Story Time with Aunt Phil: Alaska's first car
On August 2, 1913, an Alaska sourdough completed the first automobile trip from Fairbanks to Valdez. It took Robert E. Sheldon 59 hours of actual driving time over a wagon trail to reach the little town in Prince William Sound.
Bobby Sheldon built the first car in Alaska. He saw pictures of the new-fangled machine in newspapers sent north from the states. He built a frame over four buggy wheels, put gears on a used marine engine and made a chain drive.
The two-passenger car traveled at a dizzying speed of 15 miles per hour. And back in 1905, when horse-drawn wagons and dog sleds were the popular modes of transportation, his invention caused quite a stir in Skagway.
After he became manager of the Fairbanks Northern Commercial power plant in 1908, his interest in autos continued. He eventually ordered a four-passenger Model T Ford convertible touring car. The Detroit price was $390, but by the time it traveled by rail to Seattle, steamship to St. Michael and riverboat up the Yukon, Tanana and Chena rivers to Fairbanks, it cost Sheldon $1,297 – almost $34,000 in today's dollars.
But he recouped that cost and more within two weeks of its arrival by whizzing up and down dirt wagon roads with passengers giving him gold for the privilege of riding in his car.
It didn't take Sheldon long to realize the commercial value of cars. He quit his job, and along with three passengers, set out on July 29, 1913, to try the impossible – travel by car over the primitive wagon trail.
They jolted over washouts, plowed through slides and mud and forded streams with no bridges to arrive in Valdez at 11 p.m. on August 2. They had cut the 370-mile trip down from more than two weeks to about five days.
He sold the Model-T for $1,300 in Valdez and bought a bicycle. He then pedaled back to Fairbanks, becoming the first person to ride a bike from Valdez to the Interior city.
He then ordered more Model-Ts and started Sheldon's Auto-Stage Line. The 100 miles a day made by Sheldon's fleet proved impossible for completion for other outfits – and many historic roadhouses went out of business, too, as they were spaced about 20 miles apart to accommodate those traveling by horse and wagon or dog team.
Sheldon, who later served in our Territorial and State legislatures, died in 1983 at the age of 99. He never got rich from his pioneering transportation efforts, but he felt rich in friends, memories and engineering achievements. He often said: "Who wants to be the richest man in the cemetery?"