Wanted: memories of the Alaska Highway

I came to the Yukon on an impulse while working my way through university. I had a good-paying but unsatisfying job working at the Calgary Brewery when graduate student Jim Bennett telephoned me.

I came to the Yukon on an impulse while working my way through university. I had a good-paying but unsatisfying job working at the Calgary Brewery when graduate student Jim Bennett telephoned me. Would I like to assist him on a project in the Yukon?

I quit my job and two or three days later we were on the road north in a 1949 Mercury one-ton truck. The Alaska Highway was all potholes, gravel and dust in 1971. We travelled behind one large transport truck for several hours, unable to pass him because the dust reduced the visibility ahead to zero.

Our truck broke down 100 kilometres from Fort Nelson. I camped in the ditch beside the truck for three days while Jim hitchhiked ahead to Fort Nelson to find a fuel pump. The fuel pump wasn’t the problem as it turned out. We finally resolved the issue, however, and continued our journey after Jim replaced the old truck with a newer, less interesting, but more reliable one.

I returned the following year. Driving the dusty highway to the Yukon, I remember the roadside lodges as havens in the wilderness where one could buy gasoline, get flat tires fixed, obtain repairs, and buy a meal. If something went wrong along the way, a lodge was never far away.

Times have changed. Forty-plus years later, the highway has been straightened and paved. Cars are much more reliable and travel much farther on a tank of gas than they did in those days. The lodges and the stories of adventure of travelling the Alaska Highway remain only as memories, retold by those who lived along or drove the Alaska Highway. Everybody has their own unique story to tell of the experience.

I attended a public meeting of the Alaska Highway Heritage Society Yukon last Thursday at the Bush Pilot Room in the Yukon Transportation Museum. The meeting was a call to the public to share their stories and identify points of interest along the highway.

The Alaska Highway is not just a highway that passes through hundreds of miles of wilderness; it is also a landscape rich in human history. But most travellers get only a hint of this when they travel along the highway corridor. The society would like to change this by sharing stories and identifying and helping to protect places of historical and cultural interest along the highway.

One of the goals of the society is to nominate the Alaska Highway to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for their consideration. The board could then recommend it to the minister for recognition as a place of national historic significance.

But there is more than this goal. Thousands of people travel the Alaska Highway every year without being aware of the stories of people and places attached to the corridor. The society is interested in gathering these stories and telling visitors about them. Several of the people in attendance at this meeting shared their stories about the highway.

Pat Ellis, who first arrived in Whitehorse in 1953, remembers a small town filled with young people. She remembers that Macrae, located on the highway south of town, was a major depot for the military during and after the war.

At one time, there were barracks there for the army and army contractors. There were garages and a laundry. The soldiers always had neat, starched uniforms, she recalled. There was a sign painting shop, a wood working shop and a theatre. The theatre was a large Quonset structure capable of holding 600 people. The premiere of the film This is the Army took place here during the war. Little survives of this complex today so it is easy to forget that it existed.

Bonnie Dalziel was born and raised in the Yukon and grew up in Watson Lake. She remembered the “Wye” before Watson Lake existed. She spoke enthusiastically of the early days in this highway community.

Marjorie Copp remembered living at Swift River as a young girl. Her father worked as a mechanic at the highway maintenance camp located there.

Jan Herry, who has had a long involvement with francophone history in the Yukon, has been a champion of the history of Silver City at Kluane Lake. He referred to a military construction camp that was located there during the building of the Alaska Highway. I remember seeing some of the barracks buildings, which were still standing back in 1971.

Many other places along the highway were discussed. The Aeradio station at Teslin was restored and a new exhibit was opened inside the building three years ago by the George Johnston Museum.

The Watson Lake sign post forest had a very humble beginning. When I passed through Watson Lake in 1971, I recall a row of 15 to 20 posts beside the highway with signs mounted on them. Now it is recognized as a territorial historic site with tens of thousands of signs, and growing larger every year.

The abutments of the original Slims River bridge are located some distance up the Slims River valley from the current modern bridge. During my first visit to the site, I saw a row of pilings of the original stretched across the river flats from one side to the other. I don’t know what remains today, but there are some excellent photographs at the Yukon Archives of the bridge being constructed.

It is not widely known that three companies of black soldiers worked on the building of the original Alaska Highway. A fourth company worked on the CANOL project, which started shortly after the commencement of the Alaska Highway construction. The “Hidden History” group in Whitehorse has been actively gathering information about these soldiers.

Other features that came up during the meeting include Soldier’s Summit, where the Alaska Highway was officially opened November of 1942; The Watson Lake Air Terminal, and the numerous lodges that operated along the highway to serve tourists headed north.

Some of the people associated with the Alaska Highway are commemorated on plaques in the Transportation Hall of Fame, which is located within the Yukon Transportation Museum. Frank Steele was inducted in 2013 because of his long involvement operating numerous lodges along the highway during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Liard Tom, and Frank Slim, both First Nation men who were involved in the construction of the Alaska Highway, are also memorialized.

Do you have memories of the early days of the Alaska Highway? Did you take a memorable trip, work on it, or remember some of the places along the route? Why don’t you share these memories so that the stories of the Alaska Highway are not forgotten.

You can contact Kathleen Hare, project manager of the Alaska Highway Heritage Society Yukon, at (867) 335-8400 or ahhsyukon@gmail.com

If you want to get involved, or seek information about the project, go to http://ahhsy.wikispaces.com.

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