On September 18, 1911, Dr. Charles. G. Percival announced his intentions to “invade Alaska next week.” So reported the New York Times.
Percival was attempting to travel 160,000 kilometres (100,000 miles) in an Abbot-Detroit ‘Bulldog’ automobile. The Abbott Motor Car Company, to publicize its automobiles, undertook to have Percival tour a 1910 Model 30 across North America. He started late in 1910; by August of the following year, he was in Sacramento, accompanied by George D. Brown, his mechanic and driver.
Percival and Brown were planning to visit Alaska, and become the first party in an automobile to cross the Arctic Circle. If necessary, Percival planned to install skis on the front wheels and spiked rear wheels for good traction if they encountered snow.
After their return, they planned to journey across Canada to Montreal and New York City. They would then tour the Isthmus of Panama and visit the Hawaiian Islands.
The travelling party reached Skagway, Alaska, Sept. 25. They thought that they would be able to use the old Brackett toll road, but that would not have been possible, even when the road was in its prime; thirteen years after the gold rush, it was out of the question. The only viable way to travel over the Coast Mountains at the time was via the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, 170 kilometres of narrow gauge track, complete with “104 bridges, culverts, cantilevers and tunnels.”
In order to win a prize offered by the Skagway Daily Alaskan, J.J. Chambers joined them as an official representative and observer for the newspaper. With the wheels of the “Bull Dog” straddling the narrow gauge tracks, there was less than 10 centimetres of clearance on either side of the wheels. But having signed a waiver of damages, Percival and his traveling party were permitted to use the rail line to travel to Carcross.
The trip was arranged for Oct. 1, 1911, when there were no trains running between Skagway and Whitehorse. Despite a crowd that included sobbing women and old-timers making gloomy predictions of disaster, they left Skagway early in the morning.
The sturdy little vehicle was loaded with survival equipment, including an extra 100 litres of gasoline, 13 litres of lubricating oil, nine kilograms of carbide, two long planks, blankets, three days of rations, two rifles and ammunition, extra clothing, 12 inner tubes, and a tire pump, tools, shovels, axes, a Graflex camera and a tent.
The “Bull Dog” bounced along the track in heavy fog, snow and rain, sinking into the gravel between the ties, and bouncing on each succeeding tie till they thought their teeth would be shaken from their jaws. Percival remarked: “…the sensation of driving and riding over the narrow 36-inch rails and the six-foot ties and with next to nothing at my very elbow was very unpleasant, and more than once I felt that nausea that comes with extreme hunger or fear.”
Through the White Pass Canyon they travelled, with rock walls on one side, and a sheer drop of hundreds of metres into the canyon below on the other side. The planks had to be used when crossing trestles and bridges, where there was no ballast to support the wheels between the ties. They left Bennett, the abandoned gold rush town at the head of Bennett Lake at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and it was well after dark when they were greeted by a welcoming crowd in Carcross that evening.
From Carcross, they traversed the old government overland trail to White Horse (yes, the place name was two words back then), a thoroughfare, if you could call it one, that had not been used since the completion of the railroad. This leg of the journey, which cost the party another day of travel, was even more difficult than the rail trip. For the first six kilometres, they plowed through the sand deposits that encircle Carcross.
Percival and his two companions laboured “…for 15 hours with shovels and axes, digging dirt, filling gullies, brushing swamps, making bridges and laying corduroy roads.” Eleven kilometres from White Horse, they encountered the first piece of decent road since leaving Skagway. They rolled down the hill into the riverside village after 10:00 in the evening, but no crowd awaited them (the people of White Horse expected them to take three days to drive from Carcross).
In White Horse, they added a fourth person to the entourage, Herbert Wheeler, the superintendent of the mail department of the White Pass Company. Being responsible for the maintenance of this road, and wishing to determine the suitability of the road for automobile travel, he was eager to tag along. Comparing the cost of using teams of horses in relay against the frugal price of gasoline, he felt that much saving could be realized by using the four-wheeled conveyances, rather than the four-legged ones.
Due to unseasonably warm weather, the terrain had softened up as they headed north over the Dawson Trail. It took them two days to reach Carmacks, located north of the 62nd parallel of latitude. Much of the leg driving north of White Horse was spent levering their motor car out of muskeg, cutting trees and placing them under the wheels, and fabricating corduroy. “For two days we had been travelling in soft earth in which the machine many times sank to the hubs,” reported Percival, “and often over the rims of the wheels.”
Percival did not fancy waiting for a cold snap and crossing the various rivers would be a problem, so he decided to turn back. On the return trip, the section from Nordenskiold to White Horse was completed in the lightning time of slightly less than six hours. Navigating back to Skagway was easier as the necessary road improvements had been made on the way in.
Back in Skagway, they received a heroes’ welcome as well as a beautiful trophy, presented by the publisher of the Daily Alaskan newspaper. The No. 1 camp of the Arctic Brotherhood immediately gave Percival and Brown membership in the lodge for their accomplishment.
Yukon commissioner George Black made the first successful automobile trip between Dawson City and White Horse the following year, but it would be nearly seventy years before the road to Skagway would be completed.
And the Abbott Motor Car Company? It was bankrupt within a few years.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org