Sunday, December 4, 2011

Valdez-Fairbank Trail, a lifeline for early Interior Alaskans

Stage operated by Ed S. Orr between Fairbanks and Valdez

The Ed S. Orr Stage Co., also called the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage Co., was the most successful of several stage lines that operated along the old Valdez-Fairbanks Trail between 1904 and the mid-1910s. One of his stages (now in the Pioneer Museum at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks) is depicted in the drawing parked in front of a now-gone building on Dunkel Street that was used as a garage by Orr.

This route, an essential lifeline to Fairbanks (especially during the winter), actually began as an offshoot of the Valdez-Eagle Trail (Trans-Alaska Military Road). That trail was established by the U.S. government in response to the clamor for an all-American route from the ice-free waters of southern Alaska to the Yukon River and gold-fields of the Klondike. It wound northwest from Valdez over Thompson Pass, north across the Copper River Valley to Gakona, and thence northwest across Mentasta Pass and on to Eagle. The trail was begun in 1899 and completed by 1901, but by the time it was finished the Klondike Gold Rush was dying down and gold would soon be discovered in the hills above the Chena River.

Gold seekers heading for Fairbanks began taking the Valdez-Eagle Trail as far as the Gakona River, then crossing Isabelle Pass to the north, and following the Delta River north and west into the Tanana River Valley. This route, following old Indian trails, would become the route for winter mail delivery between Fairbanks and Valdez, and later for pack trains and wagons.

In 1904 the Valdez Transportation Co. began running pack trains and stages over the winter trail. That same year the federal government recommended that the War Department build a system of trails in Alaska and upgrade the Valdez-Eagle Trail to a wagon Road. The Alaska Road Commission headed by Capt. Wilds P. Richardson, was created to oversee Alaska’s road and trail system.

The ARC quickly began improving the winter mail route from Fairbanks to Valdez, eventually linking the trail up with the Valdez-Eagle Trail. The improved winter trail out of Fairbanks was completed in 1907 and an all-season wagon road was completed in 1910.

Ed Orr was already an experienced freighter when he began the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage in 1906. He had run pack trains up the Chilkoot Trail out of Dyea in 1898, and operated a successful stage company out of Dawson City between 1899 and 1905. On the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail he ran stages 2-3 times a week out of both cities, and each stage took about eight days for a one-way trip. Since horses had to be changed every 20-25 miles, and the stages had to overnight every 40-50 miles, numerous roundhouses along the route were essential.

The Northern Commercial Company bought the stage line from Orr in 1910 and it continued to operate until 1914. By then newly formed automobile stage lines had taken much of the business away from horse-drawn stages. However, the introduction of automobiles to the Valdez-Fairbanks trail is fodder for another column.

If you are interested in more information about the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail check out the book, "The Trail: the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail" by Ken Marsh.