Alaska Highway History
An Explorer's Guide to the Alaska Highway ("Alcan")
The lengthy illustrated article that follows appeared in The American Magazine of September 1952, when Bert and Helen Law and their 3 young children were featured as the magazine's Family of the Month.
On April 9, 1948, the family left Berkeley, California, with the idea of homesteading in Alaska or the Yukon Territory. It was only 2 months before, on February 13, 1948, that Canadian Resources Minister J.A. Glen announced that travel restrictions on the Alaska Highway had been removed. Tourist facilites along the highway had been improved to the point that travel for any reason was now allowed, without permits. In May, the Laws paid $2,000 for the remains of a highway construction camp at Mile 843 of the Alaska Highway, and began building what would become the Silver Dollar Lodge.
Early in 1954, Bert and Ellen leased the lodge to Barma-sea Enterprises. They only operated it for a year. When the Laws went for a look in 1955, the lessees and vandals had pretty much destroyed the place, which was sold later that year to Whitehorse businessman Clyde Wann. It never re-opened.
The Laws of the Yukon
by James Joseph
No more frontiers to conquer? Ask Bert and Helen Law. They left a comfortable, secure home in Berkeley, Calif., packed their 3 children into a truck caravan, and went homesteading on the Alaska Highway. With courage and adventurous spirit they have carved out a new and richly rewarding life.
Long before I'd reached Milepost 843 on the Alaska Highway - a road which serpentines north from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, climbs through the Yukon Territory, and finally descends into Alaska - I discovered that everybody knew the Laws.
Bert and Ellen Law and their three kinds - Frances, 9; Tommy, 7; and George, 5 - are legend even on the legendary Alaska Highway. For there, four years ago, they set up housekeeping at Mile 843, a desolate and unpeopled piece of the northland lying deep in Canada's ruggedly wild and fabulous Yukon Territory.
While others heard - and too often heeded - those rusty old platitudes about there being no new frontiers to conquer, the youthful Laws (Bert is 36, Ellen 30) sold a filling station in Berkeley, Calif., which promised financial security, and gleefully homesteaded in a nearly virgin wilderness. Now they have shaped a wonderfully exhilarating new life for themselves while they are all young enough to enjoy it.
From Berkeley they traveled a longer road - nearly 3,500 miles - than the '49ers. With a bank account chock-full of grit and determination, and not much else, they trekked north into a land of bitter-cold winters and sunny summers. They blundered wide-eyed bu ready into the vast 205,346 square-mile Yukon Territory, whose handful of people (only 8,000, and these mostly Indians) are pioneers like themselves.
Halfway up the Alaska Highway, and 76 miles from the nearest town (Whitehorse, pop, 2,600), they cleared the land, built a log lodge, cut the firewood, schooled their kids, hand-dug a well, planted a little garden, and harvested a healthy crop of intelligent, bright-eyed children. In the process the Laws became self-reliant and deadly sure both of success and of themselves.
It was, as Bert Law jokingly told me, a kind of picnic. "Only sometimes there wasn't any mustard, and often no hot dogs or buns."
"What we have done," the Laws declare, "any American family, anywhere, can do. We forfeited a dime's worth of comforts, but we've built a family worth its weight in gold."
Here was a family, I told myself, which every American must meet - a family worthy of being named THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE'S Family of the Month.
Neighbours - sturdy American and Canadian homesteaders, big-game guides, and lodge owners - who live up and down the 1,600-mile Alaska Highway talked to me excitedly about the Laws. All unconsciously, the Laws inspired their fellow pioneers to renewed confidence. When I told Bert that his family's success against overwhelming odds had become legend for hundreds of miles around, he flushed and said modestly, "Some folks along the Alaska Highway have had it a whole lot tougher than we have."
Yes, the Laws are a living story of adventurous achievement. Typically, an elderly resident of the Yukon confided to me, "If those younguns can succeed from scratch up here, so can Ma and me."
It was overcast and bitterly cold when I pulled off the snow Alaska Highway at Milepost 843, and turned in left, where a big, round sign announced "Silver Dollar Lodge" - the Laws' homestead. I sat in the car a while, just taking in the scenery.
A snug, one-story log lodge, L-shaped and maybe 200 feet long, nestled among spruce and birch trees. Two smaller log buildings were set off a ways to the rear. Drifting snow and lofty mountains formed a natural frame around the place. And, as if from an artist's palette, wisps of wood smoke curled lazily into the still, brittle air from the Lodge's stovepipe chimneys.
I climbed out of the car, crunched through the powdery snow, lifted the Lodge's handmade latch, and went in.
The place was rocking to the song, Shrimp Boats Is A-Comin', blaring from a phonograph. The huge low-ceilinged living room was like a set straight out of Technicolor. Vividly beautiful Indian blankets draped rustic log couches. The yellow-pine walls glowed like polished amber. In one corner were a couple of tables covered in Chinese-red linoleum.
Bert Law introduced himself and held out a big, friendly hand. It was a hand obviously accustomed to hard work. His plaid logger's shirt, decking out his youthful, muscularly thin six-foot frame, made a splotch of color in an already colorful room.
The room was alive with little Laws - and not too much order. Flaxen-haired Frannie, whom her father describes as "delicate like a panther," was curled up by the hammered-copper fireplace. Oblivious of the raucous music, she was browsing through a 3rd-grade reader. Georgie, a wide-eyed and chubby 5-year-old, was tacking his latest crayoned masterpiece to the wall over in the Laws' "school corner" - a cheerful, book-furnished alcove devoted exclusively to educating young Law minds. Nobody scolded Georgie for hammering tacks into the wall. "The kids' drawings are A-1 priority stuff around here," Bert explained. Tommy, the family's mechanical wizard, was sitting cross-legged on the floor, fiddling with a toy steam engine.
Presently Ellen appeared. Even in a flouncy apron she looked trimly thin. It was difficult to belive that she was 30. Her deep-set blue eyes smiled from a pleasant face. A pretty face, in anybody's book. But you noticed the yese first. They were very blue and very sparkling.
"I don't usually apologize for the way my hair looks," Ellen said gayly, "not up here anyway." Then she explained that her home-permanent kit had arrived fast-frozen because the van driver, who hauls supplies 843 miles from Dawson Creek, had dropped it into a snowdrift near their front door. "We didn't miss the package for a couple of days, and when we finally dug it out of the drift it was frozen solid," Ellen said.
While the fire snapped and crackled (it being wintry and 30 degrees below zero outside, a startling contrast to the Yukon's warm summer days), I learned that their big adventure began in Berkeley, Calif., on the day in May, 1940, when Ellen, then 18, dropped into "Stu's Creamery" on Kittredge Street, where Bert was a soda jerk. Four yeras before, Bert had migrated to California from his hometown, a few miles north of Detroit, Mich., on the Canadian side of the border.
He had just $50 in his pocket when he drove a new car out to Los Angeles for a Detroit manufacturer. Times were still tough in 1936. Every time Bert found a job they'd lay him off a week or so later. Finally, after three years of off-and-on jobs (as an assembler in an auto plant, dishwasher, and parking-lot attendant), he hitchhiked to Berkeley and went to work at Stu's.
Then, on that fateful day in 1940, Bert looked up from an ice-cream freezer - and found himself staring into Ellen's honest blue eyes. He was so rattled he made her a vanilla sundae instead of the chocolate soda she'd ordered. But the way Ellen smiled away his mistake made everything seem all right. It made everything wonderful!
Although naturally shy, Bert became a Don Juan that day under Ellen's steady and wistful gaze. He struck up a conversation, and before his boss gave him a "get back to work" glare, Bert learned that her name was Ellen Astad, that her father was a fairly well-off carpenter, and that her folks were of Norwegian descent. The Astads lived in Berkeley and Ellen had graduated from Berkeley High School only the year before. What's more, she couldn't remember ever having been out of the State of California. "She wa s a real California native, a real provincial," Bert joked.
Three weeks later they borrowed a car, drove to Reno, and were married. Bert was 24; Ellen 18.
Their first two and a half years of marriage were both happy and hectic. Ellen had her first baby - Frances. Bert was inducted into the Army, then almost immediately discharged because of ulcers he'd contracted when he was out of work and broke.
Bert was like an eager octopus when it came to work. "The guy has four sets of hands," his friends used to say. He latched onto a pretty fair job as a maintenance painter at Cutter Laboratories, Inc., a pharmaceutical concern in Berkeley. But for Bert Law one job was never enough. Weekdays after work, he tinkered with broken-down jalopies, installed them with hopped-up engines, and sold them to hot-rodders. To help fill his week ends Bert contracted to paint houses and do odd carpentry jobs.
There was no madness, only method, in his frenzied, busy work week. For now they had a second child - Thomas Herbert Law - born in February, 1945. But, most of all, Bert wanted desperately to be in business for himself. By scraping and saving, Bert managed to accumulate $1,000, and when the opportunity came he borrowed some more and invested with a partner in a gas station. It had taken him almost ten years since the day he first went to work, but now he was his own boss!
Bert worked seven days a week, sometimes 17 hors a day, and within a year had bought out his partner and was employing three men to help at the station.
But when Ellen had her third child - George - in November, 1946, Bert got to thinking. He had a wonderful wife, three swell kids, and a modestly prosperous business. But something was missing; that something was home life and relaxation enough to enjoy it. He wasn't living now. He was just hanging onto the end of a gas pump and existing.
Then one day, an old customer stopped by. "I'm going to drive the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks," he announced. "Fix the car up real good, will you?"
Alaska! The Alaska Highway! The words hit Bert like a couple of stiff uppercuts. There was a frontier still to be won in the far North, where a man could build an empire. But "empire" to Bert Law didn't mean wealth or landed estates. It meant something more basic: a place where he could raise strong, healthy kids and be home with his family.
For days Bert wrestled within himself. Should he broach the subject of Alaska to Ellen? Was it fair to tear the kids away from Berkeley, and Ellen away from her girlhood friends and family?
