FAIRBANKS - In late September 1911, a new machine arrived in Fairbanks that would spark the change from horsepower to gasoline power. This great wonder was a 1911 Holt Caterpillar Traction Engine that was built at the Holt Manufacturing Plant in Stockton, Calif.
This machine featured a 60-horsepower gasoline engine, Caterpillar tracks, could haul 25 tons, weighed 9 tons, and came with a wagon that had 12-inch tires that could haul 10 tons. In those days its capabilities were unheard of, the stuff of dreams.
This particular dream belonged to three Fairbanks men. They were John C. “Jack” Sayers, a machinist; Henry B. Parkin, manager of Waechter Bros.; and Wilke T. Pinkerton, a longtime freighter and businessman. These men had purchased the traction engine for a freighting enterprise.
A machinist by trade, Sayers was the operator and mechanic for the new Caterpillar. In 1911, Fairbanks did not have many mechanics who could do this kind of work. This was all brand-new technology and it was up to Sayers to make it work.
The Caterpillar, as it was called by the local newspapers, was assembled on the banks of the Chena River by Sayers and was complete by Oct. 2, 1911. It drew a lot of curious onlookers when it was first fired up on Front Street. It was an enormous machine with twin tracks and a large steel wheel that stuck out in the front. It featured a large flat roof that held canvas curtains that could be closed to keep the wind and cold out. This early Caterpillar predated the blade technology known commonly as the “dozer,” but instead was used for pulling heavy loads.
By the end of October, the Caterpillar was heading out on the first job. A contract had been secured to haul wood from the camp of Jones and Goodfellow near Happy Station to the various camps in the Goldstream Valley. By January 1912, they had learned how to do the work efficiently enough to hire Robert Kelly to help run the machine, allowing two shifts and doubling production. This work continued until spring, when the trails became too soft for hauling heavy loads of wood.
The Caterpillar did not sit idle for long, because in Fairbanks there were some new ideas that would test the capabilities of the machine. In the spring of 1912, it was used to move a building from its original location to Second Avenue. Then in May and June there was work being done to build the fairgrounds, racetrack and baseball field. Someone got the idea to hitch a horse-drawn scraper to the back of the Caterpillar, and a whole new wonderful use was born. It could be used to do grading work and it did not eat hay!
The traction engine was kept busy over the next couple of years doing these jobs better than anyone had expected. There was one mishap in Fox when the Caterpillar caused a small bridge to collapse, resulting in minimal damage and a lesson learned about the weight of the machine. Over time it was not unusual to see the Caterpillar hauling 30 cords of wood at one time, the largest load ever hauled being 40 cords.
It was a revered piece of equipment that even was featured in the parade that celebrated the signing of the bill that would build the Alaska Railroad. The papers carried many articles about the comings and goings of the Caterpillar. In March 1914, there was even an article reporting that the trails used by the Caterpillar were like boulevards.
In the fall of 1914, a new gold strike had been made and by early 1915, the words Tolovana, Brooks and Livengood were on the lips of everyone in the Interior. This new gold camp was initially called Brooks, but later the name was changed to Livengood as it is known today. Brooks was located in the Tolovana River Valley, where there were no roads or established trails leading to the site. When news of the new strike hit the Fairbanks papers, men dropped what they were doing and stampeded to this new camp in hopes of striking it rich.
There were two routes that could be taken. The first was overland from Olnes, roughly where today’s Elliott Highway runs, crossing several large divides. Heavy loads could not be hauled up the long, steep grades with horses. The all-water route ran down the Chena, down the Tanana and then up the Tolovana River, crossing the Minto Flats until reaching the point where the West Fork of the Tolovana joins the Tolovana River. After that, all freight had to be taken overland about 20 miles to Brooks. The river was often too low to carry loads, making the water route unreliable.
After much debate, it was decided to build a road from Happy Station in the Goldstream Valley up the Tolovana River Valley to Brooks. This route became known as the Happy Route.
While all of this was going on, the Caterpillar had been noticed by Hosea H. Ross, who was the superintendent of roads in the Fairbanks area. He leased it and put the Caterpillar to work grading roads around Fairbanks, and before long it was seen pulling several scrapers at once. This was an unheard-of feat, and every horse for miles around took one more step toward redundancy. The Cat also showed it could be safely used to disassemble log jams that formed on the Chena in front of the downtown bridge.
