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General Hoge

He had a distinguished record in World War One. This American soldier achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, but his major challenge came when he was ordered to build the Alaska Highway. 

On February 11th, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the order to begin one of the most massive construction projects in Canadian history. A road some 1500 miles long would be pushed through the B.C., Yukon and Alaska wilderness. The fear of a Japanese attack on North America was real. Fortress Alaska had to be protected. A military road, then called the Alcan Highway, would have to be built expeditiously.

Brigadier General William Hoge was a career soldier. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in the First World War. Now, on February 25th, 1942, he was in Edmonton as commanding officer of the entire highway construction project. Such was the rush to build the road that Hoge told reporters that day he wasn’t sure which route would be taken from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks. Two weeks later Hoge, and his team of military engineers, chose the route through Fort Nelson, Whitehorse, and on to the Alaska border. That summer of ’42 was a mad-house as troops poured into Dawson Creek. Others arrived in Skagway to begin the northern section. General Hoge had been in command of troops during both world wars, but never this many. There were more that 10 thousand of them, along with another 10 thousand civilian contractors and workers.

There was no time for strategic planning. General Hoge told me many years ago that his first maps were taken from National Geographic magazines. He said engineers estimated that permafrost might be 10,000 feet deep. In the beginning, the survey crews consisted of local people on horseback and bush pilots who had flown the route in small planes.

However, the project was too big for one commander. In the summer of ’42, Hoge was placed in charge of the northern section with headquarters in Whitehorse. Colonel James O’Conner would command the troops building the southern section from Dawson Creek. By November, in just nine months, the so-called Pioneer road, snaking 1531 miles from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, was completed. Still, it was far from being a highway, and wouldn’t be until November, 1943, that the Alaska Highway became an all-weather road. A street in Whitehorse and a mountain in the Donjek Range are named for Brigadier General William Hoge.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


1942 General Hoge

Photo: 1942 General William Hoge.
(General Hoge is the 5th person from the left.)

Click for larger view.

Hoge 1
A scene of engineers using logs to construct a bridge over Cracker Creek on the Alaska Highway. A number of men are wearing mosquito netting while working. Date: June 8, 1942.
Yukon Archives. Robert Hays fonds, #5702.
Click for larger view.

Hoge 2
Road sign reading Canada-Alaska Military Highway, Kluane, Y.T. plus two other signs giving direction and mileage to Whitehorse, Slims River Bridge and the Lake Kluane Ferry. Date: July 1942.
Yukon Archives. Robert Hays fonds, #5687.
Click for larger view.


First Truck Over The Highway

Two young American soldiers made northern history back in September of 1942. Driving a Dodge half-ton weapons carrier, they left Dawson Creek and headed northwest into the history books.

Corporal Ottawa Gronke was from Chicago Illinois. Private Robert Bowe hailed from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both were young soldiers working on construction of the Alaska Highway. On September 22nd, 1942, the pair left Mile 0 at Dawson Creek, bound for Whitehorse.

When they arrived in Whitehorse on September 27, they left behind them 1,030 of the most gruelling highway miles in the world. Hairpin turns, treacherous mud, and almost impossible grades made every mile an exciting adventure experience.

Proudly, their Dodge weapons carrier bore a sign saying " first truck, Dawson Creek to Whitehorse. Driving time 71 hours". Surprisingly, they had only one mechanical problem, a flat tire about 40 miles out of Whitehorse.

On November 18th, 1942, it was announced that Gronke and Bowe would drive the first truck of the first convoy from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. On the morning of November 20th, at Soldiers Summit, officials from Canada and the U.S. joined hands across a red, white and blue ribbon to officially cut the ribbon and open the highway.

Gronke and Bowe were in their little weapons carrier followed by a small caravan of heavy-duty trucks. They rolled forward at the drop of the ribbon with the first load of freight for Fairbanks, arriving in the Alaska town in 32 elapsed driving hours.

Gronke and Bowe were the first to travel the entire length of the Alaska Highway.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Truck 1
The first in a line of army trucks at White River that composed the first convoy to travel from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Date: November 20, 1942.
Yukon Archives. R.A. Cartter fonds, #1501.
Click for larger view.

Truck 2
Army truck bogged down in the mud ruts along the temporary road with a cable on it to winch it out. Date: 1942.
Yukon Archives. R.A. Cartter fonds, #1510.
Click for larger view.

The Alaska Highway Opens

It was a bitterly cold day. The CBC announcer said, because of wartime restrictions, he was not allowed to give the temperature. But the bands played on; the red, blue and white ribbon was cut; trucks roared past the viewing party and the Alaska Highway was officially opened.

Soldiers Summit, on the shores of Kluane Lake was the location of that impressive ceremony back on November 20th,1942. At 9.30 a.m., Colonel K.B. Bush, the Northwest Service Command Chief of Staff, acting as master of ceremonies, began by delivering messages in person, and by letters from government and military officials of Canada and the United States.

Canadian cabinet minster Ian Mackenzie, and the Secretary for the state of Alaska, E.L. Bartlett, cut the ribbon which was stretched across the highway. Two American military bands, which had been huddling in a tent to keep their instruments warm, played God Save the King, The Star Spangled Banner and The Maple Leaf Forever.

The Alaska Highway, really little more than a pioneer trail, was open. But it would be years and millions of dollars before the road could really be called a highway.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Alcan Kluane
Construction along Kluane Lake Click for larger view.
Soldier Summit
The opening ceremony Click for larger view.


Signs on the Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway was famous for many things, most notably, signs. During the heyday of construction, they were everywhere.

If anyone doubted who owned the Alaska Highway during the war, a huge sign on the outskirts of Dawson Creek erased all doubt. It read: "Alaska Highway, U.S. Army Patrol Station, STOP."

Here travellers had to pick up a pass from the American commander, authorizing travel on the road.

Signs like "Suicide Hill, Prepare to Meet thy God" were descriptive in the extreme, yet proved a suitable warning to drivers who heeded the message, or regretted the outcome.

On a mud-strewn section, somewhere near Fort Nelson in 1942, some enterprising soldiers posted a series of signs advertising Burma Shave, the men's choice of shaving cream during the Second World War.

Nailed to a tree somewhere in the boreal forests of the Yukon, near a makeshift platform that held 45-gallon drums filled with fuel, were hand-painted signs on broken boards advertising "the lowest price; best gas in town, no smoking on platform, gas spilled on ground"

Less jovial were the red signs, trimmed with a black border, in the fifties that drew drivers' attention to the location of serious accidents. "One killed here" or "three killed here" were grim reminders to slow down and drive with care.

There was Carl Lindley's famous 1942 sign at Watson Lake, pointing the way to Danville, Illinois. Lindley's story of his homesick homage to his hometown is a well known part of highway history.

His makeshift work was a harbinger of bigger things to come. Today, Watson Lake is known throughout North America as the place to advertise your city, your business, or your favourite bistro.

Less well known, perhaps, is the story of how the famed 'Mile 0' sign at Dawson Creek came to be. Like Lindley's Danville sign, a minor accident started it all. In 1946, a car ran into a four-foot-high post that marked the start of the highway. Back then, the post was located at the corner of 8th Street and Alaska Avenue, and looked the same as all the others that marked every mile throughout the length of the highway - a square, white wooden post with a black top.

The Junior Chamber of Commerce saw the accident, not as an ill-fated incident, but rather a reason for creative celebration, and proposed an elaborate post be placed in the town centre.

On Christmas day in 1946, the 10-foot-high pillar was placed smack in the middle of downtown Dawson Creek. It was not the precise geographic origin of the Alaska Highway, but in the years to come, it would not matter. Every traveller wanted a photograph to mark the beginning of their own adventure over the Alaska Highway, and they had to visit the town centre to get it.

Watson Lake Signpost
One of the first signs erected in Watson Lake, a US Soldier observes. Click for larger view.

Watson Lake Signpost 1993
A 1993 photo of the highway signs.
Click for larger view.

In Alaska, both Fairbanks and Big Delta erected mileposts similar to the one in Dawson Creek, and each claimed to be the official end of the Alaska Highway. At Big Delta, the sign read; "Delta Junction, Crossroads of Alaska, Pop 817, Mile 1422-end of the Alaska Highway."

In Fairbanks, the sign fixed the total mileage at 1523.

Not just American towns were competing for some highway glory. In Edmonton, Alberta's Highway 2 featured a big colourful sign, complete with mountains and forests and, in bold letters claimed: "Start, Alaska Highway, Edmonton, Alberta."

