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Alaska Earthquake 1964

Good Friday, March 27th, 1964. It was a quiet afternoon across Alaska, but the silence would soon be broken. And there would be little good on this good Friday.

At 5:36 p.m. Alaska Time, the first rumble was first heard in towns and villages near the earthquake's epicenter in Prince William Sound. The land begang to shake. Not an unusual event in this earthquake prone region of the world. But it seemed the shaking would never end.

When it did, four or five minutes later, Alaska was centre stage of the largest earthquake in North American history.

The magnitude 8.6 earthquake was centered in Prince William Sound off the coast of south-central Alaska. It was 22 kilometers under the earth's surface and about 88 kilometers west of Valdez. The earthquake caused many avalanches, landslides, and, worst of all, a huge tsunami.

The effects of the tsunami were felt all around the Pacific rim. It was the highest at Shoup Bay on Valdez Inlet, at 67 meters. Even Port Alberni on Vancouver Island received a tsunami wave measuring 6.4 meters. The tsunami waves were also recorded as far away as Hawaii, Japan, Chile, and Antarctica.

In Anchorage, huge landslides pummelled the downtown business section. An upscale development known as Turnagain Heights is where the largest and most devastating landslide occurred. It destroyed about 75 homes and severely damaged water and gas mains, sewer and telephone lines, and disrupted electrical systems.

In the town of Old Valdez, the freighter SS Chena had just docked with the first fresh fruit and goods of the season. It was customary for the people of Valdez to be at the docks when the ships came in. There were many adults and children on the dock when the quake struck, triggering a huge slide that caused millions of cubic yards of earth to slip into the Valdez Bay. Thirty-two people, mostly children, died.

In the Aleut village of Chenega, 23 people died when a 90-foot tsunami washed over the local beach packed with people waiting for an evening movie to begin.

Most towns, especially the ports such as Seward and Kodiak, were heavily hit by a combination of seismic damage, tsunamis, and fire. A two-meter wave reached Prince Rupert, about three hours after the quake. It then headed for Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and travelled up a fjord to strike Port Alberni twice, damaging 375 homes and washing away 55 others. Luckily, no one was killed.

However, the Good Friday Alaska earthquake directly resulted in 131 deaths. Alaska alone recorded 115 fatalities, 106 of which were caused by the tsunami. The other 16 deaths occured in Oregon and California and were also caused by the tsunami.

For an earthquake of this magnitude, the death toll was remarkably small. But the drama wasn't over. For days, eleven aftershocks were recorded with magnitudes over a remarkable 6 on the Richter scale. Total damage from the earthquake and tsunami was between $400 and $500 million ... which translates into billions of dollars in today's currency.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Canadian Army leaves Whitehorse

The Canadian army invaded the Yukon in 1946. Well, invasion may be a strong word, and their presence was more than welcome. They came to fix up a mess known as the Alaska Highway. The road had been built in a hurry by the American military. Now Canada had to fix it or forget it.

A lot of work had to be done before the highway could be of any use to the expected tourist and business traffic. In April 1946, the Canadians took over maintenance and construction of the highway. In an impressive ceremony at the top of the Two Mile Hill, the Americans handed over their "work in progress".

For the next 18 years, the Canadian army struggled to make the road passable to more than military four-by-four trucks. Many millions of dollars were spent on straightening, upgrading, and relocation.

More than fixing a road, the military became an integral part in the growth of Whitehorse, from a tiny backwater in the middle of nowhere to a substantial city in the emerging north.

Two thousand enlisted men and women with their families shopped in downtown Whitehorse, sent their kids to schools and participated actively in all aspects of city life, including sports. The rivalry between the Army and civilians in basketball and hockey was as strong as any professional sports league.

Beat the big bad army sports teams was a year round topic on the ice surface and the basketball courts. It was always a sad day for townsfolk if the Army won a championship of any kind.

The Canadian military also built a community called Camp Takhini, a show piece in a town built from purloined lumber and other supplies. Camp Takhini featured the usual collection of well-kept buildings, includings barracks, PMQ's and repair shops. It also boasted an impressive headquarters building. Although the army families were housed in Camp Takhini, the kids filled the ranks of the Whitehorse elementary and high schools. The first radio station in Whitehorse was owned and operated by the military, from a building in Camp Takhini.