But the more he worked at the station, the more convinced he became that he wanted to grow up with his kids, where he could guide them. Teen-aged boys and girls hung around his station. They were young punks who smoked and told smutty jokes - and did things teenagers shouldn't. One day a pimply-faced 17-year-old sidled up to Bert, offered him a marijuana cigarette, and smirked, "Got the guts to get hop?"
Bert was shocked. And as the shock wore off he saw himself as he really was. That 17-year-older came from a decent family. He had parents who loved him. But something was missing from his home life, and Bert desperately afraid that the boy had a father like himself, who never got home, who never saw his family. Bert didn't want his children growing up to be gas-station cowboys.
That night Bert came home early. He fairly burst into the house. "Ellen!" he shouted. "How would you like to live in Alaska or the Yukon Territory?"
"Where?" Ellen asked, astounded. For a minute she just stared at him. Then she laughed. "Maybe we ought to go to the Yukon - it sounds more romantic!"
Ellen had responded as he should have known she would. They put the children to bed. Then Bert and Ellen talked out the night. They didn't finish until 3 or 4 a.m. "It was the kind of talk a man ought to have more often with his wife," Bert declared. They decided to drive up the Alaska Highway, find a place - maybe in Alaska or in the Yukon Territory (Bert had studied the maps), and homestead.
Bert worked so fast and calculatedly that he'd sold the gas station within two weeks. After repaying a loan advanced when he bought out his partner two years before, Bert had $3,000 left. Pooled with $850 they'd saved from this station salary, and with the money Ellen got from selling the furniture (they kept only their beds and a sewing machine), the Laws had a grubstake of $4,000 - more money than they'd ever seen all at one time.
When Ellen's folks got wind of the expedition they were horrified. How in the world, Ellen's mother demanded, could a daughter of hers take little children up
te Alaska Highway? Why, there were wolves and bears and all kinds of awful animals - and probably worse people on Alaska and the Yukon Territory. But Ellen said, "Mother, we're going to build a new lie for ourselves and for our children. We're doing what's right for the five of us."
They bought a 1942, 20-passenger panel truck which the Navy had used in the South Pacific. Although numerically young (as trucks go), the vehicle had aged terribly during its oversas stint and had finally been discharged with a bad case of mechanical shock. Bert tried a little automotive therapy, and pretty soon its once consumptive engine was running good as new. Then Bert set to work remodeling the war relic into a house-on-wheels. He built-in double-decker cribs, because Frannie was only 5 then, George was 1½, and Tommy just 3. Bert installed a propane cooking range, electric lights, extra batteries, and a truck heater. Before he finished, he'd sunk $900 into the old crate and had just $3,000 left. They carried $1,000 in cash, the remainder in travelers' checks.
On April 9, 1948, the Laws piled into the truck and pulled out of Berkeley. A dismal fog overhanging San Francisco bade the pioneers good-by.
Just in case they should decide to homestead along the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway, Bert had queried the Canadian consulate on San Francisco. He was told that since both he and Ellen were American citizens, they couldn't work for wages. They'd have to go into business for themselves. As Ellen recalls, lodge-keeping was about the only enteprise they could enter without special permits. The consul also explained that homesteaders didn't have to give up their American citizenships.
From Berkeley, through Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, and on to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, where the Alaska Highway begins, it's a good 2,500 miles. The Laws made it, despite sub-zero weather, in about three weeks. Bert remembers it as a leisurely ride, even in the old truck. "And the minute we were on the road we felt like young marrieds all over again. We weren't heading into adventures. We were setting out upon a new life."
After a week and 777 miles on the Alaska Highway, the Laws chugged up in front of a lodge at Mile 777, in the Yukon Territory. While Ellen readied the children for bed (they'd traveled comfortably, spending more money than they should have, but sleeping in the truck almost every night), Bert told the lodge's owner that he'd like to buy a road camp ad fix it up. There was a place 66 miles up the Highway, the lodge owner said. He owned it and was willing to sell. He explained that he'd latched onto two run-down construction camps when first homesteading in the Yukon right after the war. One, he'd turned into the lodge where the Laws now were. The other, up the Highway, had never been lived in since the war.
"Nothin' been done to it since the army boys moved out, back in '42," the main said.
Bert asked somewhat skeptically, "How much you want?"
"Two thousand, and that's rock bottom."
"Pretty high, don't you think?"
"Nope," the lodge owner replied; "not high when you consider what it would cost to truck that lumber up here."
The Laws had passed dozens of deserted, disheveled camps, leftovers from the 1942-45 construction days when first the U.S. Army Engineers and later private contractors worked the Highway. One camp was about the same as another - a broken-down mess hall, some rackety, beaten barracks, and not much else.
"We could drive up and look the place over," Bert told Ellen later. "But probably it looks like all the others we've passed."
Ellen agreed. Shopping around for road camps didn't make much sense. She realized, as did Bert, that there wasn't much choice. It was like being choosy at a thirdhand sale.
hat evening, while the lodge owner's wife and baby sat in their truck, Bert, Ellen, and the lodge owner piled into his car and drove 28 miles north along Lake Teslin to the Teslin patrol station, where a Canadian Royal Mounted Policeman helped them draw up a contract. The Laws plunked down $2,000 sight unseen.
