Bobby Sheldon Makes History in Alaska
This Day in Alaska History – First Automobile from Fairbanks to Valdez
On August 2, 1913, Robert “Bobby” E. Sheldon made history. His arrival in Valdez marked the day that the first automobile was driven by a civilian along the wagon trail from Fairbanks to Valdez—what would later be known as the Richardson Highway.
The trail itself was built in 1898 and connected Valdez to Eagle. When gold discoveries lessened in Eagle, the trail was detoured to connect with Fairbanks, which was having its own gold boom at the time.
Bobby Sheldon and three others left Fairbanks on July 29th. The group averaged 50 miles a day in Bobby’s Ford Model T. Sheldon had the car shipped to Fairbanks by rail and steamship. Because of shipping expenses, by the time it got to Fairbanks Sheldon had spent almost $1300 for the Model T, when the same car could be bought for less than $400 in Detroit.
The trip took them four days to complete and they were even able to fit in a detour to Chitina along the way. The journey wasn’t easy and included many obstacles, like having to build their own ferry to cross the Tanana River.
Being the first civilian to travel by automobile from Fairbanks to Valdez wasn’t Bobby’s only pioneering accomplishment in Alaska’s automotive history. In his early 20s Bobby introduced Alaska to its first automobile in 1905—a two-seat runabout that Sheldon built himself. As the story goes, Sheldon built the car in order to impress a lady in Skagway where he was living at the time. He didn’t get the girl, but the accomplishment of building Alaska’s first automobile, especially when he’d never seen one in person before, was enough to call the endeavor a success.
Bobby Sheldon was a pioneer of a special kind. His drive from Fairbanks to Valdez proved automobile travel from the coast to the interior was possible and laid the foundation for the construction of the Richardson Highway—Alaska’s first highway.
story by Anne Sanders of Last Frontier Magazine
Do you enjoy learning about some of Alaska’s awesome history? Check out “Discovering Gold at Pedro Creek.“