Today, there are road-side signs advertising highway lodges and gas stations that multiplied like rabbits throughout the early days, when enterprising souls discovered that the highway was destined to become one of the great tourist attractions of the world.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




The Americans & White Pass

The American military took over operation of the White Pass railroad on October 1st, 1942. The toy railroad, as the troops called it, was a vital transportation link in building the Alaska Highway. Little did they realize, however, that the line was old and in bad shape.

The White Pass railroad was 42 years old that winter of '42. The track was fine, but washouts and snow storms were a constant threat. The rail cars were vintage in 1900, complete with the original wood-burning stoves. The winter of '42-43 was one of the coldest on record, but nothing compared to the warmer winter of '43-44.

That was the year of the big blizzards. At one point that winter, traffic was stalled for 15 days and more than 30 derailments were caused by heavy snow. One military crew worked for 36 hours, straight trying to free 11 engines and scores of cars trapped along the route.

Rotary plows eventually broke through drifts up to 20 feet high. The snow was rock-hard, having fallen wet only to freeze when the temperatures dropped. The large plows were damaged in the effort.

Then the big blizzard hit, dumping 30 feet of snow in the mountain passes where the railroad ran. About 30 miles from Skagway, a train was smothered under huge snowdrifts. Then a huge snowslide occurred behind the trapped train, cutting off communications in all directions.

The train ran out of water and had to shutdown the boilers to prevent the tanks from burning. Coal for the stoves in the passenger cars ran out. The passengers - mostly American servicemen - smashed the furniture to burn in the pot bellied stoves on board. The supplies of food, consisting of sandwiches and fruit, ran out. It was a precarious situation.

Rescue trains could not make it through the tons of snow covering the line. It was decided to send a tractor train over the snow-covered passes. It consisted of a heavy-duty tractor and three huge sleds. It reached the trapped train before any serious casualties occurred. Finally, many days later, the rescue trains with their huge rotary snow plows, working from both ends of the line, broke through and train traffic was able to continue. A near disaster had been averted, but the American military had been taught a valuable lesson from Yukon's mother nature.

Snow plows and crews digging out a snowbound train. W.P. & Y.R. White Pass Rotary rescuing snowbound train Mile 16-17 on RR.
Yukon Archives. William J. Preston fonds, #15.
Click for larger view.

Get it back on the rails boys. W.P. &Y.R. Snowplow clearing tracks after terrific snowstorm.
Yukon Archives. William J. Preston fonds, #23.
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Robert Service in Hollywood

When the all-out German bombardment of London, England, began in the summer of 1940, the famed poet Robert Service, his wife, Germaine, and daughter, Iris, boarded the Canadian Pacific ocean liner, the Princess Helene, and sailed to Canada.

The North Atlantic Ocean was filled with German submarines ready and willing to send commercial shipping to the bottom. The Service family arrived in Montreal safely, but shaken, on August 1, 1940, and began six years of exile while war raged throughout their beloved France.

The family travelled west by train to spend the war years in Vancouver. They moved into the Tudor Manor overlooking the Vancouver harbour, but Service soon tired of the constant rain. In December, 1940, he moved the family to Los Angeles, where he had worked as a labourer back in 1895.

He loved southern California and may have moved there, after leaving the Yukon, except that France had captured the wanderlust in his soul and had become his real dream haven.

In Los Angeles, as he neared seventy, Service continued his strict regimen of exercise. He enjoyed endless walks through the Hollywood hills, just as he had relished the same routine during his eight years in the Yukon.

When the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941, the United States became a full participant in the Second World War. Service, who had many friends in the Hollywood Writer's Association, was recruited to help in the war effort.

He toured military bases throughout the southwestern United States, reciting his famous poems during USO concerts.

In 1942, Service became a movie actor with a minor role in the screen adaptation of the Rex Beach novel, The Spoilers. The rough-and-tumble motion picture that starred John Wayne and Randolf Scott was set in Alaska. The director came up with the clever idea of having Service play himself in a scene with the film's leading lady, the great Marlene Dietrich.

In a barroom, Service sat alone at a table writing, as Dietrich walked by. He carried on a brief, on camera, twenty-three word exchange with Dietrich, and his role in the motion picture was complete.

In April 1942, the Canadian Red Cross announced it was launching a drive to raise funds for the war effort. Their first donation was a cheque for $240 from Robert Service.

