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Peninsula Reflections

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2007

 

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  Alaska Highway workers were lodged in tents in 1942 near the lodge.

The Gulkana Lodge is shown in this 1942 photo. The "Million Dollor Woodpile" is shown in front of the lodge from wood cut down to clear for the airstrip.

Photos by Richard Jurgensen

I don't know when they began to call Alaska the Last Frontier, but I think that the name lost meaning when the Alaska Highway was built.

Frontier is defined as a "region just beyond a settled area." With no highway, no commercial planes and no one who had even thought of going to Alaska it was a frontier.

In 1942 two Iowa contractors joined and were chosen to supervise road and bridge construction on the Alaska, end of the highway. I was finishing high school and applied for, got a job and was on a train headed for Edmonton in June 1942. The Army was going to fly us to Big Delta and we would live in a camp in Gulkana. That was as close to the highway route as we could get. There was no junction in Delta at the time.

 

Alaska Highway workers were lodged in tents in 1942 near the lodge.

Boarding the C47 was an experience in itself. Few, if any, of our crew had ever flown. They trucked us out to the runway. When we boarded we were shown piles of parachutes and told if there was any problem there would be time for us to adjust and put on parachutes. There were no seats on the plane because it had been stripped down to carry a full load of cargo.

The pilot went through revving up the engines and checking instruments. Something wasn't working right so he took the plane back to the hanger. We spent the night on the floor of the hangar while the mechanics worked on the plane. In the morning I overheard the pilot and mechanic arguing.

"This is the last load, we've got to get them up there so they can get to work."

"We shouldn't fly that plane until we know why those instruments are not working properly!"

With those unreassuring words we re-boarded the plane, put on and adjusted the parachutes and were told that if we had to jump, to grasp the ripcord with both hands and jerk because they were sewed in to avoid accidental release.

We took off a flew north. We winded between mountains because the plane could not fly high enough over them. We flew for hours without seeing a town, farm or road. I still wonder what chance we would have had to survive if we had parachuted and reached the ground safely.

Alaska was a frontier. Truck drivers would stop to visit when we met another truck (I don't remember seeing cars.) The side road to the Chitina mine had grass growing down the middle of the road and the Big Delta ferry was powered by the river's current. We simply adjusted the lines to the cable to change the angle of the ferry so that the current would push it across the river. Even the Richardson Highway was closed during the winter.

When the highway was closed for 1942, a man (I believe a sourdough) was critically ill and a driver and I volunteered to attempt to take some medicine from the Dry Creek airbase to him. He didn't live.

Returning after delivering the medicine, the trucks fuel line was freezing up in the 45 degree below zero weather. With the road officially closed, we considered stopping when the road was near a trapper's cabin at Poplar Grove. In those days every empty cabin was left with kindling in the stove for emergency use.

Thirty-eight of the 1,200 workers in 1942 stayed for the winter and in 1943 the trail was opened. With the highway and commercial flights, Alaska will never be the same.

I loved frontier Alaska and still feel a bit guilty that I helped end its frontier stage.

This first person account was written by Richard Jurgensen for the Kenai Historical Society.



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