My grandparents moved to Alaska in the late 1940s. At that time, the state was very much still a rugged frontier, and everyone had an interesting story to tell. Grandma took notes, and shared them with me, asking me to publish them so the rest of the family could have easy access to these stories.
In this post, my grandparents set out into the wilderness on a train trip through central Alaska in 1947. Along the way, they encounter mountain climbers in the process of making history, and even set up a temporary dental clinic in a bathroom to help locals in need. As usual, these stories are presented in my grandmother’s own words with no editing on my part. I did, however, hunt down a few relevant links and images. You can find more of my family’s stories at McKinley Family.
I probably should have split this into two posts because it’s so long, but I felt like the most fascinating part was the second half. Incidentally, I ended up working on this railroad in 1992. One of these days I’ll have to write up my Alaska Railroad stories as well.
Once again, in her own words, Doris McKinley:
Doris McKinley – adventuring with the Lion’s Club
The only Railroad in Alaska is United States Government owned and runs from Seward, the port of entry, thru Anchorage to Fairbanks, a 471 mile life-line to the interior. It was built many years ago of Government Surplus Materials after the construction of the Panama Canal, and is in dire need of major repairs. The schedules are notoriously slow. If an engineer wants to flirt with a reprimand, a sure way to do it is to bring his train in on time! The speed limit for passenger trains on the straight-away is 25 miles per hour.
While awaiting completion of the dental offices in the new Sogn Building, my husband and I took a most interesting trip on the railroad, stopping at Curry, Mt. McKinley Park, and Healy. When we left Anchorage, we left all activity except strictly railroad behind. There are no railroad junctions or highway crossing along the entire route. Just wild hinterland!
As we were passing a rather extended, level, open area I was excited to see a complete rainbow. Both ends touching the ground – we looked but could not find pots of gold!
Several old fishermen boarded the train at Anchorage with all their paraphanalia. Then at various streams 30 to 60 miles out, they signalled the engineer, the train stopped, and they got off. A few days later, when they were ready to return, they would stand by the tracks, flag the train and ride in to Anchorage. – an easy way to get to camp!
When my Grandparents moved to Alaska in the 1940s, it was still very much a frontier. It was both the wild, wild west, and the frigid north.
Grandma took notes. By compiling and transcribing her notes, and sharing them on my blog, I’m fulfilling a promise to her to make these stories available and accessible to the rest of the family. I have created an archive to which I am slowly transcribing and adding these documents: McKinley Family Archives.
I’ve left these stories exactly as she wrote them, although I have been hunting down photos for illustration.
Here she is again, Doris McKinley, in her own words.
Steve, Karen, and Rodger with the family plane
The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947
Anchorage, a thriving business community, is the nerve center of western Alaska. In 1939 it had a population of 3000, now with the post-war influx, it boasts of nearly 15,000 – causing a serious housing shortage. Building in all classes is progress, but far too short of its needs.
Ft. Richardson, located only five miles from Anchorage is a combined Military, Naval, and Air Command with a personnel of about 12,000. The United States Government is pouring tremendous sums of money into the development of Ft. Richardson as the permanent headquarters of all Alaska Defenses.
Thus, there are some 25,000 local people served by Anchorage business. This is exclusive of the “bush.” The term “bush” is used to identify outlying terretory. “Bush pilots” are very efficient airmen, piloting their own planes. Their business consists of scheduled and unscheduled hops to almost any point within a radius of 400 to 500 miles. Residents of these remote localities, traders, trappers, and miners rely on the bush pilot and his light plane as readily as persons in the States use the bus or train. For in all Alaska there are only about 2000 miles of automobile roads.
The Alaskan economy is dependent on the various phases of aviation.
One day we saw a shy native boy carrying a baby seal. Walking along the street, he was drawing considerable attention. He had found the seal on the shore, it apparently had become lost from its mother. It lay quite content and quietly in the boy’s arms. The face seemed much like a dog’s, tho larger, with a rather pointed nose. The heavy brown body and flippers were interesting.
