Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On the Road: Skagway

by Willy Vinton
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum


Photo courtesy of Candy Waugaman
I just returned from a quick trip to Skagway, where Bobby Sheldon built Alaska's first automobile and Martin Itjen operated his historic street car tour business.

Skagway is a quaint little town that sits on the water at the head of Taiya Inlet. Getting there from Fairbanks isn't easy. One either drives 1.5 days, passing through Canada en route, or flies to Juneau and then hops onto a ferry or small plane for a ride north up Lynn Canal. I opted for the latter.

I have to say that upon arriving in Skagway via Seaplanes Alaska, I have not been that cold in a good many years. It was 27 F with a 35 mph wind blowing from the northeast, right down the streets like a wind tunnel. It felt like I was in Prudhoe Bay!

Photo courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush
National Park, Rapuzzi Collection
To warm up, I went and examined the Martin Itjen "Street Car #1" for the National Park Service. The bus has a lot of history and character about it, and is in need of some work to preserve it for the long-term.

The street car is an interesting blend of parts. It sits on a 1908 Packard chassis, and the rear part of the body is from a horse-drawn omnibus. The current engine is a 1919 Dodge 4-cylinder with a 3-speed transmission coupled to the Packard differential. A lot of additions were made to this unique vehicle, which I will write about in a future post.

Photo courtesy of Klondike Gold Rush
National Park, Rapuzzi Collection
It would be nice to know the history of the Packard that Itjen used in this street car. We would also love to know the history of the Veerac truck (at right) that he used in an earlier rendition of Street Car #1, which also carried the omnibus body.

Skagway is a neat place to visit if you have not been there, but I would recommend that you go during the summer and avoid that nasty wind.


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!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Alaska's First Pierce-Arrow

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Pierce Great Arrow in Fairbanks, Alaska
Photo courtesy of Candy Waugman. May not be used without permission.
The 1906 Great Arrow shown above was the first known Pierce-Arrow in Alaska and the fifth automobile in Fairbanks, arriving on the steamer Tanana on September 6, 1909. Dave Coutemanche, owner of the Comet Barber Shop, used it for a passenger stage between Fairbanks and Ester until one fateful day in November of 1910.

“Courtemanche Auto Wrecked By A Fire” proclaimed the headline in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Because of a leaking gasoline tube, one of the few autos in the camp, the Pierce Arrow car of Dave Courtemanche is now a burned and twisted wreck, the auto having caught fire…and burned so fiercely that it was almost impossible to extinguish the flames." The leaking gasoline spread the fire onto the roadway for several meters around the burning car. "An attempt was made to pull the auto out of the burning pool but that proved useless as a new pool of fire was quickly formed.” 

Fortunately, the Great Arrow was not a complete loss, and someone performed some major repairs on it after the fire. By the time Charles W. Joynt purchased it in March of 1914, it only needed some minor work to make it operational. Joynt, who was manager of the Tanana Valley Railroad, intended to use the automobile to transport passengers between Gilmore (located several miles north of Fox on what is now the Steese Highway) and Summit Roadhouse. Passengers could ride the train or electric rail car between Fairbanks and Gilmore, but from Gilmore the railroad turned west and north to Olnes, passing through the site of today’s Hilltop CafĂ© on the Elliot Highway. The Great Arrow provided quick access to and from the Summit Roadhouse, which was located to the east on Cleary Summit.

Joynt's venture must not have done well, for he sold the Great Arrow to Hosea Ross (likely the driver pictured above) the following year. While carrying passengers between Fairbanks and Big Delta, the car became hopelessly stranded near Shaw Creek during the big October blizzard of 1915. Then on August 14, 1916, with five passengers and driver R.T. Blakely aboard, it plunged through the bridge spanning Chena Slough and into the water. “Six Men Narrowly Escape Death When Bridge Collapses” noted the Fairbanks Daily Times. The big car was almost completely submerged, upside down, and one passenger nearly drowned. Apparently the nine- year-old bridge had been considered unsafe for some time. The car was salvaged and was still in Fairbanks in 1922, but its fate after that is unknown.

1907 Pierce Great Arrow at the Nethercutt Museum
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!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Steam Whistles & a Locomobile Engine

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Be sure to look closely under our video players when you visit the museum. You'll find some interesting artifacts, including these steam whistles and Locomobile steam engine.

Steam whistles were commonly used on locomotives and steam ships as warning devices, and in factories to signal shift changes. When the lever was pulled, a valve opened and let live steam escape through an aperture. The steam alternately compressed and expanded inside the bell, creating the sound. The whistle’s tone depended on the bell’s length and how far the operator opened the valve.

The 2-cylinder Locomobile double-acting steam engine was designed by the Stanley Brothers and is nearly identical to the one in the museum’s 1901 Rochester (not  presently on display). In addition to powering automobiles, Locomobile engines were used for industrial purposes like driving conveyors and hoists, and feeding sawmill carriages.


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!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Vintage Threads: Automobile Lap Robes

by Nancy DeWitt
Lap robe and foot warmer. A "carbon coal brick" was
ignited and placed in the foot warmer's tray for heat.
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

We don't have a lot of artifacts beyond cars and fashions in our museum, but visitors may have noticed a traffic light, gas pump, spark plug collection, and some displays in the video kiosks. Careful observers may have also noticed a few blankets hanging behind the front seats of several of the cars. These lap robes are carryovers from the carriage and sleigh days, and served the same purpose after the advent of the automobile; that is, something to snuggle under while riding in an open, unheated vehicle.

Lap robes were typically made from wool, mohair, horsehair, curly silk, or alpaca. Some were made from leather or had a rubber outer layer for use in wet weather. Robes came with many different designs, ranging from solid colors and geometric patterns to flower and animal motifs. The 1912 Chase catalog alone offered more than 150 lap robe designs. In Alaska, fur-covered hides from caribou or bear were probably the warmest choice.



A garment rack or robe rail gave passengers a place to drape their robes and coats when not in use. Robe rails were typically made of brass, nickel, or braided cord.

As the automobile grew in popularity, so did the diversity of lap robe options. Some had special pockets for feet, while others had fur handmuffs sewn inside.

Some lap robes were precursors to today's "Snuggies," where the user fastened him- or herself into a custom-fitted bag. The one at right, featured in the February 1915 issue of Popular Mechanics, offered a chest protector." I'm unclear what this entailed. A built-in bra? A leather shield to protect from flying rocks? Or simply a layer of blanket worn over the chest?

When upscale car manufacturers started giving wealthy buyers their choice of coachwork, some blanket companies began offering the option of ordering a lap robe to match or complement a car's interior.



Other entrepreneurs developed accessories for lap robes and rails, including locks that secured a blanket or coat to the rail (photo at left). One invention rolled a robe out of and back into a spring-loaded case, so one could pull it out like a window shade (see ad at right). Another inventor developed a child seat that attached to the robe rail. In 1929, a patent was issued for a robe rail with a removable cap on one end, allowing for an umbrella, cane, or fishing rod to be inserted for storage.

Robe rails were added to automobiles for many decades, and one can be found in one the youngest production cars we have on display, a 1934 Packard. Automobile robe rails and straps were not uncommon through the 1950s, as car heaters were wither absent or insufficient for warming the back passenger area. Although modern cars don't carry robe rails, I can tell you from experience that some Alaskans still resort to using lap blankets when riding in a car here at -40!