The accompanying note to the society read:

"As play acting is not my regular line, I do not wish to earn money in this way, and I am donating it to the Canadian Red Cross."

The money was the fee Robert Service had received from Universal Pictures for his role in the motion picture, The Spoilers.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Service 1
The "real" Robert Service. Click for larger view.

Service 2
Make-up artist Jack Pierce making Service look 40 years younger. He was over 60. Click for larger view.

Service 1
Service with Marlene Dietrich, star of the "Spoilers" 1942. Click for larger view.

Service 4
Service sitting at the table writing in a scene from the movie "The Spoilers." Click for larger view.


The Story of the Keebird

Who hasn’t heard the Yukon's claim to fame when, back on February 3rd , 1947, Snag in the northwest Yukon, reached a North American record low of -81.6 Fahrenheit or -63 Celsius. On that infamous day, all of the Yukon was gripped in the icy bond of an Arctic low-pressure ridge that saw Whitehorse hit -60 Celsius. But it was a dry, windless cold. Oh, so they say!!

Still, it was good for me because my grade one class at the Lambert Street School was cancelled, and I stayed home, snug in the warmth of our Strickland Street house, where four-foot long logs, delivered by Ryders Fuel Service the previous fall, burned with an intense heat from the home-made 45-gallon drum, wood-burning furnace in the hole under the house that Dad called the cellar.

Yes, the Yukon was renowned for cold weather in the good old days. So much so that the men and women working on the Alaska Highway in the early forties formed a club, developed a mascot, and wrote a poem about it.

It was an exclusive, back-patting American military order called the Kee Club. They named it after a mythical bird that flies around the arctic wilderness near the north pole, crying plaintifily "Kee-Kee-Kee-rist but it's cold." Their emblem was a walrus tooth on a key chain. Membership was by invitation only, and to qualify, newcomers must have accomplished any two of the following four feats:

Completed a military mission above the Arctic Circle; ridden the White Pass & Yukon Railway from Whitehorse to Skagway; flown across the mountains from Whitehorse to Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River; gone down the Yukon River from Fort Yukon to the mouth.

The Kee Club was founded in the winter of 1942, in a wood-and-tar-paper barracks of the U.S. Army's Northwest Service Command at Whitehorse, by officers and civilian contractors who had just returned from a particularly chilly trip by train from Skagway. Its membership in 1943 totalled only about thirty.

They were a jolly lot - these Kee Club members - and they wrote a lengthy poem that became the inspiration for a 1960s song written by Yukon balladeer, Al Oster.

The Kee Bird

You have heard the wail of the siren,
As an ambulance sped down the street,
And mayhap you've heard the lion's deep roar
Down in Africa's grim desert heat.

Or the piercing cry of the tiger
At night as he stalks his prey,
Or the locomotive's high shrill whistle
As it sped through the night on its way.

But these sounds sink to a whisper -
You've heard naught, I assure you,

Till I've told you of the blood-curdling cry of the Kee Bird
In the Arctic's cruel frigid night.

This bird looks just like a buzzard,
It's large, it's hideous, it's bold,
In the night as it circles the North Pole
Crying "Kee, Kee, Keerist but it's cold!"

The Eskimos tucked away in their igloos
Toss fretfully in their sleep,
While the Huskies asleep in a snowbank
Start burrowing way down deep.

For this cry is so awe-inspiring
It freezes the blood I'm told,
As the Kee bird flies in the Arctic,
Crying "Kee, Kee, Keerist but it's cold!"

Click for larger view.

Click for larger view.

The Mounties abroad in their dog sleds,
Visting these wards of the Crown
Often hear this cry and stare skywards
With a fierce and sullen frown.

For odd things happen in the Arctic
And many weird tales they have told,
But their voices drop to a whisper
At the cry "Kee, Kee, Keerist but it's cold!"

And many brave men on this base site -
Strong and bold, from a Northwestern State,
Are taking the first train back to Homeland
To forget this fierce bird's song of hate.

They can 'take it', it seems, in the daytime,
But when the midnight hour is tolled,
They cover their heads in a shameless fright
Crying "Kee, Kee, Keerist but it's cold!"

So back to the States they are going
To sleep in a real bed, as of old,
To slip their strong arms 'round their loved one,
Her fair slender form to enfold.

