Cards and letters throw light on early auto history

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The internet is presently down in our household. Someone backed into a utility box across the street and it will take time to repair it. A service ticket has been issued, and it should be working again soon.

On top of that, the cable service was also disrupted. I can’t watch television while the system is down. Double whammy! Fortunately, we still have radio and the telephone.

Despite knowing that, I keep returning to my computer in hope that the internet service has been reinstated. No such luck. I wander aimlessly about the house, occasionally turning on the television to check. Nope, still out.

What am I going to do? I reach down into my inner reserves of resourcefulness. There is life without the net. I know — I grew up before the internet existed and there was plenty to keep me occupied. I grew up on a farm and there was always work to be done.

Historically, I know that thousands of generations functioned quite nicely before there was a digital universe. The transformation of our world over the past 30 years has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Besides, I already had my topic selected for this week.

You may have noticed a theme developing in my past few columns, in which I delved into the realm of transportation. First, I described Inspector Moodie of the North West Mounted Police hacking his way through interior British Columbia from Fort St. John to Fort Selkirk.

Next, I wrote about Inspector Constantine, also of the Mounted Police, who, for three years, oversaw construction of a wagon trail, from Ft. St. John, which was intended to connect with Teslin, Yukon.

Following that, I tracked the arrival of the first automobiles into the territory, starting in 1900. For ten years, they were not much more than a novelty. After 1910, however, they offered a growing challenge to the horse and carriage. It was during this period that the first talk of linking the Yukon with British Columbia and California began. It would take 30 more years, and a world war before that dream became a reality.

These columns have sparked some interest. I have been receiving e-mails and exchanging information with several people who know more than I about old automobiles and early transportation history in the Yukon and Alaska.

I have learned much from these exchanges, not the least of which is that early transportation in the Yukon is a fascinating story, and that there were more varieties of automobiles that I had ever dreamed of.

One of these people, transportation historian Nancy DeWitt, wrote a book on early transportation in Alaska titled Extreme Motoring: Alaska’s First Automobiles and their Dauntless Drivers; it has been ordered and may arrive in time for Christmas. She also wrote a number of articles. One was about the 1906 Pope-Toledo, also termed the “Red Devil” by the Dawson newspaper. There was one of them in Dawson City in 1907. Were there two? We began a correspondence on this topic.

During further research I uncovered another interesting gem about the Pope-Toledo. Stanley Scearce, the owner, took it Outside with him the winter of 1907/08 and toured the West Coast from British Columbia down to Mexico. He also had it repainted — this time black — so it was subsequently referred to in the newspaper as the “Black Devil.”

DeWitt also mentioned Will Perry, who operated a sheet metal business in Dawson. Perry became infatuated with the automobile during a winter spent in California, and brought one back with him to Whitehorse in 1906. I missed that story completely, but once she mentioned it to me I was able to target a specific time period in the newspapers, and there it was. Perry planned to drive to Dawson over the winter route.

He left Whitehorse on April 5, 1906, but only got to the north end of Lake LaBerge, where the auto was transferred to a barge, which almost capsized at the mouth of the Hootalinqua (Teslin) River. Upon arrival in Dawson, Perry established a scheduled taxi run to the gold fields where he became mired on the primitive roads. The miners didn’t like his car because it scared the horse teams on the road.

Then his little roadster went into the ditch on the Bonanza Creek Road, but no harm was done to it. A week after that, it was down for repairs, and that is the last we hear from Mr. Perry and his automobile until August, when the Dawson Daily News reported that he had withdrawn from the taxi business and was shipping his machine Outside, $5,000 wiser.

Correspondence from Bill Barrick, another knowledgeable student of auto history, pointed out an error in my last column. Was that a Winston Six that I reported on the overland road north of Whitehorse in 1910, or a Winton Six? It was the latter, and thanks to Bill for drawing it to my attention.

In that same column, I noted the third eye (headlight) on the Locomobile that George Black and O.B. Perry rode in 1912 from Dawson City to Whitehorse (in the blazing time of three days). I had looked up the vehicle on the internet but couldn’t find a Locomobile with three headlights. Both Barrick and DeWitt felt that the large middle headlight looks like one that was borrowed from a locomotive. I took a closer look and agree with that conclusion.

An e-mail from Tim Green revealed an interest in the history of Yukon licence plates. Teaming up with a collector, he has employed his internet skills to set up a website devoted to the subject (go to: http://www.bcpl8s.ca/Yukon/). I referred him to an interesting article in a magazine for licence plate collectors. He, in turn, has some recent articles on the same topic; we agreed to exchange articles.

There you have it. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I hunted for information and images. I shared information with new friends, and, once the internet is up again, will continue to pursue several avenues of inquiry. Meanwhile, I suffer from withdrawal symptoms: my hands shake, I twitch and I keep coming back to the keyboard, hitting keys, hoping for a response, but to no avail.

In the meantime, I will finish this column and deliver it to the editor the good old-fashioned way — by hand.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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