"It's a mite rough," the lodge owner warned.
Had the Laws realized that understatements are native to the Yukon, they'd have looked the place over before buying.
Early next morning they stocked groceries and headed up the road. They owned a piece of the Yukon now - for better or for worse. When they arrived at the place - at Milepost 843 - Ellen couldn't stifle a gasp.
"Oh, Bert!" she cried plaintively. "There must be some mistake! Look! It's just a shambles of old log buildings. No roofs. No windows. Nothing!"
Bert just stared and didn't say anything. It didn't take him 15 minutes to inspect the three run-down log buildings. Structurally, they seemed sturdy enough, but the place looked as if it had been hit by a cyclonic Arctic williwaw. Someone had stripped out the plumbing and had made off with every stick of building material that wasn't bolted down. Window frames had been wrenched out. Doors had been lifted from their hinges. Heaps of rubbish, left over from the road-construction days, still lay on the snowy ground. Everywhere was a jungle of junk (later, it required seven truckloads to remove it all). An air of stagnation and ruin hung over the place.
"It'll take a year to put even one building into shape as a lodge," Bert estimated grimly, as he pointed to the largest structure. Then he looked searchingly at Ellen. "Honey, we've got just $1,000 left. What'll we live on in the meantime?"
Ellen didn't answer. She didn't any more know how they'd get along than he did. But the place was theirs.
Bert brightened. "What did the '49ers do, honey?"
"They ate their oxen," Ellen replied, as she glanced at the old truck and its four road-worn tires. "Wonder what stewed inner tube tastes like!" They laughed. Things, somehow, seemed a lot better.
For the first few days the Laws lived in their truck, while Bert fashioned a room in one corner of the most serviceable cabin. He rigged a canvas roof from some old tarps he'd brought along and built a rude stone fireplace out-of-doors. It was spring and turning warm, and the Laws figured they could squeeze by with just the essentials until winter set in.
But what the Laws lacked in hard cash, they substituted for with hard courage. There was the main lodge building, or what would one day be Silver Dollar Lodge. But it had no roof. There was no well and no water on the place. The nearest river was six miles. Every day they drove to the river, scooped up water in dishpans and hauled it home in their truck. Every drop of water had to be boiled before using.
But they did have land, eight wooded acres of it, and the Canadian government only charged a dollar an acre a year rental. After they'd been there three years (if they lasted that long), government surveyors would set the boundaries, appraise it, and eventually hand over the deed, for a modest fee. Their $2,000 had gone for the buildings only.
Bert and Ellen worked like Trojans all through the rest of that spring, through summer and into fall and winter, desperately trying to get the lodge into shape. It was a race against time.
Bert, with what little carpentry know-how he had, built every piece of furniture in the place. Their eight acres were studded with young, straight yellow pine and birch.
"The rustic furniture looks real cozy in here," Bert remarked. "Actually, we preferred maple, but the place was overgrown with native timber, so we used that."
Bert made the couches from pine saplings. He felled the trees, peeled off the bark with a draw knife, cut the wood to proper length; a few nails, a couple of coats of varnish, and their furniture looked store-bought. Ellen upholstered them, with an instruction book in one hand and scissors in the other. Bert swapped a few days' labor at a trading post down the road for the upholstery fabric - brightly colored Indian blankets.
The original buildings, as thrown together by the Army Engineers, were log structures - solid and everlastings despite the twin beatings they'd taken from weather and twi-legged vandals. But, while sturdy enough, they were dismally ugly. Bert discovered that beneath the bark, however, lay clear, clean wood. Peel the bark from the interior walls and they'd have, in effect, a pine-paneled lodge.
Bert and Ellen set to work. Once started with a long-bladed knife,
the bark stripped off easily. They tried calking between the cracks with dry muskeg moss, but the stuff wouldn't stay in. Finally, and old-timer happened past, chuckled when he saw their plight, dipped their dry moss into a bucket of water, and demonstrated that calking had to be applied wet. Finally, they varnished the wood and polished it a gleaming amber.
Bert dug a basement and installed wood-burning Yukon furnaces, which he fashioned from rusted 55-gallon gasoline drums left behind by the construction gangs. A gasoline drum is mounted horizontally on a concrete or rock foundation. A hole is cut topside for a stovepipe, and a hinged, makeshift door is inserted in one end. Stuffed with short logs, the Yukon furnace glows red-hot and radiates heat with such astounding efficiency that it has become a popular heating plant in the Arctic.
As work progressed, Bert found himself with all the Yukon furnaces he needed - but no chimneys. Stovepipe was expensive in the far North so, as usual, Bert improvised. He bought up dozens of empty 5-gallon paint cans and cut and shaped them so they would fit one into the other. Then, inserting a large pipe as a flue, he poured an insulating layer of concrete, which also held the pipe firmly in place. These home-made chimneys still faithfully serve the Silver Dollar Lodge's Yukon furnaces.
