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Challenging the Atlin Road in a blizzard, 1952

The Atlin Road

Arctic & Northern Biographies

The Whitehorse Star - Friday, January 25, 1952

News & Notes From Atlin

    ATLIN, B.C. Jan. 15 - A real life drama that reads like a story plot and nearly ended in tragedy was lived on the Atlin Highway last weekend. It had all the pathos and grim thrills of the frigid North about which authors have been writing for years. Relentless cold and swirling, blinding snow, packed into waist-high drifts by a high North wind, could have claimed the lives of several people. Two Whitehorse men were possibly within half hour of freezing when they were found.

    It was the upshot of one of the worst blizzards in years in this part of the North. The Yukon section of the 61-mile Atlin highway was where the cars bogged down and men nearly froze. Drivers blamed insufficient plowing of previous snows for the trouble they had. They said snow was not pushed far enough back fromthe edge to allow drifting snow to sweep clear. Failure to plow nearly a foot of snow which had been there for several days before the wind got at it did not help. The B.C. side, which had been kept plowed before Saturday's blizzard struck, was comparatively smooth sailing. It is 33 miles from Atlin to the Yukon border, 28 miles more to the Alaska Highway, and 53 miles into Whitehorse, for a total of 117 miles. Atlin residents who were literally isolated were incensed by road conditions and telegrams of protest have been sent to Yukon officials.

    The grim story unfolds like this:

    Sunday morning the stork approached the home of Mr. and Mrs. Nick Hrabachuk's home on Spruce Creek near Atlin. Because of complications, Mrs. Jessie James, Atlin's Acting Public Health Nurse, sent a rush telegram to Dr. Murray G. Williams in Whitehorse, only to find the line broken. But it was alright as far as Marsh Lake Dam on the Alaska Highway, and the message was phoned to Mrs. Taylor at that point. Mrs. Taylor gave the message to a passing motorist who delivered it to Dr. Williams about 2:30. The doctor ordered a taxi, blood plasma and other medical supplies and left by 3:00 p.m. with his friend Sam Warren, and "Red" O'Brien driving the taxi. After six hours of driving, pushing and shovelling through drifted snow, with nothing to eat but a few chocolate bars, they reached Atlin about 9:00 o'clock. The stork had won the race, however, and mother and baby were fine. With only one phone connected between Atlin and Whitehorse there had been noway to stop the doctor after the baby’s safe arrival. But just to make sure, Dr. Williams climbed into a four-wheel-drive power wagon handled by John D. McNeil, Manager of Noland Mines Ltd., and. they bucked their way through snow to the Hrabachuk home.

    At 1:15 Monday morning they returned to Atlin where Mr. Warren and the taxi waited. Friends offered them something to eat and urged them not to try the return trip. But Dr. Williams said he must return to some urgent cases in Whitehorse so away they went, carrying only a few apples to eat. Pete Sarasoloa, Noland Mines employee, who required hospital treatment, accompanied them.

    About five miles inside the Yukon, they struck a heayy drift. The tire chains were badly damaged, and there they sat at 3:00 a.m. They kept the motor running to keep warm in the 40-below temperature, and waited for someone to come along. When no one came, Mr, O'Brien put the most damaged chain over his shoulder & started to hike to the cabin of "Whitey", a wood cutter, about 15 miles away, at 10:00 a.m.

    Shortly after, with the gas gauge going lower, and being afraid Mr. O'Brien might not reach the cabin, Dr. Williams and Mr. Warren started to walk. They were not clad for such wind and temperature so they sought shelter in a wood cutter's tent. With only two matches remaining between them, they lit a small fire but by this time they were so cold they decided to keep walking.

    Meanwhile, Robert A. Roxborough, pioneer Atlin freighter and taxi driver. had left Atlin with a passenger, H. T. Steers. They came upon the stalled taxi with the motor still running and Mr. Sarasola still in the car. They shovelled their way by, took Mr. Sarasola, and about 5 miles up the road reached Dr. Williams and Mr. Warren, near 4:30 p.m. The latter told Mr. Roxborough the doctor was about at that fatal drowsy stage of exhaustion and cold where he wanted to sit and rest. It was doubtful if he could have hiked through the deep snow for more than another half hour. Except for chocolate bars and apples, they had not eaten since the previous morning. At "Whitey's" cabin they picked up Mr. O'Brien who had reached it after hiking for five hours. He too, was nearly exhausted although more warmly clad.

    When the taxi had not returned to Whitehorse by Monday noon officials there became alarmed and dispatched a plane to search the road. The pilot saw the stalled car and the two hikers, so he returned to Whitehorse and a party of Royal Canadian Mounted Police set out, in an Army vehicle. By the time they arrived at The Pines", operated by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Ackles eight miles from the Atlin Highway, Mr. Roxborough was there with Mr. Steers and their "rescued" passengers. It was over 16 hours after they left Atlin.

    Word reached Atlin by phone from Marsh Lake Dam about 3:30 p.m. that Mr. O'Brien's taxi had not returned to Whitehorse. Jack Ward and Constable R. J. Mercer, RCMP, set out in a new four-wheel drive vehicle. They took a barrel of gas, coffee, sandwiches, extra clothing and a stretcher and blankets - just in case the taxi was found over the bank. With all four wheels engaged and the truck in lowest gear in spots, it churned it's way through. They passed Mr. O'Brien's taxi and got to "Whitey" cabin where it was learned the lost men had been found. They continued to the "The Pines" to see if they could phone Marsh Lake Dam from where a message could be relayed back to Atlin. They finally returned back to Atlin about 2:30 a.m. with 40 galons of gas used up.


    An ordeal nearly as bad as that of Dr. Williams, was suffered by the driver of a gasoline tanker who left Atlin at 10:00 o'clock Saturday night after delivering his load, and arrived at "The Pines" at 8:00 o'clock Sunday night. He had bucked his way through snow all night and part of the next day, shovelling literally tons of the white stuff to allow his wide vehicle to go through. Later drivers said sides of drifts were cleft as neatly as though by a knife, where the tanker's deck had cut them.

    Another Atlin taxi driver, Cyril James, spent Saturday with "Whitey" when his car stalled near the cabin, and refused to start.

    Other Atlinites who spent seven hours driving, pushing and shovelling Saturday night were Mr. and Mrs. James Ryley. They were returning from Whitehorse with newly married Anglican rector, Stanley B. Hills, and his bride. Mr. Roxborough was right behind them and once pulled the Ryley car out of the ditch where it was thrown by a drift.

    Sunday John Melnyk of Noland Mines Ltd., left Whitehorse and arrived home nine hours later. He had picked up Cyril James at "Whitey's" cabin, and Mr. James drove the Melnyk car.

    On Monday, when the wind and temperature both dropped, Public Works Foreman T. G. Coleman left Atlin at 8:30 a.m. with a power grader to plow the B.C. road section. He returned 14 hours later, having spent two hours in the ditch when a heavy drift threw the front end of the grader off the road - but he plowed his road.

    Drifts on the Spruce Creek road near Atlin caused a skid which could have proved fatal. John McNeil was returning to Atlin from the Hrabachuk home at Spruce Creek for medical suplies with Mrs. Alice Mattson, RN, who was assisting Mrs. James in delivering the baby, At a 'hair pin' bend on what is known as the 'big hill', the power wagon struck a drift which threw the two outside wheels off the road. Mr. McNeil hitched the front end winch cable to a spruce tree across the road and turned on the motor. The more the cable tightened, the lower the spruce bent and the more the truck slid sideways over the bank. Finally it was headed, tail first, down the bank with only the cable holding it - and the occupants inside holding their breath. By the time the winch had pulled it to the road, the spruce was bent almost flat. Fortunately it became lodged in an alder and the strength of the two trees was sufficient to hold.

    ATLIN, B.C. - Jan. 21 - It is nine days today since the main part of last weekend's blizzard struck, and it is still blowing intermittently at this writing. The night of January 5th, the first wind started to swirl snow around and there have been 15 days and nights of almost steady wind. Old timers say they cannot remember such a steady dose of blowing. It has let up for part of a day but started again by night.

    Drivers arriving in town reported that a grader plowed out the Yukon section of the highway last Tuesday night and that the job was tackled again Friday by a bulldozer.

    Various residents expressed the hope that the road would be kept in good repair and plowed when necessary.