Fairbanks’ auto museum explores the role of the car during Alaska’s frontier days. // © 2011 Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
I am somewhat biased when it comes to local museums, which are often a collection of loosely related items without theme or purpose. So I wasn’t expecting much on my tour of the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, housed in a huge, industrial-type building on the Wedgewood Resort complex in Fairbanks, Alaska. But this trip down memory lane has become one of the city’s most popular tours with young and old alike.
Museum historian Nancy Dewitt said I wouldn’t be disappointed and she was right. I was mesmerized the moment I walked through the door and saw the glistening and polished automobiles, the photos and exhibits and the detailed history of each car. I carefully examined each of the 60 automobiles on display from an inventory of more than 70, dating from 1898 to 1938. The unique twist that makes this a must-see attraction is the theme behind the museum: the use of automobiles during Alaska’s territorial and Gold Rush days. The huge photos and murals of Alaska motoring history from private collections and University of Alaska archives are worth the visit alone. The scenes depict cars stuck in mountain passes, as well as modified vehicles pushing through snow on unpaved highways and powering a paddle-wheeler down the Yukon River. Dewitt said each one showcases important stages in early American automotive history.
The highlights of the collection include early steam, electric and hybrid cars, one-of-a-kind and sole-surviving vehicles, a cycle car, the United States’ first V16-powered auto, midget racers and the first American production car with front-wheel drive.
Yet there is nothing old-looking about the restored and renovated models on display. The models are restored to vintage form and as detailed and polished as any new car in a modern car dealership showroom. The attention to detail is impeccable, and all but the most fragile cars are operational. Visitors can watch manager Willy Vinton oversee ongoing repair and renovation work through large picture windows.
The auto museum is only one attraction of the Wedgewood Resort complex. Within 70 yards of the museum’s entrance is the Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary and nature trail that winds through a forest and around a lake that is home to a variety of wildlife. Nearby is also the Alaska Bird Observatory and Creamers Field, a stopover for migrating birds and waterfowl.
I spent several days at the resort and found the spacious suites to be exceptional — with a full-size kitchen, a living and dining room, large baths and double-sized walk-in closets — for less than half the rates often found at Alaska hotels during peak season. There is free parking, Internet, daily maid service and newspaper as well.
The museum is open only on Sundays during the winter months and every day during summer. There is an $8 admission fee, and I recommend the 1½-hour guided tour. I also recommend that clients spend additional time exploring the museum after the tour. They won’t be disappointed.