The Fageol Safety Bus and the Denali Park Road
Buses have ferried Denali National Park and Preserve (originally Mt. McKinley National Park) visitors into the park for more than 80 years. The Fageol Safety Bus shown in the drawing (the most modern bus of its time in the 1920s) was one of the first generation of buses used in the park. The drawing is based on a 1930’s photograph showing the bus in service at the park.
Mt. McKinley National Park was created in 1917 but did not receive any funding until 1921. It then took several years for park superintendent Harry Karstens to establish park headquarters at Riley Creek. According to Jane Bryant’s book, “Snapshots from the Past: A Roadside History of Denali National Park and Preserve,” once the Alaska Railroad reached the park and the park’s headquarters had been established, efforts turned to developing access for visitors.
The Alaska Road Commission (ARC), the federal agency responsible for building roads in the territory, was interested in building a road from the railroad to the Kantishna mining district on the far side of the park. The Park Service wanted access into the park. Both purposes could be served by one road, so the road commission and Park Service entered into an agreement to build a 90-mile road across the park. According to Bryant’s book, the ARC constructed the road, but the Park Service provided most of the project’s funding.
Reconnaissance and clearing the road right-of-way were accomplished in 1921-22. Actual construction started in 1923 and was completed in 1938. The miles of road built annually was small, but the ARC faced severe challenges during construction. Funding for the project came piecemeal and often constrained how much work could be done in a season. Equipment, supplies and workers had to be brought in by railroad, and once in the field, the ARC faced a short construction season; difficult terrain, including permafrost; and often inclement weather.
If the ARC alone had been responsible for building the road, the route would have been based just on practicability — getting from the railroad to Kantishna in an expedient manner. The Park Service, however, was also interested in the visitor experience, and on at least on one occasion convinced the road commission to alter the road’s route.
The ARC had planned to route the road east of the West Fork Toklat River over a low pass to the main Toklat River. The Park Service preferred the road take a higher pass with sweeping panoramic vistas. The new route was more difficult to build. However, without the change, park visitors would not now be able to travel over Polychrome Pass.
The Savage River was the park’s primary visitor destination until McKinley Park Hotel was constructed. The park’s first concessionaire, Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company (MMT&TC) constructed a camp at Savage River and ran busses into the park from the railroad.
Bobby Sheldon, the first person to drive from Fairbanks to Valdez over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, was the MMT&TC’s general manager. As part of his duties he was responsible for a fleet of vehicles. One of those vehicles was the 1924 Fageol. Information from the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, which renovated the bus in 2014, states that in 1928 the MMT&TC bought the used bus in Seattle and shipped it to Alaska. It ran the park road until the mid-1930s, when the bus was put into storage.
The MMT&TC lost its concession in 1941, and the Alaska Railroad bought MMT&TC’s equipment. The bus was then brought to Fairbanks and sat neglected for more than 70 years. That is when owner Diane Dawson donated it to the auto museum. The museum renovated the bus for display, and it can now be viewed at McKinley Chalet Resort at McKinley Village along the Parks Highway.
- “A Fageol Safety Coach is Rescued.” Nancy DeWitt. Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum blog ( http://fountainheadauto.blogspot.com). 9-10-2014
- Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum signage at McKinley Chalet Resort
- “Historic coach goes on display in Denali area,” Kris Capps. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner”. 6-18-2015
- Photo from Harry and Norma Hoght Papers. University of Alaska, Anchorage – Archives
- “Snapshots from the Past: A Roadside history of Denali National Park and Preserve.” Jane Bryant. National Park Service. 2011