. District Judge of the 4th Division by President Woodrow Wilson. Bunnell had hired Sheldon to drive him north from Valdez to Fairbanks so he could campaign for Alaska's Territorial delegate seat in Congress.

Photo courtesy of Frances Erickson
Notice that the car 's body has been removed, and that two wooden chairs have taken the place of the regular seat. Sheldon was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to make it to Fairbanks because of deep mud, so to lighten the load he removed the car’s body and seats, and then strapped two barroom chairs to the chassis. 

“I’ve never sat in a barroom chair before,” growled the judge, “but I suppose there’s always a first time.” 

By the time they reached Paxson, Sheldon and Bunnell had endured two days and nights of steady rain. Five inches of snow greeted them in Isabel Pass. In places the mud was so deep that they had to be pulled through by a team of horses. They didn't arrive in Fairbanks until the evening of September 17. Bunnell lost the election to Judge James Wickersham, but later served as the first president of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska). While there he played a pivotal role in bringing Sheldon's homemade runabout to the University's museum.

Imagine riding on a wooden chair in an open car--for seven days in crummy weather! The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner wrote this about Sheldon's and Bunnell's drive:

Big Trail Has No Terrors for The Auto Driver and His Little Ford. It's Stripped for Action.
The weather may storm and threaten, rain and snow, all of which it did this trip. Mud may get axle deep, bridges may break down, creeks may overflow their banks, all of which was true this time. But Sheldon seems to beat the game any way it is played. He dismantled his machine before leaving Chitina, saving several hundred pounds of weight, and all roads have to give way to him.

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