Pearl Keenan remembers the Alaska Highway

In a recent column, I asked if any readers had memories to share regarding the Alaska Highway. I am told that the Alaska Highway Heritage Society Yukon received an excellent response.

In a recent column, I asked if any readers had memories to share regarding the Alaska Highway. I am told that the Alaska Highway Heritage Society Yukon received an excellent response.

These memories will put a human face to the story of the highway in the early days. One reader who contacted me directly was Pearl Keenan, who grew up in Teslin before the Alaska Highway was built.

Accompanied by Sally Robinson, president of the heritage society, I visited Pearl on the weekend. What a remarkable story she had to tell! At 94 years of age, she is still very active in the community.

She was born October 10, 1920, 40 kilometres up the Nasutlin River from present-day Teslin, the fourth child of George and Annie Geddes. George was a Scottish immigrant who came to the Yukon during the gold rush. Annie was Inland Tlingit and 30 years younger than George.

George had been a miner, a commercial hunter and mail carrier. He settled in Teslin around 1905, where he and a man named Tom Smith operated the first store in Teslin for several years.

At that time, Teslin was an isolated community consisting of 300 First Nation people. When the highway came through, there were only five white people resident there. Pearl’s parents had a homestead 19 kilometres down the lake from Teslin where they raised mink. They were also self-sufficient, cultivating a large garden, which provided them with most of their provisions. As her sisters were married and her brothers moved away to work, the burden of caring for the mink fell to Pearl.

She recalls that in May of 1942, George Simmons’ plane arrived at Teslin from Carcross twice in one day. Since that meant the arrival of long-awaited mail, Pearl was sent to pick it up.

She was walking toward Teslin with five dogs when, about five kilometres from the village, the dogs started barking and scooted into the bush. She heard hollering and screaming in the distance, and the dogs came right back to her. Since the presence of other people in the vicinity was unusual, she ran away as fast as she could.

When she reached Teslin, the postmaster asked her if she had seen anything unusual down the lake, and she described what happened on her way to the village. He explained that it was a survey party, one of two that had set out from Teslin in opposite directions, to mark a trail for the Alaska Highway.

The survey party had already reported that they had seen someone running along the lakeshore. They thought her dogs were a pack of wolves.

Pearl said that her family knew all about the war, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor; having kept up on current affairs by listening to their radio. But they hadn’t heard a word about the coming of the highway. Within a few months of her first encounter, Pearl remembers seeing the headlights of the first vehicles coming over the hastily completed “pioneer road.” That was in August.

Of the engineering unit that invaded Teslin: “…they were coloured people with all white officers, they were the ones building the road,” she reported. In fact, they were members of the 93rd regiment, who had come in from Skagway via Carcross.

These soldiers came from the American Deep South and were totally unprepared and poorly equipped for the conditions that they were working in. The winter of 1942/1943 was one of the coldest on record. Pearl remembers how those poor soldiers suffered from the cold. “It will never be known how many froze to death,” she recalls. The army kept that quiet.

Because of where her family was located, they didn’t see much of the soldiers working on the construction of the road, although the white officers would visit her father occasionally. They warned George Geddes not to trust the coloured troops. “If they ever come around, just shoot ‘em,” they were told.

They did receive a visit one time when some coloured soldiers stopped at the Geddes home to get warm. “They were just freezing. They stuck their hands right down into the flames in the stove, they were so cold,” she recalls.

The coming of the highway heralded many changes for the people of Teslin. One was a transition to a cash economy. With the coming of the highway, there were jobs guiding survey crews and cutting trees and clearing brush.

But the newcomers brought something else: disease. Pearl remembers that the people in Teslin fell victim to new diseases, and many died. She lost her only uncle to measles. The Anglican Church in Teslin was converted into a hospital, but it was not built for winter weather and was extremely cold.

Eventually, the army allowed their doctors to come in to help, and then nurses came from Whitehorse. Corinne Cyr was one of them, and Pearl remembers that Corinne as a wonderful person.

The Geddes family, because of its location separate from Teslin, was spared. None of Pearl’s brothers or sisters succumbed to the scourges that were introduced. She remembers, however, being stricken with yellow jaundice, measles and chicken pox, which were probably acquired from the contractors who followed the army.

She also remembered the tough ground conditions encountered by the soldiers constructing the new road. Opening up the road turned the ground into a quagmire over which a corduroy of logs had to be laid. At least one caterpillar tractor sank into the muskeg and remains there today.

Do you have any memories or stories of the Alaska Highway in the early days? The Alaska Highway Heritage Society Yukon would love to hear them. I would too. You can contact Kathleen Hare, Project Manager of Alaska Highway Heritage Society Yukon at (867) 335-8400 or ahhsyukon@gmail.com

If you want more information about the project, go to http://ahhsy.wikispaces.com/

Apologies: in my Oct. 8 column about the Windy Arm Trams I quoted a passage from a historian without giving proper credit. It was well known local historian and entrepreneur, Murray Lundberg. The quotation was from his excellent book Fractured Veins and Broken Dreams: Montana Mountain and the Windy Arm Stampede.

This book is a great example of the history of a region that has long been abandoned, with few voices to speak to the events that occurred there. If anybody were to ask me about the history of this place and time, Fractured Veins and Broken Dreams would be the first book I would recommend.

While I can’t imagine anybody else adding much to the story, Murray tells me that he is planning soon to produce a second edition of this long out of print publication. In it, he will include 40 pages of information excluded from the original book. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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