History Hunter: Annual transportation honours handed out to Yukoners

Nearly 100 people attended a celebration at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre May 28. The names of three more Yukoners were added to the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame: Al Warner, George Johnston and George Nagano.

The first tribute was delivered by the Honourable Angélique Bernard, who was attending her first induction ceremony since becoming the commissioner of the Yukon. “He was a very capable, competent and colourful engineer,” she stated.

Albert Michael Warner was born in Saskatchewan in 1923, but grew up in North Vancouver. During World War II, he served in both the Canadian and British navies from 1941 to 1947.

After being discharged from naval service, Warner obtained an aircraft maintenance engineer’s license, and began a career in aviation that spanned almost 50 years. He first came to the Yukon to work for Northern Airways in Carcross. Among other things, he was given the task of repairing the wood and tube steel frame and fabric covering for a damaged Northern Airway Waco aircraft.

After a stint between 1953 and 1960, when he was a crew chief and inspector stationed in Whitehorse, Vancouver and Edmonton for Pacific Western, he was back in the Yukon as the chief engineer for Connelly-Dawson Airways until 1963. He then moved to Whitehorse, in a similar capacity for Great Northern Airways and then Trans North. From 1974 to 1980, he was the chief inspector for Northward Airlines.

During his career, he worked on a dizzying array of aircraft flown in the north, including Wacos, Single and Twin Otters, Beavers, Beechcraft, Fairchilds, Seabees, Norsemen, ST-27s, C-46s, DC 3s and DC-4s. That list includes CF-CPY, the DC-3 which is now mounted on a pylon in front of the Yukon Transportation Museum.

Al was hired by Air North as their chief inspector of maintenance from 1988 to 1990. After that, he retired and moved with his wife, Iris to Ganges, on Salt Spring Island, where he passed away in 1997.

Commissioner Bernard presented the Order of Polaris Award and medal to Al Warner’s grandson, Lorne, who flew to Whitehorse from Campbell River, B.C., to attend the ceremony.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver then came to the podium to honour the late Mr. George Johnston of Teslin with the award as the 2019 Yukon Transportation Pioneer.

“George and his car seemed to blend indigenous culture and western knowledge effortlessly,” stated Silver. “Not only did he introduce the Tlingit people of Teslin to an alternative source of transportation that many had only seen in pictures and newscasts, George’s car brought convenience for those travelling long distances to remote areas, transporting both good and passengers.”

George Johnston (K’aashtl’áa) was a lad of 14 when he witnessed the invasion of the north during the Klondike gold rush. In his tribute to George Johnston, Premier Silver stated: “In 1928, with the proceeds of a very successful year of trapping, George purchased a 1928 Chevrolet sedan from the General Motors dealership in Whitehorse.”

“After receiving a brief driving lesson on a Whitehorse air field, George had the car shipped by paddle wheeler to a remote area of Teslin.”

This was 14 years before the construction of the Alaska Highway, and there were no roads in the Teslin area, so Johnston used local labour to carve a six kilometre track through the bush. This road was later incorporated into the Alaska Highway.

Johnston used his car as a taxi and charged one dollar per ride. He used moosehide patches to make emergency tire repairs and employed a spirit stove to warm up the radiator in very cold weather. In the winter, he would paint the car white and use it for hunting on the frozen lakes around Teslin. After the construction of the Alaska Highway, he transported people from Teslin to Whitehorse to go shopping.

George Johnston passed away in 1972, at 88 years of age.

Silver then presented a framed award to the nephew of the late Mr. George Johnston, Sam Johnston, the former Speaker of the Yukon legislature, who resides in Teslin,

Silver also made the presentation to George Nagano, the third and final inductee for 2019. George Nagano was born in Mayo September 3, 1932. George began his 44-year career in highway maintenance with the territorial government working on the Keno Road, now part of the Silver Trail. He was employed as a heavy equipment operator – Level 2; his favourite task was hauling equipment with tractor trailer and lowboy.

After 23 years as an equipment operator, he was promoted to road foreman in Dawson City, a position he held from 1980 to 1998. In addition to maintaining 430 kilometres of highway year-round, he and his team maintained the Dawson City airport, and launched and operated the George Black Ferry. During his time as foreman, George also acted as the northern area superintendent for two years.

Retirement did not slow him down. He operated heavy equipment and trucks for Klondike Transport in Dawson City for two years, and then returned to work with the Yukon Government. He now works operating equipment seasonally as an auxiliary-on-call at the Eagle Plains grader station on the Dempster Highway.

George continues to make a valuable contribution to the highway team, sharing his experience and knowledge gained during a career that spans 60 years. His pleasant demeanor and tremendous work ethic set the bar high for those who follow him.

Silver presented the 2019 Transportation Person of the Year Award to George Nagano, who, when offered the opportunity to say a few words, asked the audience to join him in a moment of silence to remember the other recipients for the evening, who were no longer here to receive their honours in person.

Today, it is hard to appreciate how far we have come since the first efforts to build a transportation network in the territory. In the dead of winter in 1912, then Commissioner George Black made the first road trip from Dawson to Whitehorse. Over a challenging winter trail, he and his party completed the journey from Dawson to Whitehorse by automobile in a running time of 36 hours, consuming 272 litres of gasoline.

On the return journey, the automobile broke down before reaching Dawson City, and the remainder of the trip, ironically, was completed in a horse-drawn winter stage.

Much has changed in the intervening years, but an all-weather road from Dawson to Whitehorse wasn’t completed until 40 years after George Black’s momentous journey. Today, it is possible to circumvent the globe in less time than it took to make that first automobile trip from Dawson City to Whitehorse.

Thanks to people like Al Warner, George Johnston and George Nagano, as well as the 93 others who have been inducted into the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame, travel into and within the Yukon is now part of a network that makes the journey seem effortless.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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