Things were a lot different than in Berkeley, where you could run down to the corner hardware store. The nearest store was in Whitehorse, 76 miles up the road, and if Whitehorse didn't have what you needed, then the next closest place was Dawson Creek, 843 miles to the south! Sometimes Bert had to wait while a trucker took a work-weary tool into Dawson Creek for repair, then send it back by the next truck. And when Bert rain to a problem he couldn't tackle alone - like moving heavy timbers - he'd wait until a car or truck came past, flag it down, and ask for help.
One day in autumn, when the Laws' grubstake of $1,000 had dwindled to $200, and the lodge was still a long way from being reconstructed, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector Cronkite - who was Law and Order in the Yukon Territory - stopped by. Bert knew that until the land was his he was supposed to pay 50 cents a cord for the wood he cut. He mentioned this to Inspector Cronkite.
"Now, don't you go worrying about that, Mr. Law," the officer said. "We've been watching you young folks. We think you've got what it takes to make good here. When we think you can afford to pay for the wood you use, we'll start charging you."
"Inspector Cronkite," said Bert, "was our first experience with the power and the justice of the famous Mounties."
But what the inspector didn't know that time he visited them back in autumn, 1948, was that the Laws were in despearte straits. Or, if he sensed it, he didn't embarrass them with questions. Bert and Ellen had already put themselves on strict rationing. Only the children got three square meals a day. Bert and Ellen limited themselves to oatmeal, potatoes, and hotcakes. They still had no lodge, no place for travelers, and no income.
Once, during the winter, luck came their way. A farmer from Dawson Creek dumped a load of potatoes - 1,000 pounds of them - in the Laws' front yard. "I can't make it to Whitehorse without freezing those spuds," he told Bert. "You're going to buy them."
Bert loked him squarely in the eye. "I'd like to, fellow, but right now I can't even afford the burlap sacks."
"Okay, it's a deal," the farmer replied desperately. "You use the potatoes this winter. If you get $30 use out of them, send me the money when you get it."
The following spring, Bert mailed him $30. "If that farmer only knew what those potatoes meant to us!" he exclaimed.
Easily, the Laws' most monumental accomplishment - crowning all their others - was the well which Bert hand-dug during five months of steady, back-breaking labor. He dug it using a rude posthole digger - really two swiveled shovels which operate like jaws and take a bite of dirt each time the tool's handles are opened and closed. Bert hammered the instrument from an old gasoline drum.
For days that became weeks, and for weeks that stretched in months, Bert kept at his well-digging 18 hours a day, and sometime sin temperatures that sunk to 40 below zero. If they didn't find water their homestead wouldn't be worth a plugged nickel. Finally, after a nightmare of work and exasperation, Bert got a 5-inch diameter hole down to 70 feet, pulled up some sand, and squeezed it. When he flung down the sand, his hand was wet. He'd struck water! Weeks of additional labor went into constructing and sinking a homemade wooden well shaft and in rigging the necessary pump, which he bought at a surplus sale.
The lodge was without plumbing and wiring. When Bert got around to installing piping for showers and bathrooms, and electric wiring and fixtures, he bought most of the stuff second- (and even third-) hand in Whitehorse, or bartered with lodge owners miles down the Highway. While spading up what one day would be their little garden, Ellen hit something solid. Investigating, the Laws found that long runs of buried pipe connected their buildings. They stopped only long enough to thank Uncle Sam for so well provisioning his construction camps, then straightaway dug it up. The pipe was just as good as new and went into their plumbing system.
In Whitehorse, too, Bert found a copper coil which had come from an expensive water heater. He toted his prize home, installed it in a Yukon furnace, connected the coil to a 55-gallon drum mounted above the bathroom, just under the rafters. After Bert dug their well, this improvisation gave them a hot water reservoir for cooking and bathing. "We've got plenty of hot water," Ellen conceded, "but sometimes our showers gurgle instead of gushing."
Everything was fine except that they still had no electricity. One morning Bert told Ellen, "Honey, I'm going to take the old truck to Dawson Creek and sell it. We need the money to stock the place and to buy and electric generator."
He drove the entire 843 miles to Dawson Creek in a raging blizzard, and made it in 36 sleepless hours. Bert managed to swap the truck for a second-hand electric light plant, a 2-cylinder, 3,000-watt model. He merged triumphant from the trade with $300 in cash (trucks, even beat-up ones, are prized beasts of burden along the Alaska Highway). With part of this surplis he bought a used electric phonograph - small table model - and some records. Then, with delivery of the light plant promised, Bert hitchhiked back home in 50-below-zero weather.
"When I got home the plant had already arrived," he said. "I hooked it up and we started to play the phonograph. We couldn't soak up enough music from those scratchy old records. Things looked beter and we felt like successful pioneers, not just struggling ones."
Early in January, 1949, they moved into the big log lodge. The family occupied one wing. In the other were 15 rooms, although all weren't completed nor furnished. It was only then that the Laws felt they cold put up a big sign, "Silver Dollar Lodge," and invite in customers. But even though open for business, they were flat broke.
One day a construction foreman stopped by. "Can you folks put up ten of my men for a few months?" he asked. Could they! You bet they could! On the strength of this steady business they latched onto sufficient credit in Whitehorse to stock the lodge. The construction crew stayed on for six months, and by then more and more people stopped at the Silver Dollar, and business prospered.
This is the story of the thrilling personal adventure which Bert and Ellen relived for me as we sat by their fire in the Silver Dollar. Looking around, it was pretty obvious that the Laws were no longer pioneers; they had become, in four short and rough years, solid settlers.
Travelers dropped in continually. There were road-construction crews, truck drivers, and tourists. They came for coffee and steaks and potted veal. And they came to spend the night. The lodge grosses more than $100 a day during the rush-summer season. And with traffic steadily increasing on the Alaska Highway, Bert enthused, "Our profits can't go anywhere but up."
On week ends there's dancing at the Brook's Brook road-maintenance camp 13 miles down the Highway, but Bert and Ellen seldom attend more often than once a month. A half-dozen families live at Brook's Brook, which is one of several dozen road-repair depots established by the Canadian government to maintain its 1,221-mile stretch of the Alaska Highway.
"Mostly," Bert said, "people come to see us. We've got the big lounge floor for dancing, and the latest records." On occasion, "neighbors" have dropped in for a spontaneous ("no invitations or anything") and hilarious Law "Saturday Nighter" from as far away as 300 miles. A few hundred miles is no barrier between friendships when you live along the Alaska Highway.
Ellen proudly led me to a room off the Lodge's big lounge. A shiny new Canadian-built washing machine stood in one corner. The Laws' electric sewing machine was pushed up against the opposite wall and beside it stood a gleaming white home freezer. "This," Elen explained, "is our Yukon store."
On day I caught Frannie leafing through a mail-order catalog. "I'm picking out my Easter clothes," she said shyly. "Mama will help with the ordering." Every stitch of clothing the Laws wear comes via the twice-a-week mail bus from Whitehorse. Ellen hasn't been to town - any town - for over a year.
"I don't miss shopping," Ellen said cheerily. "Anyway, the nearest department store is 1,700 miles south - in Edmonton."
"No, honey," Bert gently corrected, "800 miles north, in Anchorage."
Ellen laughed. "Sometimes I get to thinking that maybe the moon is the closest place, after all."
When it came time for me to take photographs, Ellen apologized for the run in her stocking. "Every pair I've got has runs, and the six pairs I've ordered won't be here until next week."
The Laws haven't seen a movie in over a year - and that was in Whitehorse. "Can't even remember its name," Ellen admitted. What's more, she seemed blissfully happy about it. "Our radio," said Ellen earnestly, "picks up stations all over the world. We get Sacramento almost every night and San Francisco's KGO."
"And once on a while, Radio-Moscow," Bert put in.
Edmonton's French-speaking station beams in best of all, but, unfortunately, Ellen took Spanish instead of French at Berkley High.
The last time Bert was "to town" was six months ago. Georgie suddenly developed a toothache, and when home remedies failed to bring relief Bert bundled him into one of the three vehicles they now own - a combination truck and snowplow, a 1937 convertible, and an old truck - and drove to Whitehorse.
The local civilian dentist wasn't around, so Bert had to persuade a Canadian army doctor that Georgie's tooth was an "emergency." Georgie came away with a toothless, but painless, smile.
"Luckily," explained Ellen, "the children haven't been sick a day. Back home they picked up measles from other kids. Well, there aren't any other children close by - unless some drive through with their parents and stop over here."
I asked Ellen about playmates for the kids. She said, "Our children visit occasionally with the kids down at the Brook's Brook road camp - but not often. Three children, all about the same age as ours, find plenty to do. This is a great place for children. Bert and I sometimes joke that the Yukon's a place for "kids unlimited."
A public health nurse from the Territorial government travels the Highway. Once a year she gives all the children TB x-rays, and if there's an epidemic, she's around pronto to be sure everyone has had diphtheria and typhoid shots. Vaccines, for the most part, are free.
While we talked, tousle-haired Georgie and his older brother Tommy had been assembling strange and fascinating mechanical monsters with their toy construction set. "They've both got a lot of mechanical skill," their father said proudly. "But George is the diplomat of the family. Never commits himself. Just takes the middle ground, smiles, and bows out of a ticklish situation."
"Ask him and see for yourself," Ellen coaxed.
I ambled over to the highly polished yellow-pine table where Georgie was engineering a toy coal shovel. Tommy had his little steam engine geared to a wheel, and it was spinning merrily.
"Does it ever get so cold your mother won't let you boys play outside," I asked Georgie pointedly.
Georgie looked up from his shovel, his big saucer eyes intent. He pondered a moment. "Sometimes," he replied, verbally straddling the fence. Then he grinned diplomatically and turned back to his toy.
Bert chuckled. "We don't allow the kids to play outside if it's colder than 35 below zero."
When Tommy and Frannie finish their morning chores, they get down to their school work. The Law kids (Frannie's in the third grade, Tommy in the first, and Georgie starts next fall) go to "school" in one corner of their own living room, which is set aside for classes. The kids call it "school corner," and it's got everything but a blackboard. There's a 10-volume set of encyclopedias and 10 volume sof the Book of Knowledge. Bert bought both sets, used, in Dawson Creek.
School is by correspondence, with Ellen as resident teacher, principal, and truant officer. Each fall, when school begins, the Province of Alberta's Correspondence School Branch ships through a batch of courses and books. They're the same books used in California schools, incidentally.
There's a uniquely close relationship between Frannie and her correspondence teacher, Margarrt Farnalls, although they've never met. Frannie is an eager beaver about school work and spells out her lessons in big, well-formed strokes. Apparently, Miss Farnalls is highly pleased, for she recently noted at the bottom of one of Frannie's lessons, "This is quite a good lesson, Frances. I hope you will try to make nice light lines for all your letters."
Several of Frannie's papers, graded for 7 subjects, rated 2 A's and 5 B's. Frannie is best in both language and spelling and makes straight A in both.
Tommy's a good student, too, but since he's in a different correspondence grade, his teacher is Marguerite Meiklejohn.
The children's instruction, incidentally, includes impromptu nature study whenever Bert captures a live porcupine or gopher. Then Bert, with an encyclopedia in hand, summons the kids to learn of the Yukon's fauna. Some of the Yukon's less friendly inhabitants - grizzly bears and wolves - haven't yet come within encyclopedia reach - "which," said Bert, "suits me fine. I'd rather have the children growing up slightly unschooled than not growing up at all."
The correspondence branch also sends through library books every month. "I bet Frannie reads more books than most girls her age in the States," Ellen glowed. "For one thing, there's no competition from television."
Even Sunday school is by correspondence. Monthly, an Anglican mission in Whitehorse mails four Sundays of Bible lessons, and in summer the two English women who run the mission travel the Highway. They often stop at the Laws'.
I was still at the Laws' on Thursday when the British Yukon Navigation Co.'s big refrigerated van rolled up to the Lodge and its driver started unloading the $100-$200 worth of groceries and meats which Ellen had ordered the previous week. It's Christmas every Thursday at Milepost 843 when the van arrives. Forgetting parkas or even sweaters, Bert, Ellen, and the children scamper excitedly outside and start hauling in the groceries.
Prices are higher but not unreasonable, considering the transportation costs and the service. Lemons run 66 cents a dozen; oranges 75 cents. Because the van is refrigerated (as protection, oddly enough, against the cold) the Laws have ice cream and meats regularly. A frozen chicken costs 61 cents a pound, delivered.
One day, just before I left the Laws' Silver Dollar Lodge, Bert and Ellen and the three kids bundled me into a parka, and we went out to look at the emergency landing strip across the Highway. "We've got a telephone hooked into the airstrip's circuit, and if we wanted to we could call anywhere in the world," Ellen beamed.
Standing there on the airstrip, we looked back across the frozen Alaska Highway - toward the Laws' "little 8-acre empire."
Bert and Ellen were huddled cose together - big smiles playing over their faces. Bert's big, mittened hand grasped Ellen's. And the kids, healthy and happy, were whooping it up in the snow. "All we need," laughed Ellen gayly, "is a couple more children. That way we could set five desks up in the school corner and have a real rural school"
As I watched the happy, wonderful Laws, I wanted to say something about how they'd debunked those old myths about there being no new frontiers to conquer. But I didn't. After all, the Laws weren't pioneers any more. They were solid citizens of the Yukon Territory.
Jane Gaffin added more information about Bert Law and his family in her illustrated 21-page article, "The Law Family's Grand Adventures" (The Yukoner Magazine #30, 2005), as well as her book Cashing In.
Bert Law was Canadian by birth, born in Hamilton, Ontario, on December 26, 1914. His short stint in the United States Army, though, had gained him American citizenship.
Bert had two sisters and a brother. He was 13 when the family moved to Ingersoll, Ontario, where the factory in which his dad worked had relocated. He stayed until 1934. With no hope for a job in sight, and his friends disappearing into marriages, shacks, jalopies, poverty and children, he hitch-hiked across the line to Detroit, Michigan, where he found a car lot in need of extra drivers to ferry vehicles to California. He was fired for getting lost in a maze of Texas highways.
Bert continued thumbing his way to Los Angeles where he found work in Studebaker's automobile assembly plant. Later, he moved to park-like Berkeley.
During his painting job at the Cutters laboratory, "in his usual state of being overtired, he let a ladder slip out from under him and was knocked unconscious on the cement floor a great distance below." One leg was also badly shattered. "A bone specialist, reserved for the atomic scientists at the nearby University of California, laced Bert's crushed limb in a stainless steel case. The leg was destined to give him endless grief. When he was exhausted, the leg was susceptible to twisting and would collapse him unceremoniously on his backside, usually under a heavy armload of firewood."