The army also operated several mess halls. Some of the most fancy balls in Whitehorse took place in the Officer's Mess as locals dressed up and mingled with the town's high society.

Thirteen maintenances camps dotted the highway where civilians found both part- and full-time employment, in a time when jobs would otherwise be scarce. I worked for the army for two years while attending University and always thanked my lucky stars for their presence.

In 1961, The Whitehorse Star wrote a feature story called "DND Bankrolls Local Economy".

"The backbone of the economic life in Whitehorse is the Department of National Defense payroll, providing a stabilizing element in the community."

But the end of the era came on June 29th, 1964. After 18 years, the Army turned control of the highway over to the federal Department of Public Works.

In a colourful ceremony at the original Federal Building at Fourth and Main, hundreds turned out to watch the final military parade. The famous band of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery played a marching tune. Commissioner Gordon Cameron thanked the army for the tremendous service it provided through the Northwest Service Command.

Mayor Ed Jacobs bid a fond farewell with the words: "We all wish you could have stayed longer." Chamber of Commerce President Ralph Buzz Hudson presented a bronze plaque which was to be placed in the Federal building until a new city hall was built.

With a salute and march-past of uniformed members, the Canadian Army's official presence in the Yukon came to an end.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Canadian Army leaves Whitehorse
Ceremony and plaque unveiling at the top of the "Two Mile Hill" on the Alaska Highway
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Canadian Army
Transfer of Alaska Highway Control from Canadian Army to D.P.W.
Yukon Archives. W. Al. Turner collection, #62.
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Canadian Army
The Canadian Army on parade
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Canadian Army
The Canadian Army on Armistice Day
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Whiskey Flats

"If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts could tell." Words from a Gordon Lightfoot song that could be applied to a place now long gone and largely forgotten. What tales could Whiskey Flats tell? The once mosquito-infested area is now known as Rotary Park, and a fine place it is. However, it is certainly without the character of old Whiskey Flats, where every house looked like a Jim Robb painting.

In the early days, before the massive clean-up of 1964, Whiskey Flats was home to the Yukon's colourful five percent, and the colourful structures they lived in. These shacks tilted in the wind. They lay helter-skelter across a landscape littered with junk that today would gain a pretty penny or more on the Antiques Road Show. Early photos of the place seem to have been taken after a heavy downpour, or else the drainage was substandard. Likely the latter, and I expect that no one had a basement.

Whiskey Flats was largely home to so-called squatters, a problem that bedeviled town planners for years. Almost every spring brought forth crocuses on the side hills, and the annual Whiskey Flats clean-up brigades. This was a losing battle until the bridge, linking downtown Whitehorse with the new subdivision of Riverdale, was opened.

Now a serious clean-up was needed since it wouldn't do for those wealthy enough to live in Riverdale to drive through a strange place that would never qualify for communities in bloom. However, it wasn't until the spring of 1964, that the town got serious about Whiskey Flats. Its days were numbered. A community effort led by the Chamber of Commerce, and with civic approval, came up with an ingenious scheme to shutdown the Flats.

First, there was an extensive advertizing campaign announcing the annual clean up, coupled with a notice that bona fide residents would not be required to move out.

The committee delivered signs, to permanent residents, that they should nail to their houses, stating that the building was occupied. After several weeks, shacks that did not display these signs on the outside were deemed to be uninhabited. They were either demolished or removed. Thus, non-resident owners or drifters were out of luck. However, the genuine owners could see the writing on the wall. They too were encouraged, but not forced, to move. In the end, it was attrition that sounded the death knell for Whiskey Flats. By 1966, the real clean-up came, as everything on Whiskey Flats was carted away to make room for the SS Klondike.

Today, the magnificently restored river-boat sits where once clapboard shacks dotted the landscape. Green grass grows where mud puddles filled the laneways. Park benches have replaced the back seats of derelict automobiles as a place to rest and watch the river go by. Swings, slides and other trappings of modern childhood have supplanted the cardboard crates we used to hide in. Modern Whitehorse is justly proud of its Rotary Park though, I expect, there are some who long for the old days of Whiskey Flats and the frontier spirit it brought.

