Robert “Bobby” Sheldon’s runabout. Credit: Victor Rivers family papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
Next time you’re cruising at 60 miles per hour over smooth asphalt on the Richardson Highway, think of Robert “Bobby” Sheldon. Sheldon was the first person to drive an automobile from Fairbanks to Valdez. The route he took was then a primitive wagon trail dubbed the Valdez Trail, and his arduous journey took four days. Today, the trip would take about six-and-a-half hours. Sheldon was an automobile pioneer in the north, and likely the first person to ever take a road trip in Alaska.
Sheldon has a fascinating story. He journeyed to Skagway with his father during the Klondike Gold Rush, and when his father left, young Sheldon decided to stay behind and forge a life for himself in the north. He was always mechanically inclined, and he worked on small steamboats operating out of Skagway and Dyea, and he worked in the Skagway power plant.
In 1905, when he was 22 years old, he fancied a girl in Skagway who was dating a man with a nice horse and carriage. Sheldon figured the best way to one up his competitor was to court the girl with an automobile. There were no cars in Alaska at the time, so Sheldon built one. Basing his design on pictures in popular science magazines, Sheldon gathered scraps to construct his car. He salvaged a two-cycle marine engine from an old boat, used wheels from porter cars, and repurposed old bar stools into seats. Car complete, he took his girl on “many an exciting spin at 15 miles per hour,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published in 1957. Despite his ingenuity and having the coolest—and only—car in town, he didn’t win the lady’s heart.
That didn’t dampen the young man’s fascination with motor vehicles. Eight years later, after Sheldon had relocated to Fairbanks, he figured it was feasible to drive a Ford Model T from the interior city to the coast. Sheldon and three passengers set out from Fairbanks in a Model T with a banner reading “Fair- banks. Chitina. Valdez!! or Bust!!” hanging from the side of the vehicle. Averaging nine miles per hour, the trip took him four days and required him to cross the Tanana River with the Model T straddling two poling boats.
After that trip’s success, Sheldon started a transportation company ferrying people from Fairbanks to Valdez. The company grew to a fleet of 15 Model Ts at its height. In the 1920s he worked for the first concessionaire in Denali National Park as a driver. He went on to serve as the Alaska Road Commissioner.
The hard-earned miles Robert Sheldon forged through on that first “road” trip helped pave the way for Alaska’s roads and the modernization of transportation infrastructure in the state. Today the so-called Sheldon car that he built in Skagway is on display at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks.