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Fort Nelson and the Alaska Highway, 1951



    The lengthy story that follows was written by Mrs. S. E. Warren of Vauxhall, Alberta. It appeared as a series of three articles in The Lethbridge Herald of Thursday, December 06; Friday, December 07; and Monday, December 10, 1951.

    In it, she tells of her bus trip from Edmonton to Fort Nelson, her life in Fort Nelson as the wife of a serviceman, and her flight back to Edmonton with Canadian Pacific Airlines.



Part 1

Thursday, December 06, 1951

    It was October 6th, 1951, the night was still and warm as we sped along the highway - north and west from Edmonton to Dawson Creek. Skirting around the southern shore of Lesser Slave Lake, the gleam of its waters by the light of a half-grown moon showed now and then through the heavy growth of trees. The Northern Lights dropped low - so low that they seemed to be waving like a large white blanket in the wind: a blanket almost near enough to touch. Along the quiet roadside, faded, frost-curled leaves on low bushes and branches gleamed white in our headlights, looking for all the world like heavy white lilies drooping on their stems.

    When we left Edmonton at dusk the bus had been crowded with home-goers for the Thanksgiving holiday. All the canvas chairs had been set up in the aisles, and were occupied. We were so late getting into Edmonton from the south, that we could find no vacant seats. Before long a well-dressed young woman travelling alone offered me her seat, while she took a turn standing against the large hood that enclosed the motor. As we passed through the outskirts and the little towns of St. Albert, Morinville, and others on the highway, more and more passengers crowded on. Near Westlock I was able to pass on the favor when several young women and girls, looking like store clerks at the end of a busy days, got on, to find only standing room. I spoke to the one standing nearest, while I motioned to the arm of my seat, "Sit down here if you like and lean over my way. I am not very big. She sat down quickly, saying "You'll never know what it means to me to be able to sit down! I was supposed to be off work at 5, but it's after 9 now."

    Then the brightly-lit towns became fewer and farther apart. Passengers were getting off now and the crowd was thinning out. All were able to gets seats, relax, and be comfortable. Now the roads were getting rougher and more rutted. We were meeting fewer cars. We seemed in be travelling through lonely wooded country. Once the bright eye of a motorcycle flashed towards us. The motor patrol hailed our bus driver and they talked briefly. When we stopped for a few minutes at Smith most of the passengers got off. Only a small number got on again to continue their night journey.

    About this time the passengers aboard began to take stock of vacant seats, and scattered themselves in well-spaced order that they might as comfortably as possible spend the night hours in resting or sleeping.

    I was glad I had been wide awake when we crossed the Athabasca River with its fine, new bridge. I had never realized what a mighty rolling current it was, although I had heard plenty tales of the huge cargoes ferried across it, in pre-Alaska Highway days. The lights of the bus and the light of the half-moon above outlined the river and its banks perfectly, and its surging waters looked ever so dark and deep. It was indeed a sight to remember!

    Kinuso was a busy town, and here the passengers that got off, and the ones that got on, were so noisy that everyone must have waked up. I was more than half-asleep when we reached High Prairie, and all I can remember of it was that we seemed to have changed bus drivers. The countryside around now showed faintly in the early-morning light.

    We were on the slopes of the Smoky River when I first became fully awake. My first thought as we came on the bridge was "How well that ame fits!" For a grey-purple mist or haze, exactly the color of wood-smoke, lay on the surface of the water in scattered scarf-like clouds. It was a long stiff climb up the hill on the far side of the river, but soon we were beginning to enjoy the sight of miles of beautiful farm-land in its park-like setting. Acres upon acres, field after field, thick with stooks of standing sheaves. It seemed a very short time until we got off at Grande Prairie.

    A fine, clean-looking town, Grande Prairie stood out in the morning sunlight. Here we changed bus, and as soon as we could pry our 3-year-old, (who always made friends with the bus drivers, and was now busy helping (?) them put the suitcases from the hold of one bus to the other), away from his bus-driver friends, we walked over town for a block or two and found a restaurant when we got a good breakfast.

    Once again we watched the farming country as we passed through Wembley, Beaver Lodge, and Hythe. Such crops as we saw through that district! No wonder it is famous.

    A car was waiting for us when we pulled into the bus station at Dawson Creek. Here we set our watches back one hour for B.C. time. We were glad of the extra time in which to complete the remaining 300 miles of our journey.

    Dawson Creek is a pleasant-looking little town, laid out before the eye on a gently-sloping background of diversified country. At a large, airy, and clean-looking eating-place we had a satisfying, well-served dinner, reasonably priced, before setting out on the Alaska Highway.

    In the heart of this little town of about 3,500 people is something unique - Milepost Zero, which marks the beginning of the Alaska Highway. This is a graceful pillar or column standing firmly on a heavy concrete foundation - the letters "ALASKA HIGHWAY" written in vertical fashion down each side of the column. At the top is a large sign-plate giving distances to Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Whitehorse, and Fairbanks.

    The Alaska Highway is now a very good road, wide and well maintained. When it was first opened many prairie people said "Won't that be a nice vacation trip to make say, in five years, when the road will be really good."

    Well, considerably more than five years' time has passed, and the highway is all that can be desired. Nevertheless I was glad we had a driver who had been over the road before, for its winding and sharp curves, its hills and sudden dips, would otherwise have left me breathless.

    The afternoon of Oct. 7 was very sunny and warm, with the mercury almost up to 80 degrees. There was only a very light wind, but with the car windows partly open it was still uncomfortably warm in the car. My fur coat was folded on one end of the back seat: a few days before I had been thinking glad I would be to be wearing it once we started travelling north on the Highway.

    We had seen with some surprise several grain elevators at Dawson Creek, and as we left it behind we noticed some fine farm lands scattered here and there. We by-passed Fort St. John and came down to the Kiskatinau River bridge. Although the waters of the river had gone down till it was but a narrow stream in its wide river-bed, we could not help comparing its steep cut-banks with those of our southern rivers. In fact we were told that the name Kiskatinau is the Beaver Indian word for cutbanks. At any rate the scenery at the bridge was wonderful, and well worthy of a camera.

    After having read and heard so much of the Peace and its mighty waters I was somewhat disappointed to see the river so low. But probably that would be one result of the very dry B.C. summer. At any rate the new long 2130-ft. bridge of steel is very notable, and said to be the longest bridge on the whole length of the Highway. It is a suspension bridge. Our milepost guide tells us that the name Peace was given to the river because it was once a truce boundary between warring Crees and Beaver tribes.

    After we by-passed Fort St. John, some distance off the road to the right, we travelled close to the shores of Charlie Lake, getting glimpses of its beauty through the tree-lined shores as we passed. More and more the highway became hemmed in by bushland. It was not the size and height of the trees that impressed you, rather their straightness and denseness. Clumps of white birch, here, there, and all over the landscape, were wonderfully beautiful.

    At Blueberry, Milepost 101, we seemed to be entering the true wilderness, lonely and immense. Signs of the great fire that swept that region in 1948 were still visible, but many of the buildings there have been rebuilt, they say.

    After a while we came to "Suicide Hill." I can't say I liked the sound or the implication of that name. The highway at that point still abounds with awesome curves and turns, but is nothing like the original road which was said to have been the graveyard of many loaded trucks. Its seems the ground beneath had a habit of slipping down the slope, leaving a dangerous overhang on which traffic travelled above. Experienced truckers on the highway say that the number of vehicles that disappeared in those slides wlll never be known, as most were never recovered.

    A breather after Suicide Hill and you find yourself once more going down, down in sharp winding curves that after a sudden turn takes you out on the Sikanni River Bridge. Sikanni is pronounced with the accent on the first 3-word syllable. (I was promptly corrected when I put the accent on the second syllable.) The Sikanni Chief River when in flood must be an awesome sight, but in this fall of 1951 it is a small stream in the middle of a wide river-bed.

    Ahead of us lay a steady climb of 11 miles up the winding slopes of Trutch Mountain. While, in the distant west, we were in sight of many snow-clad ridges, Trutch is in contrast a forested mountain, very beautiful in all its green and autumn colors. The summit is 4,111 feet above sea-level, second highest point on the Highway. It is also called Milepost 181. At Milepost 222, cut out of the wilderness, is No. 3 emergency flight strip. All along the highway one sees these emergency flight strips - clearings in the dense bush for emergency landings. They are well-marked as to boundary, and at night well-lit for planes going through.

    All along the highway here and there are lodges, restaurants, garages. etc., but we stopped only once, to get a supply of gas, some drinking water and pop.

    As we travelled along Prophet River near Milepost 245 the evening shadows were beginning lo lengthen, and our small three-year-old was beginning to get tired. We tried to beguile him by telling him to watch out for bears along our road. But none appeared. Only a couple of grouse and the glowing eyes of a kit-fox rewarded our searching eyes.

    All this time we had been making innumerable short quick turns in the road, and the straight-away of the Muskwa River Bridge was a relief from the dizzying round. Muskwa is an Indian name meaning "Bear" - although we hadn't seen any. The Muskwa is a fine large river, and has a modern steel bridge 970 feet long. The elevation here is 1,000 feet (a drop of over 3000 feet in the last 100 miles), and is the lowest point on the Alaska Highway.

    Milepost 300 of the Fort Nelson settlement is called Zero by its inhabitants. It is a Hudson's Bay post. It is headquarters for Mackenzie River navigation. Also outfits trappers for a vast region which includes explorers of the Nahanni River country. This Nahanni region is famed as the location of "Headless Valley," and the "Land of Vanishing Men."

    Here we were almost at the end of ou journey and we turned away sharply to the right, while the Highway wound westward toward the wild and rugged Rockies.



Part 2

Friday, December 07, 1951

    We got home about 7 p.m., and naturally the first thing after supper was to make the acquaintance of the newest member of the family, not yet quite two weeks old. And of course I agreed with the jolly young doctor who happened to call in, that he was "a very remarkable baby - a most amazing child!" (to use a stock phrase of the doctor's). Soon we were all in the habit of repeating the doctor's words with much enjoyment, when a suitable occasion arose.

    Something else I found truly "amazing" were the conveniences and even luxuries of the suites and houses that have been put up for the use of air force and army personnel. Electrical power end equipment, oil ranges and furnaces with fuel tanks and supply, complete water and sewerage systems, were only some or the major advantages of these houses and suites. Right here, I hasten to say, application to rent one of these suites or houses may be made by members of the forces a considerable time before a suite or house is available. These new houses, "married quarters", are allotted to families with two or more children. For those too far down on the list (that is, but lately arrived), there are more modest and primitive houses available at Zero and along the highway leading to the hangar and airfield. These small houses have mostly been built privately for the owner's use, and although electricity is available, the man of the house cuts and piles his own firewood and the housewife melts tubs and pails of snow for household use.

    I heard a touching story regarding an old man who lived in one of these little houses in Zero. He was a retired trapper and store-keeper who had lived in the wilds for 50 or 60 years. He had supplied provisions and food to the Indian population until he became so old and decrepit that he had to sell his little store. When the welfare authorities heard that he was living alone in a tiny shack in Zero, they did their best to persuade him to go to a home for the aged in the city. But no amount of argument moved him. "This is my home," he said. "I'm going to stay here, and my Indian friends will take me of me." His has proved to be well-placed, for the Indians had found him friendly and fair to deal with always.

    A well-maintained all-weather gravel road runs from Zero to the hangar, airstrip, various shops, residences and other buildings which are situated in this clearing in the wilderness. The clearing is a pleasant, fairly level plateau, surrounded by dense bushlands on every side. A deep wooded ravine skirts one side of the settlement, across which a pleasing skyline of low wooded hills can be seen in the distance.

    Some few days that followed Thanksgiving were as fine and warm as any that are enjoyed in Southern Alberta. The autumn leaves were past their peak of color. Yet, subdued as it was, the whole bushland around was very colorful and beautiful. Try as I would, I found it hard to realize I was in the "deep north". Rather it seemed that I was just at the entrance of the north country, the knowledge that there was still over 1,200 miles of Alaska Highway between us and Fairbanks made the thought more real. There was little wind, and when snow began to fall, it came gently to a depth or one or two inches. The low arc the sun made through the southern sky, rising late and setting early, was the strongest reminder of our northern latitude.

    This settlement in the clearing is so new that there are neither grounds nor gardens around the houses, although the site has been landscaped for cross-streets and crescents in the residential section. With no fence along the edge of the bushland, it seems to come right up to the doors of the newer houses. Possibly the street and yard lights, left on all night, discourage bears from coming out of the bush to prowl. Those who want to grow gardens can get a plot down by the river some distance from their houses. Fine vegetables are grown in those garden plots, even tomatoes ripen there. The first frost that touched them came on Sept. 16. Some grand potatoes are grown there too, and just like it was here, some gardeners lost their potato crops because it was left in the ground too long.

    To go back to the new houses "married quarters" - they are modern in design and finished within and without with full-sized basements, well-insulated against cold, and exceedingly well-furnished down to the last detail for modern housekeeping. Of course the rental rate is high, but not comparable to what civilians would pay in any Canadian city for the same accommodation.

    Compared to the prairies generally, this northern region enjoyed really fine and pleasant weather through October and up to Nov. 8 (when I left). We had a couple of short cold snaps, but the thermometer did not go down as far as it did in Alberta. The most snow we had was about six inches on the level, and a snowplow goes through the streets after a bit of snow has fallen. When it began to thaw again the maintenance crew spread cinders along the main streets. We felt that we were still a long way from Snag! However when snow does come, everyone really dresses for cold weather. The women wear parka jackets, heavy slacks, flight boots, warm scarves, etc. The children without exception wear snowsuits. But no one stays in the house. Of course most all the people are young - very few older men or women. Strange to say I did not meet anyone who complained of having a cold or showed signs of one while I was there. The altitude is low; somewhere from 1250 to 1400, I believe, and I was wondering if that had anything to do with this freedom from colds. However, I never had a chance to find out. Just before I left, an officer who had live din Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and all over told me his family never had colds since they had come there. I would have liked to ask the doctor or nursing sister about it, but did not see them again. So I had no chance to ask their opinion on the subject. The water supply on the other hand is reported to have a high percentage of iron cotent and is anything but kindly to the teeth.

    The hospital at the post was conveniently situated in the heart of the town, long and low as all military post hospitals are. There was a doctor and two nursing sisters. The doctor's car was an ambulance marked with a Red Cross. Its comings and goings always created a lot of interest. The nursing sisters going out on a call wore a wide white veil-like cap which could be distinguished a block away. One of the sisters had come from a small town near Lethbridge, and when she had supper with us one evening I discovered we had many, many friends and acquaintances in common.

    This hospital, but lightly staffed, is meant more for accidents and emergencies. Prospective mothers among the wives of the servicemen are sent by plane to the maternity ward of the Whitehorse hospital, while civilians are sent to the hospital at Fort St. John as a rule.

    Early one morning the doctor and nurse got into the ambulance, and sped to the lonely little home of a government employee a considerable distance up the Alaska Highway. They had learned that the man's wife had given birth to a baby, her second child, the night before, with no one at hand to deliver the baby except her husband. The woman had called at the hospital for medical attention the day before, and told the doctor she would be going to the Fort St. John Hospital in two weeks' time. In spite of their alarm when they first heard of the unexpected birth, they found everything under control, and mother and child doing real well right at home.

    You may wonder how the women spend their time in this isolated town. Well, the babies and small children take up a lot of the time, for this is first and foremost a town where having babies is most fashionable. (As a result, baby-sitters are much in demand, and that at high prices). And the talk wherever the young mothers meet (at the store, the snack bar, or the homes) centres around "who was going to Whitehorse and just when", "who was being posted out"; "who was getting a new house or suite"; "how the house or suite was furnished", and so on. Even the small children are immensely "house-conscious" and "baby-conscious". As you, a perfect stranger, pass a house where a small child is playing outside, the childish treble pipes up, "what house do you live in?" And not long ago a group of tots were playing together in kindergarten. One said, "my mamma's away in Whitehorse getting a baby", another adds "my mamma's going next month", a third said "my mother is making little socks and sweaters, so I know we're going to get one, too." Then the last of the group, not to be outdone, said "well, we're goin' to get a baby too!" This lad was too young to know that if he should get a brother or sister it would have to be an adopted one.

    Social events are much the same as in any part of Canada: a movie house shows pictures four times a week. There are bingo parties and dancing in the various lounges once a week each. The women serve afternoon tea, have shower parties (for babies), and small house parties in their homes. There is an ice-rink for skating.

    On Sunday both Protestants and Catholics hold church services, though somewhat irregularly as the necessary padre ls not always available. An active choral society usually emerges around Christmas time, handling such classical music as the Elijah.

    For children of school age there is a two-room school with a capable and much-travelled principal in charge. With a camera and movie projector of her own she often shows pictures of her travels, as well as local scenes and events about the town taken from time to time.

    One Sunday morning I watched a sigh that for all the world looked like a scene from the "Pied Piper of Hamelin." It was time for Sunday school which meets in the school house at 11 a.m. The superintendent and leader is an enthusiastic young man belonging to the Salvation Army. As he left his home that morning and strode down the snowy street, boys and girls and mere babies, all bundled up in warm clothes, stepped out of their doorways to join hime as he passed. For each one he had a smile and a greeting, and tried to take the smallest ones by the hand or under his wing, while the bigger ones followed in a long procession behind. I was told that this is the ordinary procedure every Sunday morn.



Part 3

Monday, December 10, 1951

    Night comes early in October, and with dusk, lights flash on all over the post - up and down Ft. St. John's streets , on front porches and in yards, in houses, suites, and basements. Several power plants are kept going to supply the electric power that lights up the whole scene so brilliantly. Around the hangar the floodlights are on for planes coming or going. The length of the runway is a ribbon of light. High up the warning beacon lights of red cast a sort of Christmas glow over the town. Now and then, with the throb of an air-borne motor, you look out to see the flashing red and green of the landing lights, ever nearing. Then as you watch the planes come and go during the night hours, you can look with wonder and pleasure on Nature's own night lights. These are the Northern Lights, flashing and shooting through the northern sky with changing colors of white, rose and violet at times almost touching the earth.

    Among the planes I had a chance to see close at hand two large type I had never seen before. One was a Jet, F-86, the other was a C-54. The Jet had come from Great Falls and was on its way to Fairbanks. The pilot was a veteran of the Korean war who had shot down two Migs. He had made Edmonton from Great Falls in less than an hour, and then found himself with such a heavy load of gas left over that he had to circle that city for 10 minutes before he dared to come down. On leaving he swept a couple of times over the post, the peculiar air-whine carried to your ears from one point of the compass, while your eys distinguished the plane miles away in another quarter altogether.

    On the runway beside the hangar I watched a crew of four men load 1100 gallons of gas on a C-54 one snowy afternoon. It took quite a long time to fill the eight tanks in its immense wings. Then at the signal of the commanding officer in charge the big engines roared to life, one after the other, while a servicemen stood close by with a fire extinguisher ready for immediate use. The noise was deafening, and indicated such a power that one could hardly realize such a monster could suffer destruction unless it ran into a mountain. At last it moved slowly and smoothly down the runway.

    While it was being filled, I got into conversation with a young officer who was travelling on the C-54 as a passenger. He was soft-spoken, a native of Virginia, but had spent two years in North Africa. He had just come back, and complained of the cold, which he said was just as bad at Great Falls as it was here.

    Nothing that happened at the post while I was there stirred so much general feeling as the loss of a 5-year-old boy in the bushland at dusk. He was too young to attend school, but had, I think, been attending a kindergarten taught by a neighbour, one of the officers wives. On Saturday afternoon he had been playing with several older boys on the edge of the bushland close to their homes, at a point where a break in the vegetation made a nice spot for children to play. He told his mother, who was in poor health, that he would be home befor dark (he was afraid of bears), and she did not worry or look for him until it was dusk. Then she went out and found neither her son nor any other children.

    She gave the alarm quickly to her neighbours. Women, girls, men off duty, everyone able, started out to comb the town, especially open basements, under verandahs, and other holes in the ground where he might fall.

    No trace of him had been found by 6:30. By this time it was really dark, and the local radio station put out a call for all R.C.A.F. personnel to join in the search. The town and surrounding bushland was divided into several areas of search. One of the men assigned to the playground spot in the bush notice some tracks in the snow that seemed to be leading away into the bush. He followed but could not tell if it was man, child, or animal. Only one thing was sure, the scuffed tracks were definitely leading away from the playground into the wild bushland. The tracks circled, dragged around and under the brush, and the man, now alone, realized nothing but his flashligt prevented him from being lost, too. But he kept on when he saw the mark of where a child had fallen down in his weariness, then picked himself up to stumble along still farther. After going about a mile and a half he suddenly saw the child lying on the slope of a small knoll. His eyes were closed, his hands bare and blue with cold, and his snowsuit and sweater unbuttoned.

    "I was almost afraid to touch him," he said afterwards. "I thought he might be dead." But the boy was only asleep and woke at his touch. "Why didn't my father come for me?" he said. "I was hoping he'd come before the bears got me."

    The child was too cold and stiff to walk, so the man had to carry him until they met some other searchers. As they went along he told of how he and two bigger boys started out to play "trapline"; how the boys had told him to follow the trapline till he met his father, then had run away and left him. He was rightened then, but couldn't catch up to them and didn't know which way to go.

    In the meantime, the other children who had played with him were questioned, but none of them knew anything. However, when an announcement came over the radio shortly after 8 o'clock saying the boy had been found, the two boys confessed what they had done. Everybody at the post had the same idea of what was coming to the two elder boys! It had been a narrow escape for the lost child. Time had been rapidly running out, but as it was he recovered without any ill effects.

    Perhaps as a result of the general scare on this occasion and in thankfulness for the success of the search, prayers in the Sunday School next day were longer and fervent. At any rate a wise little 3-year-old miss who attended, came home and said with a sigh, "So many blessings! - and so-o long!"

    The youngsters here find Hallowe'en just as much fun as as they do in the south. The tiny tots in their make-up and masks (put on by their mothers), went out at dusk, and their mothers went with them, but well in the background when it was time to ring the door-bell for apples. Each tot carried a shopping bag or air-force pillowcase to gather their loot of apples, nuts, pennies, popcorn balls, suckers, home-made candies, etc. I really believe nearly all the air-force pillow cases would be on the clothesline next wash day.

    Later in the evening school and high school children were out in force, with an extra contingent coming in from Zero. But one little lad, just five weeks old, spent an unhappy evening with the constant ringing of a harsh door-bell, against which a "Don't ring the bell" sign acros the front door afforded no protection.

    November came in mild, with snow still lightly spread on the ground. and cars in unheated garages still starting without too much difficulty. Christmas toys were soon on display to parents in one of the lounges, and at prices that were lower than in many retail stores. A seconds showing would be given later in the month,

    There are sights and incidents that do not lose their human appeal because they happen again and again. Such is the case in this wilderness settlement. The plane comes in from Whitehorse, 600 miles away, and when the passengers have disembarked a stewardess steps carefully down with a swaddled infant in her arms. Behind her closely follows the new mother, half smiles, half tears, as she greets and embraces the little group that walk out to meet her: her husband and the little ones she has not seen for a month or more. The stewardess passes the child into the arms of the parents, and the happy group depart for home. The family car or a neighbour's car may be there to take them home. If not, the station ambulance will be waiting for the mother and child.

    Travelling CPA by night you cannot expect to see much of the landscape. But you can always count on the unfailing courtesy, thoughtfulness, and charm of your stewardess. You can touch the far spots of North America as you exchange civilities with your seat-mate, perhaps from Vancouver, or Prince Rupert, or Dawson City, or Watson Lake. Lake me you might have as seat-mate a veteran homesteader of the north who was truck-driver on the trail now known as the Alaska Highway as far back as 1929; or the wife of a cat-driver from Burns Lake, with a Japanese business man from Dawson City sitting behind you, and a keeper of the caribou herds in the seat across the aisle.

    Fort St. John may truly be called the cross-road of the northern airways on this continent. The waiting-rooms and lunch counters ar crowded with people of every race and tongue (service-men of all three branches predominating), during the plane stopovers. Men are very much in the majority. One girl who had worked some years in Frache's Flower Shop, Lethbridge, was on her way north to take up residence in Whitehorse.

    At Fort St. John the runway was icy from an early November thaw, but the night air was mild. Leaving there we flew low enough to see the contours of lakes and rivers as far as Grande Prairie, a sight worth watching in the bright moonlight. It was thawing at Grande Prairie, and a strong wind blowing. From there on we flew too high to distinguish the ground below until we came in sight of the wide-flung fairyland of lights that is Edmonton from the air at night.