When my Father was in Anchorage last March, he saw several native Indian women carrying babies on their backs. As he was talking with one, he noticed severe sores along the baby’s jaw. Inquiring of the Mother what caused the sore, she replied, “Just rubbing.”
On a motor trip to Valdez, a distance of 300 miles by highway, which I am sure is not more than 75 by air, we saw a fish wheel in operation. This wheel was similar to a conventional water wheel, excep that each peddle had a wire screen which built up the side and end. The inside was left open so that as the river current turned the wheel, a fish was caught and held until that section reached the top and the fish dropped out onto a slide thence into a tank of water. The native then picked up the fish, split and cleaned it, then hung it by the tail on a nail with rows of other fish. Drying frames were built in a square and a fire smoldered in the center. Smoked, dried fish are a staple diet of the seld dogs and natives in winter. The use of these wheels are limited to the native population.
McKinley Family log home
Salmon fishing is most popular and during the season it is very common to see men, women or children on the streets with their fishing tackle going to Fish Creek near the Railroad. One day an old-time showed us the procedure. We bought stought fish line, heavy sinkers and large three pronged hooks. The idea is to throw the hook into the stream and jerk it back. Really, we snag salmon as they do not bite. Some time passed and we had no luck, our friend insisted, however, that the salmon would be at that spot about 15 minutes after the tide came in.
Shortly afterward a little boy, possibly 8 years old said, “If you’ll throw your hook right over there, Doc, you’ll catch a fish!” Sure enough, Lee brought in a nice four or five pound salmon, and brought in several more in a short time. The youngster caught two, pulled them onto the shore, but before he could get a good hold on them they flopped back into the water. He went on fishing as tho nothing had happened. When we were ready to leave, he handed two other fish to my husband, saying “Here, Doc, you take these. My mother wont let me bring any more fish home!” Lee skinned and filleted them, and we cooked in a friend’s kitchen that evening. They were truly delicious.
These were the silver salmon and were about 18″ long, later in July the big king salmon appear which may weigh 10, 15, or 20 pounds.
The famed Matanuska Valley farming project which was publicized a few years ago is located about 50 miles from Anchorage on the only highway which joins Fairbanks and Anchorage. The project is managed on a cooperative basis, is successful, and is developing into a real asset to Alaska. These farms, many only ten or fifteen years removed from the wilderness, are remarkably fertile. Farmers are farm owners as tenant farming is frowned upon. The valley produces vegetables of unusual size due to the very long days during the growing season. Dairying is being rather slowly developed because of the difficulties of carrying the herds thru the long winters. Farm buildings, built with Government assistance follow identical plans and are built of logs. Most farm work is, however, carried on with tractors and modern machinery.
My grandmother was born 1/11/11 – 1911, that is – one hundred years ago today. She didn’t live to meet that milestone, she passed away just a few months ago. But in those just shy of 100 years, she led a remarkable life.
I wanted to write a biographical blog post to tell her story today, but it’s too much. She went from being very active in Detroit’s social scene, to being a pioneer in a (then) remote area of Alaska, active in Territorial, and later, State politics as the wife of a politician, and even running for State Legislature herself – all this was done while running an active farm, raising her seven children, and managing the office of my Grandfather’s dental practice, as well as the family’s Medical/Dental Supply business. That deserves more than one blog post.
Instead, I’ll use her 100th birthday to kick off the first of a series of posts about my Grandmother. In this first one, I’ll let her tell her own story of her first trip to Alaska. A few years ago, she let me copy some of her personal papers with the idea that I would post them online, making them available to the rest of the family. It’s taken me until now to do anything about that.
So here she is, Doris McKinley in her own words. I just added a title and a couple photos. It’s a long post, so grab a cup of coffee, kick your feet up, and settle in for a story of the rugged North.
The Alaska Highway is an overland route connecting the United States with Alaska through Canada. During the summer and early Winter of 1942, United States Army Engineers blazed the original road through 1,523 miles of unbroken wilderness. They put over a project of road building in eight months never duplicated in history, and considered by experts impossible in less than two years.
