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First Yukon Bus Service

When the Northwest Service Command Bus Line was opened all the way to Fairbanks in 1943, it became the most northerly bus service in the world.

The American military began their bus service from Edmonton to Fairbanks on November 13, 1943. It was designed to carry the thousands of military and civilian personnel working on construction of the Alaska Highway. No tourists need apply for travel, said Brigadier General James O'Connor. He was the American officer in charge of everything that had to do with the Alaska Highway. This was a military road.

The buses were leased from the Greyhound Bus company and were the largest vehicles the company had available. There were two drivers on every bus. Exchange stops were made at Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse and Northway, Alaska. Total time of the trip from Edmonton to Fairbanks was 44 hours. The trip from Whitehorse to Fairbanks was billed at 24 hours. The only stops were for gas and meals at the American-run depots along the way.

During the war, and for a few years after, the only way a civilian could travel the road was by obtaining a travel pass from the American commander at Dawson Creek. A civilian not involved in construction had to have a good reason to travel the road. In 1944, my father flew into Whitehorse, seeking work in this booming highway town. My mother applied for a travel pass for me, my three sisters and, of course, for herself. With passes in hand, we boarded one of these Greyhound American military buses and headed up the Alaska Highway. Then a lad of two, I remember nothing of the trip, but my mother insists that I provided suitable childlike entertainment for the drivers.

The Canadian army took over control of the highway in 1946. But it wasn't until April, 1948, that the pass system for civilian travel on the Alaska Highway was eliminated. But the Canadian military cautioned people to be prepared for long stretches of potholed gravel road with very few facilities along the route.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Bus 1
Bus and travellers at Circle Hot Springs en route to Fairbanks. Date: August 1946.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7921.
Click for larger view.

Bus 2
Claude Tidd standing in front of a bus on his trip from Circle to Fairbanks. Date: August 1946.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #8245.
Click for larger view.

An Alaska Highway Story

The first overland, motorized mail service into the Yukon was delivered by the American military. Like almost everything else during World War II, the Americans ran the show in the Northwest. So it's not surprising that they ran the mail.

The Northwest Service command motor-vehicle mail route to Fairbanks started on November 27, 1943. The service provided a direct dispatch of overland mail including first class letters, parcels and the exchange of mail between Edmonton, Dawson Creek, Whitehorse and Fairbanks. The trucks would also drop off mail at the few smaller communities along the route.

The estimated time of delivery of a letter from Seattle to Fairbanks was seven days, eight hours. The drivers on the Alaska Highway were soldiers who were "hand picked and relieved at each relay station". The highway delivery time from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks was three days and 19 hours.

The mail service was under the command of an American Major, H.C. Walters, postal officer for the Northwest Service command. The first convoy on that cold November day back in 1943 carried its full share of historic letters. One from the Edmonton Chamber of commerce to its counterpart in Fairbanks. Mayors from towns and cities along the route exchanged greetings, as did postmasters at various points.

Mail had been delivered north, prior to this development, by bush airplanes, and by horse-drawn sleighs using overland trails. But this breakthrough provided by the American military meant large parcels could be sent by truck, at a fraction of the cost of using aircraft. No doubt, Christmas presents got much larger as the result of this new, and relatively fast, mail service to the north.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Haines Highway

We knew it as "The Haines Cut-Off Road", and what a road it is - especially in winter, but that's another story. The Haines Road passes through about 160 miles of strikingly beautiful landscape connecting Haines, Alaska with Haines Junction, Yukon. The route has a fascinating history.

Centuries ago, the Chilkat people of the coast around Haines, maintained a well-established trail to the interior. It served as access for a thriving trading business with interior native groups.

The trail followed the Chilkat and Klehini Rivers through Rainy Hollow, and along the Blanchard and Tatshenshini Rivers, through what is now known as the Dalton Post area, to Klukshu Lake. Then it zigzagged along the east side of Dezadeash Lake to Champagne via the Dezadeash River.

In 1882, Arthur Krause of the Bremen Geographical Society explored the region and drew accurate maps.

In the early 1890's, entrepreneur Jack Dalton, improved on a trail system from the coast to the Nordendskiold and Yukon Rivers. Dalton operated packtrains and drove cattle over the trail, sometimes to the dismay of the local native peoples.

In 1897, gold seekers used the well-beaten trail on their trek to the Klondike. By 1914, a good wagon road helped develop mining discoveries, including Copper and Silver deposits in Alaska.

Further into the Yukon, gold was discovered at Squaw Creek in 1927 by Paddy Duncan, from Klukshu. During the 1930's, as many as 50 miners worked their summers on this creek. A massive forty-six ounce nugget was found on the creek in 1937.

By 1942, the threat of war on the west coast became a reality. The Japanese attacked U.S. bases at Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands. In 1943, the U.S. government decided that an alternate access from the coast to the Alaska highway was needed in case the White Pass Railway was blocked. This would provide another supply route and an important evacuation exit, if needed. As a result, the Haines Road was built in 1943 by the U.S. Army, at a cost of $13 million. In today's money, that would total over 140 million dollars.

The general route of the Haines Road followed the old Dalton Trail as far as Klukshu Lake. From there the highway rolled along the western shore of Dezadeash Lake.

Construction was quick, lasting only from January to December 1943. One major construction camp was set up at Mile 103, present site of Million Dollar Falls Campground. Another was located at the south end of Dezadeash Lake at Mile 125.

When construction was complete, the Haines Road, as with the Alaska Highway, provided building materials from the camps. The stuff left lying around became prized sources for local building materials for both private homes and highway lodges.

The road opened on a year-round basis in 1963, but maintenance of the highway is still a challenge. The Haines road is now undergoing major reconstruction, called The Shakwak Project, named after the valley in which it lies.

Haines Highway 1
Frame homes along the beach at Chilkat, Alaska, located at the end of the Chilkat Inlet and one of the starting points for the Dalton Trail. Date: June 1899.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4680.
Click for larger view.

Haines Highway 2
Scene at Porcupine - Dalton trail. Date: June 1899.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4688.
Click for larger view.

Haines Highway 3
Two vehicles on Haines Highway with mountains in background.
Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #371.
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



First Broadcast - TITA Theatre

When the men and women of the American army, along with civilian contractors, were building the Alaska Highway, there wasn't much time for entertainment. There wasn't much entertainment to be found, but in the spring of 1943 there was an event worth remembering.

McCrae, near Whitehorse, was the main base for contractors working the northern section of the Alaska Highway. With financial assistance from the American army, a private contractor, Metcalf Hamilton Kansas City Bridge Company, built a 600-seat movie theatre near the White Pass railway crossing.

It was called the TITA theatre - an unusual name to be sure. TITA stood for 'This Is The Army'. The entertainment event, perhaps of the decade, in that spring of '43 had military and civilian personnel talking about it for months.

It was the North American premier of a smash new movie called "This is the Army", with music written by the most famous composer of his day - Irving Berlin.

It was such an important event that the Mutual Broadcasting Network of the US teamed up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to carry live coverage of the proceedings. There were speeches by all the top American military brass in the region - live interviews and an introduction by the CBC's famed broadcaster, J. Frank Willis, and a tape of greetings from Robert Service, who sent his best wishes to the men of the new north, who had hewn a great highway into the land of the midnight sun.

TITA theatre
A Quonset style theatre. Click for larger view.

The special broadcast was delivered south over the new telegraph line which had been built by the U.S. Corp of Army Engineers. In fact, they had placed 40 telephone poles every mile between Whitehorse and Edmonton - a total of 65 thousand poles.

The TITA theatre is no longer standing in McCrae, but if you ever see a rerun of the movie "This is the Army" on a late night TV, think for a moment what those entertainment-starved men and women building the Alaska Highway must have felt on opening night in the spring of '43.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Overland Telegraph

For its time, Morse code, like the worldwide-web today,was the technology for instant communication that made the world a smaller place. Samuel Morse was given a patent for his code in 1830s.

In 1844, the first commercial Morse Code system was operating between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Not long after, the Montreal Telegraph Company provided communications from eastern Canada to the United States.

In Europe, thousands of miles of telegraph lines were strung, and the code was being transmitted in all directions. In 1858, the Western Union Telegraph Company was formed to build a line across the U.S.

World wide, communication by code was king, but not in the north until a New Yorker named Perry Collins saw the possibilities of trade with Russia. He had travelled extensively in Russia and sensed there was a mammoth market for American goods. Without communications, however, it would never happen, so he devised a plan to build a telegraph line from the western U.S.A. to Russia.

The cable-line would begin in New Westminster, follow the British Columbia interior, traverse the unknown Yukon and Alaska, cross the Bering Sea, then through Siberia to connect with Russian lines to Europe. Total length? More than 10,000 miles. The plan was approved in 1865, with backing of British, Russian, American and Canadian governments and money provided by shareholders of the Western Union Company.

The popular name of the project was the Collins Overland Telegraph Company. Construction started in 1865 from New Westminster and continued north through the B.C. interior. Twenty-foot poles were spaced thirty to the mile to support a heavy gauge iron wire.

Through the summer and fall of 1866 workers on the Collins Overland line battled the elements. One worker was Michael Lebarge of Chateauguay, Quebec, for whom Lake Laberge is named. However, events were overtaking the Collins project - in the North Atlantic where attempts were underway to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Once this underwater cable was working, the Collins project was dead.

However, after two years of toil and three million dollars, all was not lost. About 600 miles of line, with cabins for linemen, was completed into the of Cariboo gold fields, in the B.C. interior.

When B.C. became a province in 1871, the government took over the line. For the next ten years, they rebuilt and renamed the Dominion, or Yukon, telegraph line. Construction continued into the Klondike and finally arrived in Dawson City on September 24th, 1901.

In one of the first messages to Ottawa, Commissioner William Ogilvie wrote: "Time and space are annihilated. We are of the world now."

Often called the first Internet, this telegraph service operated for one hundred and thirteen years until it was decommissioned by CNCP Telecommunications in 1974. You can still see remnants of line along the Yukon River, and visit the old telegraph office at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse.

Telegraph 1
Dominion Telegraph Office at Stewart River.
Date: April 1920.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7786.
Click for larger view.

Telegraph 2
Interior view of a telegraph office. An intricate network of wires and resistors that line the wall is visible. Date: ca. 1901.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7661.
Click for larger view.

Telegraph 3
Dyea Trail with telegraph lines. Date: 1897.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #108.
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Overland Telephone

It began in August of 1942, this little known, yet vital link in the Northwest Service Command's operations. A little more than a year later, overland telephone service was available from the southern United states and Canada all the way to Alaska.

This 2000-mile communications link between Edmonton and Fairbanks was the longest open-line toll circuit in the world. The countless thousands who built this line in 15 months encountered every kind of difficulty.

Bottomless mud or permafrost caused poles to be erected on stone-filled log cribs, some of which are still visible today. Iron-hard or frozen-solid ground had to be blasted with dynamite for post holes. And numerous broad rivers had to be spanned. It is said that more than 60 thousand telephone poles were used between Edmonton and Whitehorse. During that winter of '42-43, temperatures dropped to the minus 70s, and winds in the mountain passes sometimes blew down poles as fast as they were put up. Falling trees sometimes knocked down telephone wires.

This engineering marvel was carried out by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Miller Construction company from Indiana, and the Western Electric company of New York. To commemorate the completion of the system, Major General Styer, chief-of-staff of the Army in Washington, talked with Alaskan governor Ernest Gruening on November 20th, 1943.

The line was officially opened to Whitehorse on May 21, 1943, when American War Department officials in Washington talked with Colonel K.B. Bush, then the Northwest Service command's chief-of-staff in Whitehorse.

The telephone line - along with the Alaska Highway and the series of runways known as the Northwest Staging Route - were all vital links to Alaska during those dark days of World War II. Today, much of the original line has been replaced. At various points along the route, however, those old telephone poles and wires can still be seen - a memento of this little-heralded construction feat in the Northwest.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Gordon Yardley's Bravery

They didn't give bravery awards to civilians back in the 1940s. If they did, three young men from Carcoss would have been sure winners.

