Letters to home from the Alaska Highway

Bill LaBar was working 2,500 kilometres away from his wife Helen and their three sons. He had signed a contract to work for The Okes Construction Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Okes was upgrading 400 kilometres of the crude tote road known as the Alcan, or Alaska Highway.

Bill LaBar was working 2,500 kilometres away from his wife Helen and their three sons. He had signed a contract to work for The Okes Construction Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Okes was upgrading 400 kilometres of the crude tote road known as the Alcan, or Alaska Highway.

It was March 1943, and Bill had been dispatched to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. “Some men are having their families come up, but it’s a poor place for a family,” he wrote his wife. “I wouldn’t want to ask anyone to travel to this rotten, money mad place.” Dawson Creek was struggling to keep up with the sudden, rapid growth that occurred when the US Army descended upon the starting point of the Alcan the year before.

Three months later, Bill was relocated even farther away when, on June 15, he was flown to Whitehorse, and then whisked away to work on a sawmill operation at Robinson, between Whitehorse and Carcross.

Bill LaBar married Helen Christie Matthews in Union City, Michigan in 1937. By 1943, they had three sons under 6 years of age. At the time that he signed on to work for Okes Construction, Bill and his growing family had been living in a log cabin that he had built back home in Wisconsin.

To combat the separation from his family, Bill and Helen began a correspondence. Every two or three days for the entire duration of his employment, he wrote letters (more than 120 in all) describing his time in the northwest.

Bill was not wild and reckless. He was a devout Christian and a devoted family man. These letters became his link with sanity. “I do not think I shall stay any longer than my 9 months which will be November,” he wrote. Many times, he had second thoughts about that decision, but in the end, he stayed the course.

In his missives, he described the changing landscape as he flew through the mountains from Fort St. John to Whitehorse. He then pictured the country around the Robinson camp in clear detail, after which he described the long walks in the surrounding countryside. He mentioned the sawmill where he worked, and the others, which were never assembled and lay nearby, rusting away. He alluded to the inefficiency of the operation, and the incompetence of the foreman.

The Alaska Highway was built in part to supply the chain of airports, known as the Northwest Staging Route, that stretched across Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. Bill mentioned the constant stream of aircraft passing overhead in one letter, and the hustle and bustle on the White Pass Railroad line that passed behind their camp. In October, he noted in a dispatch that there were six airplane accidents in one week. Most notable of these was a US Army B-17 bomber that crashed into Bennett Lake in front of Carcross (the pilot and 11 passengers were killed).

Letters from Helen seem to arrive at the whim of the transportation system, several sometimes reaching him at the same time after interruptions of as long as a week. The pain of his separation and his devotion are obvious throughout his correspondence. He makes frequent reference to returning home.

It is obvious that even as a labourer, the pay was good, and that he was working hard, long hours. Bill did not fritter away his money on booze or parties as so many others seemed to do; he appeared to be solitary even among those with whom he worked. He kept careful account of his paycheques, and most of the money was sent home. “Unless we get a new place,” he wrote July 7, “I shall come home when we have $1,000 in the bank. That will give us a boost and there are lots of things in this world besides money.”

As time progressed it became obvious that they were determined to buy a farm. In his letters, Bill evaluated the advantages and disadvantages of several properties, and they eventually settled upon one of them. Instead of leaving early, he hung on for several more months, forwarding more paycheques to be deposited in the bank back home.

His devotion to God is expressed frequently. “If our God will grant us the privilege, Helen,” he wrote on November 20, “we shall never again be parted for such a length of time.”

He often added a little post script to his sons, acknowledging the letters they sent to him, and describing the things he thought might be of interest to young children: work at the sawmill, the flowers and abundant wildlife. He described the ever-present gophers in detail, even illustrating one of his letters with a drawing of one standing up on its hind legs.

As the season progressed, he dwelled more frequently on his love for his wife and children, often making reference to his approaching departure date. Finally, on December 8, after a nine month separation from his family, he was on his way home. It appears that he returned to work on the highway in January 1944 for another three months, to complete his contract, and presumably, save some more money for the purchase of a farm.

After his Yukon sojourn, LaBar was employed building Liberty ships in a shipyard in Superior, Wisconsin until the end of the war. He and Helen purchased the Benson Farm near Edgewater, Wisconsin, in 1945, and continued to live there for the next 39 years.

I haven’t read all of the letters yet, but what I did see paints a picture of a loving couple separated by necessity. In addition to revealing their loving relationship, the letters create a detailed picture of life for a labourer temporarily stationed in the Yukon, working on the construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War.

This collection of letters was recently donated to the Yukon Archives by Arthur, the youngest of Bill and Helen’s four sons (Arthur was born in August, 1945). It is a charming account and a great read for the curious. Anyone can see them: simply go to the reference room in the Yukon Archives, located on the circle at Yukon College. Ask the reference archivist to see the Bill LaBar fonds, accession number 2016/27.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, is due out in April. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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