Then off to sleep in warm comfort
And wifey's soft hand they will hold,
To wake, terrorized by a "Kee Bird" nightmare,
And the cry "Kee, Kee, Keerist but it's cold!"


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Charlie Lake Disaster

The morning of May 14th, 1942 was windy but warm as the hastily built pontoon boat left the southern shore of Charlie Lake. The 17 U.S. soldiers on board were members of the 341st Engineer regiment of the American army. They had recently arrived in Fort St. John to begin construction of a road to Alaska. The men, like thousands of other American troops, were in a hurry. They needed to build the 1500-mile pioneer road, through the largely unknown wilderness, before the snow flew in the fall. It seemed an impossible task. On Charlie Lake on that May morning, just north of Fort St. John, the pontoon boat carried heavy equipment such as trucks and caterpillars. The men and equipment were going to the north end of the lake, a distance of about 12 miles. At the time, there was no road around Charlie Lake.

The pontoons of the wooden boat were fitted with canvas covers to keep the water out. Powered by two 22-horsepower engines, the boat was slowly making headway northward on the lake when one of the gas lines began to leak. The officer commanding ordered the boat to head to shore where they could fix the leak. But the wind and waves had increased and when the boat turned sideways, waves broke through the canvas pontoon and flooded the compartments. The boat immediately flipped over and dumped 17 soldiers and the equipment into the icy spring water of Charlie Lake.

From his cabin on the northern shore of the Lake, a trapper named Gus Hedin had been watching the boat’s progress with binoculars. Suddenly all he could see was a few black dots bobbing up and down in the lake.

Hedin raced to his homemade 14-foot rowboat and paddled about a mile to the scene of the pending disaster. There he saw nine soldiers in full work gear struggling to stay afloat in the wind-swept waters. Hedin could not know at the time that eight other soldiers had already disappeared under the windy waters. As if powered by some supreme force, Hedin managed to drag two men in full batttle gear into his homemade rowboat and paddle to shore. He then paddled back to the sight and again lifted two men out of the water and took them to shore. He returned a third time to find just one man still above water, whom he also rescued.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




African-Americans building the Alaska Highway

"Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Temperatures of sixty below zero and dropping ...and the people... where are the people?"

So asked an African American soldier who worked as part of the military construction team during the building of the Alaska highway in 1942.

There were three black regiments, consisting of three thousand six hundred and ninety five soldiers, on the job in 1942. They made up one third of the American troop total of just over 10 thousand soldiers. The US army was not integrated then, so the black regiments - or coloured as they were then known – were led by white officers. Many of the young men had been drafted off farms in the southern states and had little schooling. But the soldiers made a major contribution to the war effort.

The 93rd Regiment arrived at Skagway in April 1942, took the train to Carcross and worked on the pioneer road from Tagish, north and then southeast to the Teslin River. Because of the lack of heavy equipment, engineers of the 93rd began their work using only hand tools. But soon bulldozers were pushing down the forest, much to the surprise of Teslin residents who had never seen an African-American, nor heard that a road was coming through.

The 95th black regiment reached Dawson Creek in May 1942 and worked on the section between Ft. Nelson and Fort St. John. At the Sikanni Chief River in the deep valley below Suicide Hill, black troops bet that they could build the bridge in record time and offered their paychecks as the wager. The original Sikanni bridge took them eighty-four hours to build – or about one-half the usual time.

The northern Alaskan section of the highway was built by the 97th black regiment, which arrived by ship at Valdez, then the southern terminus of the Richardson Highway. This regiment was faced with the harshest conditions of any of the regiments. The Alaskan interior was bitterly cold, had the most snowfall, and the most drastic temperature variation. As the pioneer road neared completion, the 97th was to meet the 18th Regiment working in the Yukon at the Alaska-Canada border. On October 24, 1942, the 97th black and 18th all-white regiments met at Beaver Creek. When the bulldozers driven by black troop Refines Sims, Jr. of the 97th and Private Alfred Jalufka, lead driver of the white 18th regiment finally broke through the bush and muskeg at the Yukon-Alaska border to close the last gap in the pioneer road, the meeting between white and black drivers symbolized the cooperation between black and white American races that was difficult to achieve in the contiguous 48 states.

The essential role played by black troops in Alaska Highway construction was celebrated on June 14th, 1993 when the ALCAN veterans were honored at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The ceremony was followed by the opening of an exhibit called "Miles and Miles."


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin