Trucker traces roots to Gold Rush

PHOTO/Courtesy Sourdough Express Inc.
Sourdough Express Inc. has been hauling freight since 1898 using everything from beasts to big rigs.

While the mode of moving freight has changed in 104 years, the company’s philosophy of dependable service and customer satisfaction hasn’t.

Robert "Sourdough Bob" Ellis started the company during the Klondike Gold Rush in Dawson City, hauling prospectors’ equipment by dog sleds or horse-drawn wagons, depending on the season.

According to company history, Ellis was a one-man operation through the Klondike strike, moving supplies for miners through some of the most treacherous territory known. When gold was discovered in the Tanana Valley in 1902, Ellis pulled up stakes and moved to Fairbanks to tend to the gold miners there.

It proved to be a good move for Sourdough Bob and the business.

Today, the Fairbanks-based moving and freight company and its subsidiaries have more than 100 full-time and another 100 seasonal employees, a fleet of 150 trucks and trailers, and is an agent with major worldwide mover, Global Van Lines Inc.

In 1923, Ed Herring bought the business from Ellis, who had begun using Ford Model T trucks to haul freight in town, but still depended on dogs and horses to pull sleds and wagons on the rugged roads out of town to villages and mining camps.

Jeff Gregory, Herring’s great-grandson and current president of Sourdough Express, said Ellis died shortly after he sold the business, about the same time the wagon trail from Valdez to Fairbanks was transformed into the Richardson Highway.

Gene Rooge, Herring’s son-in-law and pioneer Fairbanks trucker, made the first trip on the new highway in 1929, hauling eight barrels of gasoline from Valdez to Fairbanks in a 2-year-old Chevrolet truck. The 270-mile trip took two days down and three days back to Fairbanks.

The Richardson Highway became a lifeline to Fairbanks from Valdez, where a ship from Seattle would arrive about three times a month, laden with groceries and other goods.

Though the Richardson Highway was a vast improvement over the old wagon trail, the road was still far from perfect, Gregory said. But Sourdough Express prided itself in successfully hauling crates of eggs along the rough road.

Sourdough Express today touts its packers and drivers, who are careful to make deliveries undamaged. The company says it has one of lowest claim costs in the industry.

While gold and oil strikes over the years helped contribute to the success of Sourdough Express, World War II brought more business to the trucking company. According to the company, there were times when a truck left the Valdez port every eight minutes, hauling military cargo to the Interior, a journey greatly helped by a newly built bridge over the Tanana River.

Trucks began hauling supplies to the North Slope in 1974 over the Dalton Highway, a 520-mile trip from Fairbanks. Under the reign of then-president Whitey Gregory, who married into the family in 1957, the company grew fourfold.

At the height of the oil boom, Sourdough had about 70 trucks delivering supplies to Prudhoe Bay, with drivers averaging about two trips a week.

photo: focus
01/27/2002 - 8:00pm