Robert “Bobby” Sheldon’s runabout, the first car in Alaska. Photo Credit: Victor Rivers family papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, UAA
When a man is competing for a woman’s attention, sometimes the advantage he needs is a fancy set of wheels. At least that’s what Bobby Sheldon thought in 1905. The mechanically inclined 22-year-old lived in Skagway and favored a young lady who was dating a man with a fancy horse and carriage. There were no cars in Alaska at the time and Sheldon had never seen one, but he figured one of those beautiful machines was what he needed to win his crush’s favor.
Using photos in a popular science magazine as a crude guide, Sheldon set about building a car with gathered scraps. 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.
Sheldon’s fascination with automobiles helped him in other ways. In 1913 he became the first person to drive a car the full length of the Fairbanks to Valdez trail, now known as the Richardson Highway. He operated a transportation company with a fleet of 15 Model Ts, worked as a driver for the first concessionaire in Denali National Park, and served as the Alaska Road Commissioner. He told the News-Miner, “My advice to young men today who think the world is coming to an end at the age of 21 is to keep on with what they desire to do and let nothing stop them. Don’t be discouraged at first just because things don’t go the way you want them to.”
Today the Sheldon car is on display at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks. The museum is home to nearly 100 vehicles built before World War II and tells the story of the early years of automobiles in Alaska. It’s open seven days a week from mid-May through mid-September.