Whiskey Flats
Whiskey Flats - circled.
Home to many people prior to government housing or the availabilit of a mortgage - eventually CMHC offered limited funds to build a home.
Click for larger view.

House Bruce Cameron
This was the home of SGT Bruce Cameron, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, and his wife 'Jolly'.
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Water Source
Water source was the nearby Yukon River - Jolly Cameron in photo. Click for larger view.

Whiskey Flats
The interior of the Cameron home.
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But as a philosopher once said: "People seem to get nostalgic about a lot of things they weren't so crazy about the first time around."


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



1964 Mustang

This is a tale of Moe, McKenna and Mustang. That is to say: Moe Grant, Wayne McKenna and the Ford Mustang. The story begins in May 1964 when a Caspian blue, underpowered, no frills Mustang arrived at Whitehorse Motors on Main Street.

It had been shipped from Vancouver in a White Pass Rail container. Everyone in the Yukon knew about Ford's new sports model because they had introduced the trail-blazing car on world-wide television live from the New York Worlds Fair in mid-April, 1964. Price tag? Just over twenty-three hundred US. More than a million Mustangs sold in the next twenty-four months.

But not in Whitehorse. Moe Grant, then General Manager of Whitehorse Motors, had not even ordered a Mustang. Wayne McKenna, then a salesman, thinks the car was originally destined for Brown Brothers Ford dealership in Vancouver, but that an error was made in shipping.

Since it would cost too much to ship it back to Vancouver, Ford decided to let Whitehorse Motors sell it.

The Mustang hardtop was displayed in the Main Street showroom! McKenna remembers he had an immediate offer but, since he had not received the factory invoice and did not know the dealer cost, they rejected it.

After that, many people came by for a test drive, but it was a "plain Jane" car with a small six-cylinder engine and no options. There were no other offers to purchase. Manager Moe told salesman McKenna to drive the car as his demonstrator until it sold.

McKenna hated the car because it had no power or frills, not even power steering. However, he did put about two thousand miles on it. Then in the spring of 1965, Doug Wooten traded in his 1957 Plymouth, paid the difference, and the one-year-old Mustang hardtop had finally sold!

The car stayed in the Yukon until October, 1983, when its owner moved to Edmonton, Alberta. There it remained until December of 1993. Then a Mustang collector, Lyle Ciglar of Bozeman, Montana happened to be visiting a friend in Edmonton who told him about a Mustang he'd seen. When Lyle saw it, he knew this was something special. He bought the now-repainted Mustang hardtop for US $5700 and drove it home.

Ford Mustang
World's first production Ford Mustang Hardtop. Built March 5, 1964. Click for larger view.

Ciglar was going to restore it, but never got around to it. Then in 1995, on a long drive, the engine blew. Soon after, an automotive author, writing a book about Mustang history, contacted Ciglar to get a photo of the car. When Scott McMullen of Temecula, California, saw the photo he offered US$ 13,000 for the car with no engine. But he had no time to restore it either, so he put an ad in Hemmings Auto Monthly. Bob Fria of LaCrescenta, California, another Mustang enthusiast, bought the vehicle that still did not run.

After more than three years of research work, Fria could document the car as the genuine pilot-plant pre-production Mustang, built on March 5, 1964, five days before Ford's official Mustang factory production run. It was one of five destined for showrooms in Canada in advance of the world-wide release. The Yukon car was Ford's first production Mustang hardtop.

Today, a proud Bob Fria has fully restored the Yukon treasure and drives it to shows, museums, and national Mustang events. So the Mustang that Moe Grant didn't order and Wayne McKenna had trouble selling more than forty years ago, is today a priceless piece of Ford Motor history.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



James Harbic

When James Harbic became the Parliament Hill Correspondent for the Whitehorse Star, Lester Pearson was Prime Minister, Erik Nielsen was gaining national prominence as an opposition backbencher, Canada was in the midst of the great flag debate and the Canada Pension Plan was just being implemented.

