Old Caterpillar tractor from Manley still puttering along
In 1929, C.W. Cash, a sales representative for Northern Commercial Company, traveled through Interior Alaska visiting prospective customers. While at Manley Hot Springs, a small isolated community along the Tanana River, he met with Jim Liska. Liska had been running freight in the Manley area for years using horse-drawn wagons and sleds.
After test driving a small Caterpillar Ten tractor, Liska decided to purchase a Caterpillar Fifteen (Cat-15). The Cat-15 was a small gasoline-powered tracked tractor, putting out 15 horsepower. It normally came with a 40″ wide track, but could also be ordered with a 50″ track, which made the tractor wider than it was tall and more stable on slopes. The tractor had three forward and one reverse gear, and a top speed of about 9 mph. It weighed 5790 pounds and could pull its own weight.
Liska ordered the Cat-15 with a 50″ track, and snow and ice grousers (cleats that attached to the track to increase traction). The tractor arrived in Fairbanks via the Alaska Railroad in 1930, and by November of 1930 Liska was hauling freight from Manley to the mining camp of Eureka, about 25 miles away.
He also ran freight between Fairbanks and Manley using his new Cat. At that time there was no all-season road to Manley. Fairbanks is about 70 miles east of Manley, but the most direct route crosses the Minto Flats, a large wetland area adjacent to the Tanana river.
A 90-mile-long all-season road had been blazed by the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) from Fairbanks to Livengood in 1928. This road cut across the uplands east and north of the Minto Flats . Unfortunately, a road southwest from Livengood to Manley was not completed until 1958.
The only viable land-route was the old Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) sled road which followed the Tanana River from Manley to Dunbar, a section camp for the Alaska Railroad (ARR) about ten miles north of Nenana. From Dunbar the sled road paralleled the railroad tracks to Fairbanks. The WAMCATS route traversed the Tanana Flats, so was unusable during the summer.
According to Claus-M. Naske’s book, Paving Alaska’s Trails, The Work of the Alaska Road Commission, Manley-area residents had lobbied the ARC for years to build an all-season road. However, with reliable summer riverboats plying the Tanana, the ARC never acquiesced. The all-season road from Livengood to Manley was not completed until after the ARR ceased riverboat service along the Tanana River.
Liska used the 80-mile-long WAMCATS route for winter freighting. The trip took 20 hours travel-time one-way, with tractor-plus-sleds making about 4 mph. The Cat’s 23-gallon tank was too small to hold enough fuel for the entire trip, so refueling along the way was necessary. Liska carried extra fuel, but Jim Gibertoni, the tractor’s current owner, told me that Liska probably also cached fuel along the route at communities like Old Minto and Tolovana, where fuel could be dropped off by riverboat during the summer.
Gibertoni also related to me that Liska did not immediately abandon his horses after buying the Cat-15. Early tractors were notoriously hard to extricate once stuck, so two horses accompanied the tractor-train to help pull it out of trouble.
In addition to freighting, Liska used the tractor for grading roads in the Manley area, as well as hauling wood. It was also utilized in Manley for a variety of functions. With a belt attached to the power-take-off at the rear of the tractor, it alternately powered water pumps, a small sawmill, and a DC dynamo which provided electricity to much of Manley.
Liska died in 1948. The Cat went through a series of owners, always staying in the Manley area until it was purchased by Gibertoni from Cy Hetherington. Gibertoni, recently retired, was looking for a tractor to restore when the Cat became available.
Gibertoni brought the still functional tractor to Fairbanks, and completely disassembled and rebuilt it to operating condition, having new parts manufactured when necessary. The almost-all-original-equipment Cat-15 is presently on temporary display at NC Machinery on Van Horn Road in Fairbanks, but Gibertoni is looking for a more permanent display location.
- Conversation with Jim Gibertoni, current owner of the Manley Caterpillar Fifteen tractor.
- Paving Alaska’s Trails, The Work of the Alaska Road Commission. Claus-M. Naske. University Press of America. 1986.
- Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors, 1890 – 1980. C. H. Wendel. Krause Publications. 2000.
- Stanley Dayo, Manley Hot Springs – A Biography. Yukon-Koyukuk School District. Spirit Mountain Press. 1985.