Four are honoured by Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame

Four Yukoners were inducted to the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame on Tuesday evening at the Yukon Transportation Museum. Ronald Frederick Connelly sold the family horse in order to purchase a surplus World War II trainer - and then learned to fly it.

Four Yukoners were inducted to the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame on Tuesday evening at the Yukon Transportation Museum.

Ronald Frederick Connelly sold the family horse in order to purchase a surplus World War II trainer – and then learned to fly it. He moved to the Yukon in 1955 after flying float planes on Vancouver Island and bush flying in Ontario. In 1957, he moved to Dawson City and formed Connelly-Dawson Airways. After several mergers, this business was transformed into Great Northern Airways in 1965.

Connelly moved on to found Trans North Turbo Air with several partners in 1967. Trans North is still in operation today. Connelly was also a founding partner of Conair Aviation Ltd. in Abbottsford, B.C., in 1969, and served as vice president from 1972 to 1994. By 1984, Conair had the largest fleet of firefighting aircraft in the world. It too is still in business.

Connelly’s commemoration states that his career spanned five decades, flying and operating companies “that helped open up and service the North by creating and supporting the burgeoning links of travel, trade and communication between the many growing communities in the Yukon.”

Connelly’s daughter, R.J. Connelly-Lundquist, and son, Shawn Connelly, received the 2015 Order of Polaris Award from Yukon Commissioner Doug Phillips on behalf of their late father.

Born in Lincoln, England, Ben Warnsby began working at the age of 14. He emigrated to Canada in 1952, and arrived in Dawson City in May of the following year, where he worked in the North Fork Power Plant for the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation until 1962. It was there that he met his future business partner and friend, Mike Stutter. Mike Stutter was born in Alesford, England, and immigrated to Canada in 1948. He moved to the Yukon in 1954, where he too gained employment at the North Fork Power Plant, where he met Ben.

Together, Ben and Mike purchased the small motorized riverboat Brainstorm from Frank Burkhart of Dawson City in 1961 for the sum of $8,500. Until 1974, they operated the Brainstorm on the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, hauling vital freight to Old Crow and other points. Pilots and crew recruited from First Nations in Dawson and Old Crow included Percy Henry, Henry Henry, Paul Ben Kassi, John Kendi, Gordon Frost and Alfred Charlie.

After selling the Brainstorm, Ben and Mike engaged in various business ventures until they formed Miben Mining Company in 1970. They continued mining on Dago Hill on Hunker Creek for the next 25 years.

Ben and Mike received their award as 2015 Yukon Pioneers of the Year from Yukon Public Works Minister Scott Kent.

Rolf Hougen made an important contribution to the transportation industry in the Yukon when he acted as a catalyst in converting the failing White Pass and Yukon Route Railway from a freight carrier to a successful seasonal tourist operation.

The railroad, which had been in operation since 1900, became, under Frank Brown (whose company had acquired White Pass in 1955), the world’s first integrated ship and rail container system. White Pass was sold in 1973, and struggled for the next few years. In 1979, Hougen was appointed by the territorial government to negotiate the purchase of the company, which, with financial support from the federal government, continued to operate until it finally shut down in 1982.

According to the commemoration, Rolf Hougen “headed a group of tour companies and businesses that developed a plan to buy and transform the Alaska/Yukon railway… into a modern tourist attraction.” While the consortium had put together a sound business model, the territorial government of the day did not support the initiative, and it fell to eastern investors to purchase the railway, which reopened in 1987, and continues to operate to the present day.

Hougen received the 2015 Transportation Person of the Year Award from Kent.

After receiving his award, Hougen spoke on behalf of historic preservation. He recalled the effort he and others made during the early 1970s to save the sternwheelers Whitehorse and Casca, which were beached on the Whitehorse waterfront at the time. Using various grants available from the federal government, they had repaired the decks, painted the ships and installed glass in the windows. A fence was erected to enclose the vessels and provide security.

The City of Whitehorse was then asked if their bylaw enforcement officers could patrol the site to provide some extra security, but the city turned them down. One of the newspapers condemned him for trying to save the old riverboats. One councillor stated that the best thing that could happen to the old riverboats would be to put a match to them. Unfortunately, squatters on board the vessel fulfilled that wish when the two old riverboats burned to the ground June 20, 1974.

Hougen went on to cite the example of the old Whitehorse courthouse and post office building on Front Street, which was demolished at the instruction of the minister, who said that they already had enough buildings like that in Ontario. Similarly, the CANOL road was stripped of most of the derelict machinery along the right of way under an $80,000 dollar contract. The old equipment was sold as salvage, leaving only a few remnants along the road, some of which have been moved to a display at the point near Johnson’s Crossing where the CANOL road begins.

Hougen made a point of complimenting the current government for deciding to save the old suspension bridge at Ross River from demolition and preserve it for the future. With the bridge still in place, he said, you have something tangible with which to tell the story of the CANOL project.

I commend Rolf Hougen for speaking out (and acting) on behalf of the preservation of Yukon history, and congratulate all of this year’s recipients for their contributions to the transportation industry in the Yukon. Their names and stories will now be honoured in the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame at the Yukon Transportation Museum.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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