Ross heard about a road being built to Brooks, and in October 1915, when he saw the talk was getting serious, he bought Parkin’s and Pinkerton’s interest in the Caterpillar for a down payment of $1,000, making him two-thirds owner, with Sayers retaining his original third. Ross could now position himself to build the new trail, along with future freighting contracts to and from Brooks over this trail.
After his purchase, Ross let it be known that he was willing to do the job of cutting in the trail and hauling a big load of badly needed freight to Brooks. Because this trip would be one that took many days, he and Sayers would need a small building on skis in which to sleep and eat, as there were no roadhouses built yet along that route. They would also need a sled to haul all the needed gasoline, oil and other consumables for the Caterpillar. Then there was the freight to be hauled, which also needed sleds.
To “smash in” the trail, as Ross put it, he attached an 8-foot heavy log to the front of the machine that would help clear out obstacles such as trees and snowdrifts. This would create a blade of sorts for the new “Cat train” to clear a trail up the Tolovana.
Now all that was needed was money. This machine did not work for free, and H. H. Ross let the people of Brooks know that if they raised part of the money needed he would do the job. The rest of the money would come from Fairbanks, being raised by the Commercial Club. To quell any thoughts that his machine was not up for the task, Ross and Sayers began building trail on the Fairbanks end to demonstrate what they were capable of doing and to show good faith. The money began to trickle in and the deal was sealed.
By mid-November 1915, the work on the new trail began in earnest. The papers reported almost daily on the progress of the Caterpillar, and speculation as to its exact location ran high. The truth turned out to be that it was going to take much longer than initially planned. The Cat had to jettison the load, smash trail and then retrieve the load, carrying it to the next unbroken spot. They also had to drive the Caterpillar back to Fairbanks a couple of times to replenish supplies. The Caterpillar’s progress had come to a crawl.
Progress was completely halted when a calamity occurred in the flats near Minto Lake while Sayers was driving across a small slough. They had calculated that the ice was thick enough to hold the weight, but when it got to the middle of the slough, the ice gave way and the Caterpillar sank completely in 10 feet of water, almost ending Sayers’ life.
The men had to go back to Fairbanks and figure out how to get the Caterpillar out of the drink. Dan Callahan hitched up his famous horse team, and along with the help of some other teams was able to retrieve the Caterpillar from its watery prison. It must have been a triumphant moment for these horsemen to rescue the very contraption that would eventually put them out of business.
Sayers’ skill as a machinist and mechanic were put to the test in the effort to get the Caterpillar up and running again, but they were soon able to return to work on the trail.
While Ross and Sayers were “smashing in” the trail northward from Happy Station, a work crew from Brooks was working on the trail from their end. When Ross and Sayers started back out on the last leg, the going was fairly easy and they made it all the way to Brooks after spending roughly four months working on the Happy Trail.
They did get a small amount of money that was raised in the new camp, but the job was in the red by that time. They delivered their freight as promised, some animal feed and a large boiler for the Peterson Mining Company.
It was at this point that Ross decided to call it quits. He left the Caterpillar in Brooks and walked away from the whole enterprise.
Eventually, after some needed repairs and tender loving care, Jack Sayers had the Caterpillar back in Fairbanks, helping move parts of the old power plant at Chatanika to Chena. In 1917, it hauled a big load of wood in from the Big Chena (now Chena Hot Springs), graded road on the Fairbanks end of what is now the Richardson Highway and also successfully crossed the new Cushman Street Bridge. The last mention found so far is from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on May 15, 1917: “The caterpillar went through town today in a whirlwind of noise and dust, but the chief of police saw no excuse for arresting Harry Karstens, the driver, for exceeding the speed limit within the city limits.”
In August 1917, an article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner about the future uses of Caterpillar machines for mining appeared. One month later, a Caterpillar steam shovel arrived in Nenana for use by the railroad. Once the Alaska Railroad was completed other Caterpillars and machines like them began to appear.
By 1926, C. H. Gilliam had an advertisement in the Fairbanks newspapers for his caterpillar to haul freight. The Alaska Road Commission also acquired some of these machines. In 1928, an ad announced Samson Hardware as the first Caterpillar dealer in Fairbanks. One year later, the Northern Commercial Company had taken over the dealership, and the company has provided these reliable workhorse machines ever since.
But for many years, the 1911 Holt Caterpillar was the only one of its kind operating in the Fairbanks area. The Old Holt had ushered out the era of the horse and paved the way for the modern equipment we depend on today to build our infrastructure.
Joan Skilbred is a history enthusiast and president of the Fairbanks Genealogical Society. She lives in Two Rivers.