October 16, 1943. Gordon Yardley finished breakfast, kissed his wife goodbye and walked down the road to the new house he was building in Carcross on the shores of Lake Bennett. He was working on the roof when he saw a large military aircraft coming in low over the lake. He could tell the plane was in trouble. Suddenly, it dropped into the lake. He watched in disbelief as men began scrambling out of the sinking plane.

Gordon jumped off the roof and raced down the beach to get his boat. George Simmons was racing down the beach, too. Both men jumped into the boat and headed for the crash scene several hundreds of feet from shore. An RCMP boat was also on the way. The first man they came to was underwater about six feet, but holding his hand up. Gordon reached down into the icy water and grabbed his hand while George Simmons held on to Gordon's ankles.

With one survivor in the boat, they raced to another thrashing in the water, pulled him into the boat, then headed for a third. Between the two boats, they pulled six American soldiers out of the icy waters.

Later the full story unfolded. A couple of officers had decided to test a Flying Fortress, one of the new four-engine B17 bombers that had undergone repairs in Whitehorse. Fifteen other military personnel went along for the ride. Flying over Lake Bennett, they ran into mechanical trouble and were attempting to land at the Carcross strip. Over the lake they feathered the plane's propellers too soon. The plane plunged into the lake, sinking in a matter of minutes. Some of the men who escaped the wreckage tried to swim to shore, but were overcome by the frigid waters. Eleven men drowned, but six were saved due to the heroic efforts of Gordon Yardley, George Simmons and RCMP constable Harold McDonald.

Yardley 1
George Simmons skating with Mrs. Veda Smith. 1919.
Yukon Archives. Reginal Brook Sr. fonds, #75.
Click for larger view.

Later, Gordon supervised the salvage operation hauling the heavy plane out of seventy feet of water and up onto the sand beaches of Lake Bennett. The wings were taken off, and the wreckage was taken to Whitehorse, where it lay on the edge of the airfield for about six years before it was finally burned.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Carl Lindley

Danville, Illinois is a town of about 33,000 people located 120 miles south of Chicago. It is the birthplace of actors Dick Van Dyke, Gene Hackman and famed Hollywood dancer Donald O’Connor. But for the Yukon, Danville is important not for actors, but for an American infantry private.

It is the birthplace of Carl K. Lindley, the homesick GI of company D of the US Corp. of Engineers, whose sign near Watson Lake started the Alaska Highway signpost forest. The sign read "Danville, Illinois, 2835 miles." One day some years ago, Carl Lindley told me how he came to paint the name of his hometown at that location. He had arrived in Dawson Creek in March 1942 with the first group of GIs who were assigned to begin building the pioneer military road to Alaska.

In February 1943, his company "D" was sent to the Liard River area to build a sawmill to cut trees for logs needed to repair bridges. Then the squad moved to the border of the Yukon and BC, near Lower Post. One day they were building a loading platform for gravel trucks. There was an accident and Lindley's feet were run over by a truck. He was taken to a regimental aid station at the intersection of the new Alaska Highway and the existing road leading to the Watson Lake airport.

Though not badly hurt, he couldn’t walk very well and was unable to work on heavy construction. So his company commander put him to work painting roadside signs and regimental numbers on various pieces of equipment. One day in February 1943, Carl was ordered to repaint a sign on the road which had been damaged by a bulldozer.

When he finished that little job, he decided to paint the name of his hometown on a board and nail it to the same post. Carl Lindley painted the words "Danville, Illinois, 2835 miles" Thus began the tradition of painting place names along the Alaska Highway which continues to this day as the world- famous Watson Lake signpost forest. This tradition has continued through the years as highway travellers bring every kind of sign imaginable to place in the forest. The signs numbering almost fifty thousand come from all over the world.

In August of 1943, Carl Lindley, and other members of his company D of the US Corp. of Engineers, was a sent back to the United States for further infantry training. Then they sailed to England in October 1943 and took part in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

Carl Lindley passed away in 2002 at the age of 83. But his role in the history of the Alaska Highway is forever etched in that single board attached to a makeshift pole at Mile 635 of the Alcan Road in February 1943.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin