The Richardson Highway stretches 368 miles from Valdez on Prince William Sound to Fairbanks in the Tanana River Valley. In its earliest form — the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail — it was the dominant overland route into Interior Alaska.
The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail also was called the Richardson Trail after Major Wilds P. Richardson, the first president of the Alaska Road Commission (ARC). The trail was blazed in about 1903 as an offshoot of the Valdez-Eagle Trail, After the ARC formed in 1904, improvement of the Richardson Trail became a priority. By 1910 it had been upgraded to an all-season wagon road (albeit a very primitive wagon road in places).
A few automobiles had already appeared in Fairbanks (freighted in on steamboats), and as the Richardson’s road conditions improved, adventurers began testing their vehicles against it. By 1909 autos could be driven as far as Birch Lake about 60 miles southeast of Fairbanks. According to the book, The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, some entrepreneurs teamed up with stage lines to take passengers part-way to-and-from Valdez via motor vehicles.
By 1912 road conditions improved enough that some dared think it might be possible to drive all the way between Fairbanks and Valdez. All the major streams and rivers except five had been bridged, and those five had ferry service across them.
Bobby Sheldon of Fairbanks was the first to succeed in driving the Richardson. He had been interested in motor vehicles even as a youth. While living is Skagway in 1905 he built the first automobile in Alaska. (That home-built vehicle is on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.)
In early 1913 he ordered a Ford Model T from Samson’s Hardware. It wasn’t long after its arrival in June that Bobby began toying with the idea of driving the car from Fairbanks to Valdez. With two burly passengers (who helped pull the little flivver out of mud holes and across flooded streams) Bobby made the groundbreaking trip between July 29 and Aug. 2.
His wasn’t the only vehicle to successfully make the trip that year, though. The ARC sent a truck out from Valdez on July 28 loaded with supplies for camps along the trail. It accomplished the same feat in a slightly longer time, arriving in Fairbanks on Aug. 6.
With motor vehicles having finally conquered the trail, auto usage picked up. In 1914 Bobby started an auto stage line, partnering with another Fairbanksan, Tom Gibson. The next year Gibson started his own line, “Gibson Auto Stage.”
According to a 1958 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Gibson operated 23 vehicles, such as the 1916 Dodge Model 30-35 Touring car shown in the drawing. The Dodge, now owned by David Stone and Don and Ray Cameron and on loan to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, was modified by Gibson for his business’s special needs. The fuel tank was originally at the back of the vehicle, but in order to make more room for luggage the tank was repositioned under the front seat. The frame was jacked up several inches, and a metal support bar was installed between the front fenders to keep them from rattling.
The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was officially designated the Richardson Road in 1919. Between 1920 and 1927 the road was gradually improved to automobile standards, eventually becoming the Richardson Highway.
With the completion of the Glenn Highway in 1945 (linking Southcentral with the Interior’s road system) the Richardson became a conduit for drivers traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Construction of the Parks Highway in the 1970s reduced traffic on the Richardson, but recent improvements to the Glenn and Richardson Highways have brought a resurgence in travel along the scenic roadway.
- “Gibson ran early-day stage.” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 7-18-1958
- “History of the Valdez Trail.” Geoffrey Bleakley. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve web site. 2013
- “Major Roads of Alaska.” National Park Service. 1944
- Signage at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
- The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008