Ellen Astad was born in Norway in 1921. When Bert met her, she was working as a telephone operator. When business was slow at Stu's Creamery, Bert and Ellen played blackjack for pennies in a back booth. "She was pretty and won all my money. She liked that. I proposed to her just a few weeks after we’d met." When they went to Reno to get married, they sent a box of chocolates to Ellen's mother. Bert had gas money for his friend's car, with an extra dollar left over for the preacher. Ellen had $30 and a payday approaching.
Poking along in May, 1948, they waited in Calgary for the Alaska Highway's spring mud to harden so the International, 24-passenger panel bus could churn along in bull-dog gear with its tires encased in chains.
They stopped short of an Alaskan destination when they spotted a place in the Yukon that appeared to be of temperate climate. From a big, red-headed chap at Morley River, they purchased a group of broken-down log structures nestled in the picturesque setting 66 miles up the highway.
What the Laws didn't know was that the owner of the abandoned army camp buildings was a shady character, who was not paying for the gasoline he hauled from Edmonton and was re-selling it without paying territorial taxes. He had sold the rough buildings three times to other unsuspecting buyers and repossessed them an equal number of times.
The buyers, always Americans, would invest their complete savings - as did the Laws - then be abandoned to starve or be forced to retreat across the border since Americans could not legally work for wages.
The red head announced he was going to Alaska and would buy lodge and restaurant supplies for Bert who gave him a long list of items, plus $2,000-none of which Bert ever saw again.
"We finally got word that he had crossed the border into the waiting arms of the FBI," Bert said. "He was AWOL from the navy and had disappeared into Canada. I understand that he also was wanted in the States, in a number of places for a number of wrong doings.
"So, that was the end of him. He was the sort of guy who wouldn't do anything honestly if he could do it dishonestly. He had quite a racket. But he didn't realize what a tough guy I was."
When Bert and Ellen finally got the Silver Dollar Lodge opened,
...a Canadian Army lieutenant and a captain stopped in. They learned of the Laws' predicament [being flat broke]. The two fellows drove into Whitehorse and somehow convinced the owner of Tourist Services Supermarket that the Laws were indeed reliable people and a good credit risk, a privilege denied them in the past. The officers returned to the Silver Dollar Lodge with grocery-stuffed cars.
On the strength of this new credit rating, which translated into a steady stream of customers, one day a construction foreman came in to inquire if the Laws could board about 10 men for the season. You bet your last silver dollar they could.
The crews were building the Atlin Road. The Laws fed them practically anything, and as much as, they wanted. The Laws stocked the lodge and tore into the food bank like starving refugees. Bert, whose body was literally falling apart at the seams from too much physical exertion on insufficient calories, said he regained strength in six weeks on his prudent diet of T-bones, ice cream, strawberries and whipped cream three times a day.
In 1952, Bert and Ellen met prospector Al Kulan. They were impressed by him, and asked him to move from Lower Post, BC, to the lodge with his wife, Wynne, and their young son, Barry. Bert and Al developed a plan to prospect in the Ross River area. Bert provided the grubstake - the money for food, shelter, a truck, and airplane charters - and Al provided the prospecting expertise. With Al hiring up to 10 First Nations men from Ross River, Bert's bills rapidly climbed to over $4,000, well beyond what he had planned on.
In July 1953, Al was working on Vangorda Creek, 30 miles downstream from Ross River, on what was supposed to be his last outing before he had to find paying work in town. On July 10, returned to the Silver Dollar Lodge and showed Bert the lead-zinc samples he had gathered. Five days later, the Vangorda property was staked. Bert staked 4 claims that he named the "Elle May," and Al staked 8 claims, named the "Wynne". Several days later, a meeting with Ted Chisholm, exploration geologist for the Toronto-based Prospectors Airways, eventually resulting in a sale for $150,000 cash and a 12% share.
After leasing the Silver Dollar Lodge a few months later, Bert and Ellen moved to Ross River, where they bought the old Taylor & Drury trading post, and operated in for a year. A lot of time and money was spent in legal fights to get the Vangorda Mine operating - Jane Gaffin goes into detail about those in her "Yukoner" article.
In 1955, the Law family moved to Whitehorse. The Silver Dollar Lodge had been all but destroyed by their lessees and vandals, and they sold it to Whitehorse businessman Clyde Wann for a little more than the $900 plus costs owed in taxes.
In Whitehorse, Bert started Yukon Realty, "probably the first real estate office in the territory." In 1959, he went into politics, being elected as alderman for Whitehorse. He ran for and was defeated twice as a mayoralty candidate, but was back on Council from 1980 unti 1988.
"One of Bert's pet projects was to encourage city council to preserve a small, violet-infested island in the Yukon River for its natural beauty." In 1986, Bert Law Park was created.
In 1988, asthma forced Bert to resign from Council, and he and Ellen moved to Vancouver Island. Bert died in Nanaimo on April 21, 1998, at the age of 83. Ellen died on November 25, 2003, in Calgary, Alberta, "where she had moved to be closer to her married daughter, Frances. The Laws' two sons raised their families in Whitehorse."