The Edward S. Orr Stage Company, also known as the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage Company, was only one of several stage lines which operated along the Valdez-to-Fairbanks and Chitina to Fairbanks Trails in the early years of the twentieth century, but it was uncontestably the most successful. When the Klondike gold rush started, Ed Orr was in the right place and quickly made his way north. He formed a small freighting company with William V. Tukey, of Boise, Idaho.
Their string of packhorses hauled goods for the Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company over the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, at tidewater, to Sheep Camp, where the cargo was transferred from horseback to buckets and sent to the summit via a cable tramway. In 1899, after completing their narrow-guage railroad over White Pass, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad bought out the Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company, effectively ending Orr and Tukey’s freighting company.
In August, 1899, Orr and Tukey loaded 28 horses and 70 mules, along with a dozen people and several tons of goods, into nine scows and sailed them from Lake Bennett down the Yukon River to Dawson City, arriving to great fanfare on August 21st. Orr’s wife Jennie and their young son, Thorold, were among the passengers. Business was brisk in Dawson City, and Orr & Tukey advertised that they would carry “All kinds of freight, to any of the creeks, safely and quickly delivered,” utilizing horses, mules, and dogs, pulling various types of wagons or sleds.
James Wickersham, en route to his new appointment as territorial judge in Eagle, visited his old friend Ed Orr in Dawson City, and in his book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1938), he described Orr as “six feet tall, handsome and generous.” In 1901 Orr & Tukey merged their freighting business with the Hadley Stage Line and expanded their freighting and stage business to a small mining camp on the Alaskan side of the border named Fairbanks, and it was soon one of the largest freighting companies in the territory.
In 1905 Orr’s partner, William Tukey, retired to Idaho. The following year, 1906, Ed Orr moved his family and his freighting company to Valdez, Alaska. The Orr Stage Company was successful from the start, and Ed Orr bought out the rival Kennedy Stage Company, making his the largest such company in Alaska in 1909. The fare from Valdez to Fairbanks was $150, the return trip was $125, on sleighs which could carry ten passengers on four double seats. Horses were changed out every 20-25 miles, and a telegraph station could be found approximately every 40 miles for safety and convenience.
in 1910 Ed. S. Orr began considering a return to Washington state, as the myriad stresses of overseeing the company had resulted in his health declining. Jesse C. Martin, who had managed the company office in Valdez, was appointed General Manager of the stage line, and Ed. S. Orr and his family returned to Washington, where Orr underwent medical treatment and slowly regained his health. Back in Alaska the Orr Stage Company expanded to Chitina, but by the summer of 1911 the trail had been improved enough for wheeled vehicles to travel it during the summer, and in April, 1914 a meeting was held in San Francisco at which the company directors gave their written consent to dissolve the company. Six months later, in September, 1914, Robert Sheldon drove the first car from Fairbanks to Chitina amidst much fanfare.
In the 1991 National Park Service’s Historic Structures Report on the Superintendent’s cabin at Chitina, a log cabin which had been built for the Orr Stage Company manager in 1910, the legacy of the Ed. S. Orr Stage Company is made clear:
“Although the Ed. S. Orr Stage Company only operated in Chitina for a short time, the company itself traces its roots deep into the development of the transportation industry in Alaska and the Yukon. Mr. Orr was one of the foremost pioneers in building not only a transportation empire, but through his efforts and good management of his company, he greatly impacted the development of the mining industry in and around Dawson City, Fairbanks, and finally along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.”