Quong bridged the territory

James Quong had 138 children. Vehicles ran over 134 of them. And that pleased the late engineer. He built bridges.

James Quong had 138 children.

Vehicles ran over 134 of them.

And that pleased the late engineer.

He built bridges.

“And those bridges were part of our family,” said Quong’s oldest daughter Meiyan Yip, serving out snacks and coffee at her father’s memorial gathering at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse.

The Yukon government is recognizing Quong’s achievements with a stone monument that will be placed at a lookout near the Donjek River Bridge.

It’s the only government-driven commemoration that Highway communications spokesperson Tim Hierlihy knows of.

“It’s a one-time thing for us,” he said.

“The government is not in that kind of business.”

Originally, there was talk of renaming the new Donjek River Bridge after Quong.

“But there is a process within government for naming infrastructure and it’s in the First Nation’s territory, and Donjek is a First Nation name, so rather than doing that we looked at other ways to remember him,” said Hierlihy.

The commemoration, planned around the stone monument, was going to be held in a Highways yard under a tent.

Quong’s children and his 92-year-old wife, Diamond, started making travel arrangements.

It was a chance to get the whole family together again, back in the Yukon, said Yip, who lives in the Lower Mainland, near her mother.

But just days before Quong’s three daughters and wife joined his son Ken in the territory, plans were still a little shaky.

Things took longer than expected, said Hierlihy.

The stone was still out at Sidrock Inc. and Hierlihy was concerned it would be too cold for Diamond.

“She is fairly elderly, so in consideration for her age we held it at MacBride Museum,” he said.

A picture of Quong, superimposed over the monument, presided over a table piled high with food.

Ken, an amateur photographer, did the photoshopping.

It’s a talent that runs in the family.

Photos taken over the years by Quong graced the reception-room walls.

“He was a great photographer, and back in the ‘50s there weren’t many around,” said longtime friend Con Lattin, speaking at the reception.

“So he performed a lot of wedding duties for people.”

But that’s not why Quong ended up in the Yukon.

In 1942, the young engineer, fresh out of school, started out drafting designs for temporary timber bridges along the Alaska Highway for the US Public Roads Administration.

Two year later, Quong found himself directly involved with the construction of 134 permanent bridges along that same highway.

“I took it for granted he always knew what he wanted to do,” said Diamond, talking with friends after the speeches.

She’d met Quong when he was still studying in Saskatchewan and was holidaying in Vancouver.

“He started working up north before we were married and continued working there until he retired,” she said.

He’d originally planned to go north for five years, said his son-in-law Raymond Lee.

“But it became his whole career.”

And he loved it.

Quong’s children remember weekend outings in the car.

“He’d stop at every bridge, put on his hard hat and get out and inspect it, all the way down the highway” said his daughter Meijane.

“He could probably tell you about every strut.”

“There were so many flies we didn’t like to get out of the car,” added Meiyan.

“So we’d sit in their while he crawled around underneath the bridges doing his inspection.”

Nowadays a job is just a job, said Meijane.

“But for him it was everything.”

And there was no such thing as “good enough,” if you were working with Quong, said deputy minister of Highways Mike Johnson, who worked with Quong.

“Over those 17 months, I was reminded of (Quong’s) high standards,” said Johnson.

“My dad even got a call about his ‘corner-cutting contractor’ son.”

Compared with Quong’s 134 bridges, Johnson has overseen a mere 30 bridges in the last 30 years, he added with a laugh.

There was a bridge brought in to cross Teeter Creek that was relocated from somewhere else on the continent, said friend Keith Byram.

It looked like two bridges on top of each other, he said.

“I couldn’t believe how it was built, and didn’t know how he knew it could take the weight, but he did,” said Byram.

“And he drove out to Muncho just to make sure it was done properly.

“He was unrelenting on his standards — those bridges will be around for a long time.”

Quong worked for the US Army until 1964, helping design bridges on the Skagway Road and the Dempster, as well as the Alaska Highway, before moving to Canada’s Department of Public Works in 1964. He remained there until he retired in 1981.

He has photo records of every bridge in the territory, said family friend Rolf Hougen.

“But he also has pictures of every community, because everywhere he went he had his camera with him.

“I didn’t know him as a bridge builder or engineer,” he added.

“I knew him as a photographer.”

Quong used his camera in an artistic way, said Hougen.

“We’d both take pictures of the same thing, and I’d have captured an image for the record, while (Quong) got these fantastic images.”

Quong’s family lived in the Takhini army housing in Whitehorse.

There was a lot of turnover, but it meant meeting some pretty interesting friends, said Meiyan, who is still on contact with some of them.

Although there weren’t many Chinese families in the territory at the time, Meiyan didn’t face discrimination.

“There were lots of kids with brown eyes and dark hair,” she said.

And they all played together.

“The most precious thing in my life was my friendship with the Quongs,” said Betty Taylor, during the reception.

The 93-year-old was a godmother to Quong’s children.

“When I came to the Yukon, Diamond was the first person I talked to,” said Taylor.

“We were sitting beside each other in church.”

Quong’s three daughters and his son left the territory for university, and only Ken came back as a doctor.

“He was very proud of the accomplishments of his children, but he was not a bragger,” said Lattin, who also met Quong in church.

“We were confirmed together,” he said.

Although he was a hard worker, Quong still found time for his family and fishing.

“I remember he worked really hard,” said his daughter Meilin.

“But he also used to take us on road trips to see the leaves and pick berries.

“He loved the Yukon.”

Quong also loved dancing and whistling, added Meilin.

“I didn’t know about the 134 bridges,” she added.

“But I admire Dad, he was always really smart and really creative.”

He wanted to know how many sheets were on a role of toilet paper, so he counted everyone of them, said Lattin.

“That’s the kind of inquiring mind he had.”

During his retirement, he took an interest in computers and “always wanted to talk shop,” said Lee.

He was a lifelong learner, he added.

“He knew the history and story behind each bridge — they were like his children.”

We are experiencing technical difficulties with our commenting platform and hope to be up and running again soon. In the meantime, you can still send us your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter, or submit a letter to the editor.