Flo Whyard, Editor of the Star, called Harbic's story on the introduction of the pension plan "the only one of the many I read that I could understand." According to Whyard, "James Harbic's reactions were on a par with the average voter."

The trouble was that in 1964, Harbic wasn't an average voter. He wasn’t old enough to vote, and he’d never been to the Yukon. At fourteen years old, the Ottawa high-school student was the youngest member ever, of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

How did it happen? While comic books inspired most 14-year-olds, Harbic had become captivated by Pierre Berton, Jack London and Robert Service. He wrote away for everything he could get his hands on about the Yukon, including the Whitehorse Star.

Flo Whyard remembers one day getting a letter from a kid in Ottawa who wanted to write a newspaper column. He said he read our paper, and that he was fourteen. Publisher Bob Erlam and I thought he had earned something, so the Star wrote and said `You're on."'

Today James Harbic is a well known Ottawa defense lawyer, but fondly remembers his days as a columnist for the Whitehorse Star, for which he was paid five dollars a column. He says he always tried to put a twist on his stories. Flo Whyard recalls that the 14-year-old thought like an adult. Whyard said that the Star started putting Harbic's age under his picture after they discovered that most readers thought he was a grown-up member of the Press gallery.

As the Yukon correspondent, Harbic frequently interviewed Erik Nielsen. In the summer of 1966, Nielsen arranged a bus trip for Harbic to travel to the Yukon. When he finally arrived in Watson Lake, he saw a copy of the Whitehorse Star with the headline, "Harbic is Coming".

The young reporter, who had never seen the Yukon, was dumbfounded. In Whitehorse, Flo Whyard met him and gave him the tour, and it was just like Robert Service described it. His last column for the Star was about the centennial celebrations of 1967. Then the youngster’s romance with joumalism waned, and the Press Gallery's youngest-ever member decided to study law in university.

Nevertheless, the one-time Whitehorse Star Ottawa correspondent still finds time to write. He published a book called "Profiles in Nobility, the 125 Greatest Canadians." Not surprisingly, Robert Service is on James Harbic's list.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




A.Y. Jackson in the Yukon

In 1964, I had the pleasure of interviewing the famed Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson. Then in his 70s, he was in the Yukon with his friend and fellow artist Maurice Haycock, making sketches and paintings of the area where he had painted years earlier when the Alaska highway was under construction.

In 1942, the National Gallery of Canada had commissioned Jackson to document the construction. Over a three-week period in October of 1943, he produced numerous pencil and oil sketches of the personnel, equipment, and construction of the highway.

Born in Montreal in 1882, Alexander Young Jackson learned the art of abstract painting and joined the avant garde group of painters from Toronto in 1913. They all had a great sense of adventure and love for the Canadian wilderness. Jackson travelled to the far regions of Canada every summer, including the arctic. In the fall he would return to the Studio Building in Toronto where he spent the winter creating canvases from his sketches. He continued this active lifestyle until he was in his eighties.

During the First World War, Jackson joined the infantry and served as a private in the Canadian Army. Wounded in June 1917, he was transferred to the Canadian War Records branch as an artist and, from 1917 through 1919, worked for the Canadian War Memorials. After the war, he and fellow members of the Group of Seven reformed the Canadian scene with their stunning yet controversial canvases.

During his visit to the Yukon in 1964, when he was well into his 70s, he did pencil sketches around Dawson and Mayo. A simple sketch of Dredge #4, which was then derelict, sitting in the bushes on Bonanza, is worth over 12 thousand dollars. He also produced a number of complete canvases which are priceless.

Yukon History Hougengroup
1982 stamp of the highway at Kluane.
Click for larger view.

In 1967, Canada Post celebrated the Alaska Highway's 25th birthday by issuing an 8-cent stamp featuring a painting by A.Y Jackson. And to celebrate Canada Day in 1982,the post office released a miniature sheet of twelve paintings, each one an artist's interpretation of a scene from the ten provinces and two territories. A.Y. Jackson's painting called "The Highway near Kluane Lake," is one of the featured stamps.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin