Alaska Life

Automobiles were late arriving in Anchorage, but bad driving, an 8-mph speed limit and parking tickets soon followed

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The car was already becoming a critical part of day-to-day American life by the time Anchorage was established in 1915. The Model T had been on the market for seven years by then. And in the years immediately before Anchorage’s founding, various models of automobiles appeared across Alaska. However, laws, regulations, and even the roads had to play catch up with the technology. In Anchorage, it took years for leadership to establish even the most basic control over what was, to some, a burgeoning vehicular menace.

Per contemporary Cordova Daily Times coverage, the first automobile in Anchorage arrived in September 1915, an unidentified REO Motor Cars model owned by Larry Byrne. He operated several flat-bottomed lighters that carried cargo and passengers from steamers to shore. Joe Spenard is sometimes credited with importing the first Anchorage automobiles, but he arrived in spring 1916.

Complaints about automobiles were constant newspaper fodder. Cars frequently spun through turns and over sidewalks, sending passersby flying for safety. Speeding vehicles splashed wide fans of mud on unlucky locals to the point that veteran residents ducked behind pillars or in stores at the first sound of an approaching car.

These were not quite the late-night racers of Anchorage today. A 1915 Model T, like the one owned and operated as a taxi by Joe Spenard, maxed out at about 45 mph. But that full potential was partially negated by the complete lack of paved roads. The local streets that Spenard knew were muddy, pothole-ridden brown strips, liberally dotted with hidden trash and debris. Still, cars could manage enough momentum to threaten the citizenry.

Town managers employed by the Alaska Railroad frequently begged drivers to slow down, watch out for pedestrians and take care at intersections. Before the creation of a local police force, enforcement fell to the inconsistently present U.S. Marshals. As a result, efforts against speeding generally amounted to nothing more than public warnings.

The most notable non-fatal accident in those early years came during the 1917 Labor Day festivities. By then, there were enough local cars to stage a race. Roughly 5,000 bystanders packed themselves along the downtown course, in some places spilling onto the road. When one racer went through rather than around the crowd, several people were injured, some seriously.

Given the lack of exhaustive documentation, it is impossible to be certain, but the first fatal automobile accident in Anchorage might have been on May 9, 1918. Ernest Podboy was the proprietor of the Green Express, a combination taxi, delivery, storage and general store that was the sole Anchorage distributor of Rainier beverages. In the middle of the night, the prominent businessman was escorting a young, single woman about town — as one does. He drove down C Street and descended the bluff toward Ship Creek. They had just passed over the railroad tracks when the car suddenly swerved. It hit the side of the road and rolled down a 7-foot embankment.

The lady was thrown clear and suffered only a few bruises and a fractured hand. Podboy was trapped inside the car, which rescuers had to roll again in order to free him. His skull was fractured, and he died four hours later. His funeral was the largest yet in Anchorage’s brief history, though vastly overshadowed that December by the collective memorial for victims of the influenza pandemic.

In November 1920, residents voted to incorporate Anchorage as a self-governing city. The same election also selected the original city council, the direct ancestor of today’s Assembly. On May 11, 1921, this council passed the first city speed limit: 8 mph! A local cab driver quickly and unsuccessfully petitioned to increase the limit to 20 mph.

Fines for speeding ranged from $15 to $100. Accounting for inflation, those fines are roughly equivalent to $230 to $1,550 today. A “driver by the name of Conrad” was the first individual punished under the new ordinance. On May 31, 1921, the local magistrate fined him $25. There is no apparent rhyme or reason to the fine amounts. Reported fine amounts varied wildly, and repeat violators were sometimes fined less for subsequent infractions.

A speed limit in the early 1920s raises an important question. How were speeders identified before radar guns? A common method was for law enforcement to count the seconds it took a vehicle to pass between landmarks. If you know the distance between the two spots, only a bit of math is required to produce the speed. This is more manageable in precisely laid-out districts like the Anchorage downtown.

On June 1, 1921, the City Council passed the first ordinance requiring license plates, though they did not use that exact term. Instead, the ordinance required the “numbering of all automobiles within the city of Anchorage.” Every car, truck, and motorcycle had to affix a 6-by-9-inch placard with white numbers at the rear of their vehicle. Numbers also had to be at least 5 inches tall and 2 inches wide. The city clerk sold placards for $1, about $15.50 in 2021.

Of course, safety guidelines and laws do not eliminate dangers, only curb them. A popular kids game during the 1920s was to hang onto the outside of cars as they sped to and from Lake Spenard. As many as 10 children would hang onto a single car. The familiar curves in the road sometimes threw kids off. Despite several close calls, there were no deaths, which speaks more to how the rough roads limited speeding than the game’s safety.

On Oct. 3, 1923, the Anchorage City Council raised the speed limit to 20 mph in town and 12 mph at crossings. In addition, “Both headlights and taillight must be burning at night.” Within a week, a motorcyclist raced through town at an estimated 38 mph.

The first area death directly attributed to speeding came on June 8, 1924. William P. Kelly, a 30-year-old taxi driver, spent the early part of the evening at a raucous roadhouse party several miles outside of town. The accident came while he was on his way back. Like all supposed roads out of Anchorage at the time, it was more wagon trail than street. Kelly’s large, gray Studebaker shuddered and swerved as it sped across the deep ruts. When the car lurched toward the soft shoulder, he overcompensated, jerking at the wheel. The car spun and flipped over. Kelly was thrown through the windshield and broke his spine.

Another carload of revelers discovered the scene a few minutes later. The unconscious Kelly was rushed to the railroad hospital, the only hospital in town. Kelly never regained consciousness and died a few hours later. The Anchorage Daily Times editor wrote, “The death of W. P. Kelly is unfortunate; it was unquestionably caused by fast automobile driving and should be a striking lesson to others. The way of the speed demon is uncertain, but the ultimate end is certain and usually ends in fatalities.”

Driver’s licenses were not required until November 1925, 10 years after the founding of Anchorage. Each license cost a dollar and entailed no testing. William Marsh Jr. was the first licensed driver. His father had a homestead around what is now the east end of the Elmendorf airstrip.

The next radical development in the Anchorage driving experience was a paved road, Fourth Avenue west of C Street. R. H. Stock was the contractor, and the first concrete was poured on May 31, 1939, at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and C Street. And, of course, locals could not wait to test it out. Within two weeks, two separate drivers were fined $10, about $200 in 2021, each for disregarding barricades so they could drive on the incomplete road. The asphalt surface had not yet been laid.

The property owners and residents on Fourth Avenue between B and C Streets, the first unpaved section as you traveled east, were especially jealous of the neighbors to the west. Those unhappy residents collectively offered to pay the city $6,000 for the paving of their block. Unfortunately for them, the actual cost would have been at least $9,000, and they had to wait several years before joining the blacktop elite.

Finally, there was the moment that, in a way, divides Anchorage history. For most of the 20th century’s first half, the city was a relatively rustic place. The seventh city ordinance, passed by the city council in 1921, banned cattle from downtown. The council did not get around to establishing a municipal court until the tenth ordinance, rogue cattle seemingly a more important issue.

By the late 1940s, the downtown core overflowed with cars. While parking was free, it was also challenging to obtain. The two primary causes of this problem were the rapidly increasing population and the large swaths of parking spaces fiercely guarded by taxi drivers. The city allowed cabs to stake out one spot per block, but taxi operators routinely parked as many as three cabs per block.

The solution was parking meters. The first parking meter in America was installed in Oklahoma City in 1935, and the concept quickly spread throughout the country. In 1947, Anchorage City Manager A. J. Koenig ordered 200 meters — and the coin-sorting machines needed to count all that change.

As with speed limits, the loudest objections came from taxi drivers. Earl Holland, owner of the eight-car Star-Gray line, declared, “The move is plain discrimination.” He and like-minded cabbies packed Council meetings, loudly heckling those in favor of meters. Preston Williams, part-owner of the Union Cab company, was more sanguine about the change. Said Williams, “It will be a little harder for us to serve the people, but we realize there has been a traffic problem in Anchorage and we are willing to help solve that situation.”

[Related: History of the Anchorage parking fairies: How a $75 ticket started a movement]

The meters went up, and after a brief warning period, the new parking rules went into effect on Sept. 29, 1947. It might surprise many to learn that parking meters were not introduced to New York until 1951, four years after Anchorage.

And so, there was Anchorage before parking meters and Anchorage after parking meters. After the installation of parking meters, residents became all too familiar with the costs of parking in an increasingly urban city. Within two weeks, the stack of parking meter violations was 2 inches thick. And there were no parking fairies, no Linny and Susan Pacillo, out to save them.

Key sources:

“Act to Finish School Building by Fall.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 6, 1939, 1, 8.

“Ball Player is Killed in Motor Accident Sunday.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 9, 1924, 5.

“Cab Companies Must find New Locations Soon.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 19, 1947, 2.

“City Council Meets in Routine Session.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 12, 1921, 6.

Cook, John M. Letter to editor. “Communication.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 6, 1926, 5.

“Council Passes New Traffic Law License Drivers.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 5, 1925, 6.

“E. Podboy Meets Death in Accident.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 9, 1918, 1.

“Enforces the Law.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 1, 1921, 4.

“First Concrete to be Poured Wednesday.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 29, 1939, 1.

“Impatient Drivers Get City Fines.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 15, 1939, 1.

“New Traffic Law Effective Today.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 4, 1923, 2.

“W. P. Kelly editorial.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 9, 1924, 4.

“Warning Period on Meters at End.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 29, 1947, 1.

“What is Doing of Interest Anchorage.” Cordova Daily Times, October 6, 1915, 4.