Their record is as glorious as that of any combat unit fighting on the front, for here, too, men suffered and died in a battle of the wilderness so that America might be made safe. These men endured mud, rain, fought hordes of voracious mosquitoes, and lived at times on subsistence rations with the constant threat that their precarious supply lines might be broken and they would be isolated in the wilderness.
On their heels or sometimes in step with them, came the United States Public Roads Administration with its civilian contractors and road workers, using the Army road as a base and making it into a highway as fast as they could. During the next summer the road was made into a permanent wilderness gravel highway, wide enough for two or three vehicles to pass with ease.
The present route was selected from the point of view of military strategy, intended mainly to serve as a link between various airports strung northward across Western Canada to Alaska. A tourist route would have been laid closer to the Canadian Rockies.
It stands as a symbol of friendship between nations unparalleled in history. The name Alcan, an unofficial designation, was subsequently changed to Alaska Highway by agreement of the two governments. It starts at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, a village at the end of the Railroad line 300 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, and terminates at Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of 1,523 miles.
Doris and Doc (Lee) McKinley
My husband, Lee, made this trip to Anchorage in October with our 12 year old son, Blake, and Frederick York, a young laboratory technician. They drove a Hudson pickup truck and expected to be able to have certain heavy supplies shipped by boat from Seattle. However, shortly after they arrived there, it became apparent that the West Coast Shipping Strike would not end soon. So, three weeks later, Lee took a plane to Seattle and then East to Detroit. He was most enthusiastic in his first impressions of Alaska and insisted that I drive back with him.
I hurriedly collected clothing for Arctic wear. At Peter’s Sportswear Clothes Shop I found a down-filled jacket, parka and leggings, and fleece lined gloves and stadium boots. The leggings were most comfortable which I wore in place of slacks. They are cool enough in the heated cab of the truck and warm at 40 degrees below zero.
This time we drove a Dodge one-ton express truck. Our neighborhood garage men had put forth great effort to hurriedly build a strong frame of 1″ pipe over the truck bed. This was covered with large tarpaulin and tied securely. On the running board we carried four, five gallon army gasoline cans, and acetylene torch and new axe.
We left home at 9:30 A.M. Monday, November 18, 1946. Our route was Highway 12 to Chicago. Then Minneapolis and the fourth day we arrived in Fargo, North Dakota. We enjoyed three perfect Autumn days, cool and bright, then ran into sleet and snow. In Fargo, we placed the truck in a garage where booster springs, airplane tires and fire extinguisher were installed the following day. We now felt we were properly equipped.
Leaving Fargo Saturday morning on our way to Montana, we drove through the wheat prairies with their great elevators in every village. At the Immigration Center in Coutts, Alberta, we spent two hours making arrangements to travel through Canada. Stopped overnight in Calgary, and arrived in Edmonton Tuesday afternoon, November 26th.
Our instructions at the border had been to see Mr. Eveleigh of the Control Board at Edmonton. He looked over our credentials and checked our list of extra supplies – tire irons, jack, air pump, extra tires and tubes, patching supplies, flashlight and extra batteries, extra electric wire and friction tape, fan belts and spark plugs, extra gasoline and oil containers, general repair tools tow chain and numerous other articles.
I was eager to see the shops in Edmonton so took a few minutes while Lee was having the truck serviced. I was certainly surprised to find that stocks of warm winter clothing were as meager at Hudson’s Bay Company as they were here. The stores generally are fine, modern buildings with good merchandise.
It was 4:30 when we slid past the outskirts of Edmonton and into the prairie Northland. We were on concrete until we passed the airports several miles out, where the road became black-top. Then this, too, ended and we settled down to a straight-away grind over typical Canadian prairie road. This was not the endless wheat-field prairie we had traversed south of Edmonton. We were now headed into the flat, bush country of the (more…)
My mother dressed me in this sweater when I was an infant. Once I grew out of it, she packed it away and saved it for me. It’s been 38 years and I can hardly wait to dress my daughter in this sweater. 18 more weeks to go.