exhibit opening commemorates dots and dashes

In one way or another, transportation and communication have been intertwined in Yukon's long history.

In one way or another, transportation and communication have been intertwined in Yukon’s long history.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has acknowledged this fact with two plaques that commemorate the advent of improved communication in the North.

One, unveiled in 1998 at the MacBride Museum, honours the Dawson -Ashcroft Telegraph Line, which was one of the longest and most remote overland telegraph routes ever completed. The overland telegraph operated from 1901 until the 1940’s.

The second plaque, unveiled in 2005 in Dawson City, commemorates the Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System and is located in the park behind the Commissioner’s Residence, not far from the building that housed the first transmitter in 1923.

The importance of communication was further recognized with the official opening of the 1941 Aeradio Navigation Range station at Teslin on Thursday of last week. The project was the result of the efforts of many individuals and many organizations.

This time, there is more than a plaque to remind us.

The original log building that housed the equipment was located on Teslin Hill, four miles from the end of the runway at the Teslin airport. Over the last six years, the derelict building was moved to its current location in the yard of the George Johnston Museum, restored, and researched.

As a result, an impressive exhibit has been installed inside the building that interprets the role of the aeradio system between 1941 and 1955. Much of the credit for seeing this project through to completion goes to museum manager, Sharon Chatterton.

The original transmitters were shipped from Whitehorse up the Teslin River in 1941 before the Alaska Highway was built.

The station was part of a network of such facilities that were strung out from Alberta to Alaska to aid the navigation of planes being sent to Russia as part of America’s lend-lease program during the Second World War.

Thousands of planes travelled the Northwest Staging Route; 8,100 of them, fighters, bombers and freighters laden with supplies, were guided to Siberia via this network.

The station was also important to the community of Teslin because it was the forerunner of major changes that were soon to come with the construction of the Alaska Highway.

One hundred and twenty people attended the opening ceremony, which took place in front of the restored aeradio station that now stands opposite the George Johnston Museum.

The guests of honour at the ceremony included Peter Johnston, chief of the Teslin Tlingit Tribal Council, Clara Jules, mayor of Teslin, Lieutenant-Colonel Laniel of the Canadian Armed Forces, Yukon Minister of Justice, Marian Horne, Minister of Tourism and Culture Elaine Taylor, Former Speaker of the Territorial Legislature Sam Johnston, filmmaker Carol Geddes, Elder Pearl Keenan, and former radio operator Doug Bell.

Pearl Keenan, one of the two guest speakers, remembered the community before the coming of the station, and the Alaska Highway. Teslin was an isolated First Nation Community with only five white residents.

She remembers that the community more or less governed itself in those days. July 1 was the biggest gathering of the year, as by that time, everyone had returned to the community from their winter trapping activities.

The huge Union Jack that they flew on July 1 in the community was the biggest flag that Keenan ever saw until she visited Expo 86 in Vancouver.

Doug Bell, who was formerly the telecommunications manager for the network, acknowledged the attendance of fellow radio men Bob Thompson, Duane Backstrom, Rick Gow, as well as Ernie Brown, who travelled all the way from Ottawa to attend the ceremony.

Bell learned about the early day conditions from Russ Travers, a former operator, who was here in the early days.

Every word, he said, was transmitted by Morse Code. For every message transmitted, there was one man sending and another receiving. Millions of messages were sent over the network as a series of dots and dashes during the years of operation.

The aeradio station also served as a navigation beacon to keep pilots on course en route to Whitehorse and points beyond. In addition, flight plans, en-route condition reports and arrival messages were constantly flashed back and forth.

Bell said there were similar stations at Beaton River, Swift River, Aishihik and Snag, all of which today are “operated by ghosts and their dit dot dot dits.”

The station was also responsible for all ground-to-aircraft transmissions in the area until 1944.

The station symbolizes the unique conditions the system operated under: the number of people involved, the remoteness, the limited resources, and the atmospheric conditions of the northern lights.

Most of all, it symbolizes the urgency of the mission. The aeradio system, he said, had an impact on the outcome on distant battlefields, where the world’s future was being decided.

Bell thanked museum manager Sharon Chatterton and others for “opening some understanding of our work and for the restoration of some … once upon a time state-of-the-art electronic hardware, and for a time when ‘dit dot dot dits’ were king for us.”

Bell also mentioned the importance of the wives, who “turned shacks into homes and homes into communities,” as the men worked long tedious hours while their coffee got cold and the lunches came home uneaten at the end of their shifts.

He concluded with the words of Chief Dan George: “Keep a few embers burning from your village so that one day you can gather again,” and signed off using the Morse Code farewell: “Dot Dit Dit Dot,” the letters TU, which stood for “Thank you.”

The event continued with short speeches by the other guests of honour, and a ribbon-cutting by Pearl Keenan and Lieutenant-Colonel Laniel.

Gifts of appreciation were given to numerous people who were involved in the undertaking of this ambitious project, and then the doors were opened to the new and well-designed exhibit in the restored and freshly painted aeradio building.

Pieces of the early electronic equipment, on loan from the Yukon Transportation Museum, were the centrepiece of the display within.

For me, as it will be for many others who come to view the exhibit, it represents a small and important piece of Yukon history revealed and remembered. To the community, it will serve as a reminder of the tremendous changes that came about because of the course of world events.

To the thinning ranks of those who were part of the system during its heyday, this building and the display within it will honour the sense of mission and purpose that impacted upon their lives.

When passing through Teslin next time, why not stop to view the new exhibit, and visit the lovely George Johnston Museum and the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre.

To all who brought this building and these relics back to life, “Dot Dit Dit Dot.”

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book most recent book is History Hunting in the Yukon.