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!
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…)
In 1991 my mom brought home Matt; I was not happy. Although I had moved out, I still had a room at the homestead – a room I needed to clear of my belongings so it could go to this new kid. But that’s not the whole reason I was upset.
Taking in kids was nothing new in our home. I had four younger brothers and we had all, at one time or another, brought home friends to stay for extended periods of time. My parents took in my cousins, kids who had aged out of the foster care system, and runaways (there was always a phone call to the parents to let them know where the kids were). My parents would not turn their backs on a child in need. Eventually they decided to start taking in foster children, and Matt was the first of many special needs placements my parents welcomed into their home.
But Matt was scary. He was a 16-year-old, severely developmentally challenged kid that had been held in a motel room 24 hours a day for months because they could not find a home that would take him. After time in the foster care system, Matt had an attitude, and he was very difficult to care for because of his medical needs as well. Along with an improperly formed brain, Matt had cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus; he functioned at the level of a two year old. He was difficult to look at. His hair grew in funny little tufts around the scars from all his brain surgeries, he shuffled along all bent over, he had a vocabulary of only 50 words, and he was a head banger. By head banger I mean that whenever he was frustrated or angry or for whatever other reason he would haul off and slam his head on whatever hard surface was handy, often drawing blood.
He terrified me. I did not like the idea of this kid living in my parents house.
Why am I using this Mother’s Day post to tell you about Matt? Because Matt became a part of our family. My Mother would not give up on him. No matter how hard it was, no matter how many late nights she sat up wondering “what have I gotten myself into,” she would not be just one more foster home that sent him back to that agency. He deserved better than that. And we learned a valuable lesson about acceptance and love, because we all came to love Matt. As he became more accepted and comfortable in our home he started to blossom at school, and at church where Mom took him every Sunday. By the time he passed away in 2000, he had touched so many lives that his funeral was standing room only. An entire community had learned a lesson about acceptance and love.
Mom has always been a caretaker. It’s her calling, her gift, and she’s very good at making people feel better when they are ill. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October of 2006, we were all devastated, but we all knew that he was in the best hands. While the doctors may be prescribing the chemo and performing surgeries, and the nurses attending to vital stats, it was Mom that cared for him and fought for him. She was the one that kept him going, and made sure he kept his brain active, and held his hand through the emotional roller-coaster of dying.
My Dad was never a big talker, that just wasn’t his style, but Mom always made us talk on the phone together even if we didn’t think we had anything to say. Dad and I would sit there on the phone, sometimes it felt like forever, trying to think of something to say to each other. We talked a lot about baseball, we talked about mom, we talked about work – his and mine, we talked a little bit about the cancer and it’s side effects, we talked about the weather, but most importantly, we talked.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Dad. It’s just that both of us are introverts – and completely unskilled in the art of small-talk. The point is, I had conversations with my dad, about nothing and everything, that I hold dear in my heart, and I wouldn’t have had them if she hadn’t made us talk.
She is the glue that holds our family together, and through the most difficult time of her life, she found ways to meet each of our needs.
In the six months since my father’s death, Mom packed up and moved to Seattle. Sure part of it was to be near me. But really she’s here because she’s taken over as the primary caretaker for my 97 year old grandmother. And she’s loving every minute of it, because helping people feel better is what she does, it’s her gift.
Happy Mothers Day, Mom. Thank you, and I love you.
Happy Mothers Day to the rest of you moms out there too.
We had a great visit this weekend with Mom and Grandma. It’s so good to see the two of them doing so well. On Saturday night we went to dinner at the Caspian Grill for Persian food. Bill’s Judy joined us there as well so we had quite the little party. We had hummus, smoked eggplant and a yogurt dip to start and followed it with koobedeh, lamb kabob, tadeeq, gormeh sabzi, and fesenjoon (my favorite). Mom and Judy really loved all the food. I don’t think Grandma liked the stews as much, but she really enjoyed the koobedeh.