End of the Alcan: Our Journey to Alaska

Don Griffith, 1940′s.
Don Griffith, 1940′s.

“I packed one suit, two shirts and two ties,” Dad said to Mom the night before he left Portland. He had accepted a job with the Bureau of Land Management in Anchorage and needed to be presentable for work, but had little room in the old Plymouth for much of anything in addition to camping equipment, food, fishing gear and his beloved guns. He stood looking down at the items he’d placed in the car trunk, thinking he might need to rearrange it just one more time. The tent and sleeping bag were easily accessible, as were the somewhat scruffy pots and pans that went along with his camp stove. Nonessential items were relegated to stacks of boxes on the back seat and floor of the car, including the small suitcase that held his suit and shirts, extra underwear, and winter sweaters. An additional pair of shoes and several boots were stuffed underneath the front seats where he hoped they’d be out of the way.

“I’ll ship up more clothing when you let me know what you need,” Mom offered. In an attempt to hide her acute anxiety over the long trip ahead of him, she tried to stay busy helping him organize the car.

“Did you pack your extra insulin and test strips?”

“Of course!” Dad said crossly. She’d already asked him this about fifty times. Then, realizing he was being snippy, he put his arms around her and laid his head gently on top of hers. Dad was average height, but still towered over her tiny frame by a good ten or eleven inches.

“Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be fine.”

“It’s just so far away and I will worry about you.”

“I know,” he said, giving her another squeeze before letting her go.

Frowning, he realized he’d left the emergency gas cans on the side of the driveway, and moved his tent and sleeping bag to the back seat, next to his rifle and shotgun. The pistol was hidden under the driver’s seat, next to his extra pair of shoes, but he could reach it quickly, if needed.

Mother stood on the lawn, arms crossed on her chest, a frown on her face while he placed the gas cans in the trunk next to the pots and pans, fishing gear and extra ammo. I wonder whatever else he’s forgotten! she mused as he shut the trunk lid. The sound had a ring of finality to it.

“I’ll send you a telegram when I get to Anchorage,” Dad said, slightly tipping his head to adjust the Panama hat that covered his shiny scalp.

This is really happening, Mom thought. He was to leave in the morning. It wasn’t like all the other times he’d gone off to hunt or fish somewhere. This trip would begin with a drive up Hwy. 99 to Seattle, then further into British Columbia to Prince Rupert. A ferry would take him to Haines, Alaska, where the car would be unloaded and he’d proceed to drive up the Alcan into the Territory of Alaska, with Anchorage his final destination.

It was August of 1948 and the Alaska Highway, built by the military during the early years of WWII, had just opened to public transportation. For the most part, the highway was a lonely, crooked, torturous and extremely rough drive of 1700 miles, give or take, on unpaved gravel roads, through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory into Alaska, ending at Delta Junction. Even though it was officially named the Alaska Highway in 1942, it continues to this day to be called by Alaskans “The Alcan,” since it connects Alaska to the continental United States through Canada.

From Delta Junction Dad still had to continue another 350 miles south to Anchorage. Stops for gas were scarce and car and tire trouble more likely than not. Few accommodations were available, so he would need to camp along the way.

Mother’s worries were compounded by Dad’s need for daily insulin injections. On the road it would mean boiling his needles in a pot on the small camp stove every morning. He’d done that numerous times before on hunting or fishing trips, but was usually accompanied by his brothers or other men, and rarely went alone, certainly never for such a long duration or into the wilds of the Yukon and Territorial Alaska.

Dad’s first gun.
Dad’s first gun.

Dad came from the generation of men whose fathers moved west across the plains, looking for a better life for their wives and children. As a kid growing up in Idaho, Dad and his brothers were taught to fish and hunt by their father. Early pictures of my Dad show him holding a rifle while still a toddler and wearing a dress. Although ridiculous to modern folk, it was considered normal wearing apparel for a diapered tot in 1914.

What an adventure that trip must have been for Dad!

As a kid, I wasn’t curious about Dad’s life and didn’t ask him about the trip. By the time I reached adulthood that lonely drive he made to Anchorage was long forgotten. One thing is certain: the trip had to have been long and slow and exceedingly dusty, not to mention somewhat boring. Even in the 1950’s when our family drove the Alcan, everything was consumed by grime. Cars crept along at 25 or 35 mph on the rough gravel, throwing up billowing clouds of dust behind them. If you were unfortunate enough to be behind another vehicle, you kept your distance. Meeting a car coming from the other direction created an explosion of dust that could be seen for miles. Dust crept in through every possible crack of the window, or vent, or doorframe and everything inside was coated with a gritty beige film. Those were the good days. On bad days it rained. The dust settled, which was a good thing, but the more it rained, the bigger the pot holes became, and the more chances of puncturing a tire on some invisible shard. It was not uncommon for mud to splash as high as the passenger or front windows, making visibility an ordeal, and driving dangerous. Woe to those with lung problems! For the most part, the windows were kept permanently closed to avoid the dust, an occasional airborne rock, mud and multiple mosquito invasions. After a long day on the road, the inside oxygen content was undesirably low. Those poor souls prone to motion sickness had an especially rough time of it.

These factors, plus the relative unavailability of showers, gas stations, groceries and sleeping quarters, made the Alcan altogether unfit for the faint of heart.

Perhaps the trip north was fairly uneventful for Dad because Mother never mentioned otherwise in her journals, although it’s possible he never told her all his adventures. He managed to arrive in Anchorage before termination dust hit the Chugach and pitched his tent on the wooded hillside just off of 15th Avenue.

That fall letters flowed between Portland and Anchorage on a regular basis.

“Rentals are non-existent,” Dad wrote in one of the early ones. “I’ll have to find something we can buy.”

Mother wondered how they would manage. With two small children, she had not been able to contribute to the family income for some years, and money was tight. But they were Great Depression survivors and she was hopeful they’d find something affordable. Perhaps, she daydreamed, with a small yard, a picket fence and flowers like their rental in Portland, or maybe a bay window breakfast nook similar to the previous house in Berkeley.

A week or so later Dad wrote he had found something a mile and a half from downtown Anchorage.

“It’s a small two bedroom home, and sits on three wooded lots,” he wrote. “It’s not a bad price, $4500 cash. With winter coming soon, this is our best bet. I’ll write Cress and ask if we can borrow the money from him.”

$4500 seemed like a bargain basement figure to Mother. Prices in Portland at the time were ten times more for a finished house. She wrote back. “That doesn’t seem like very much. What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing!” Dad insisted in the next letter. “It’s just not finished, but it’s a quarter of the cost we would pay for a new house here, and those are few and far between. We’ll be able to fix it up nicely. Don’t worry, it’s not a problem.” Mother raised her eyebrows as she read that sentence.

Mom’s brother, Cress, was a self-sufficient bachelor and a foreman for Delmonte Peach Ranches, and readily agreed to loan them the money to buy the little house in Woodland Park, a small subdivision just south of Anchorage.

As the weeks wore on, Mother’s skepticism regarding the condition of the house grew and she wondered if it had little more than plywood walls and a roof. She hoped she’d be wrong. Dad’s letters were filled with lists and lists of parts for her to purchase. Her days began by sending Jack and me to first grade, then riding the bus to Sears where she ordered supplies. A kitchen sink, tub, toilet and commode one day. On the next trip, a floor furnace, electrical wiring, and plumbing fixtures. Whether it was nails and screws and paintbrushes, or other items Dad couldn’t find in Anchorage, she ordered them. She felt like she’d become a fixture at Sears – a professional buyer. Some of the items, such as the floor furnace, were shipped up immediately. Less crucial components joined household goods transported by the Alaska Steamship Company, their arrival delayed until the following February by the steamship strike.

Dad was formally educated in Economics, and informally in hunting and fishing, but had little to no training in construction, laying water pipes, shoring up wells, plumbing, electrical wiring, roofing, laying floors, or insulating. Most of his co-workers had only hands-on experience as well. He learned from them; he read; he measured and asked a lot of questions. On weekday evenings and weekends, many of the fellows at work chipped in and helped each other out.

If Anchorage had carpenters for hire in those days, they were few and far between. With no rentals available, the only option became a do-it-yourself project.

After a lengthy three months, on a dreary November day in Seattle, Mom, Jack and I boarded a Northwest Airlines DC4 prop plane for the 8 1/2 hour flight to Anchorage.

It was raining when we arrived late in the afternoon, landing on the only commercial airline runway in Anchorage at Elmendorf AFB. Dad was there to meet us.

“Hello, honey,” he pulled Mom gently to him, kissed her modestly, then hugged her tight to his chest. Jack and I ran to him and were pulled into his warm embrace. It was an emotional reunion, and eventually he said, “Let’s go inside where it’s a little warmer and out of the drizzle.”

We followed him into the hanger and waited for our luggage. Dad was overjoyed to have us all together again. When he wasn’t looking Mom glanced at him and thought he was too thin and needed some home cooking.

William L. McNutt Photographic slides. Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
William L. McNutt Photographic slides. Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Is it always so dark and drab here?” she inquired as Dad drove us through downtown Anchorage on the way home. “And dirty,” she added. She peered out the passenger window. The street they were on – Dad said it was 4th Avenue – was not very long with mostly one or two story buildings on either side of the street. It had a distinct resemblance to sets from old western movies.

“Wait till the sun comes out,” he replied. “The mountains are gorgeous.”

Mom wasn’t so sure. Maybe the mountains were pretty, but everything she’d seen so far looked like it needed a good white washing. And there seemed to be a lot of bars!

“Are all the roads this muddy and rough?” We had turned off of 4th Avenue and were driving by a small hospital. Dad pointed it out to Mother. “Just in case,” he said. A few houses dotted the bleak landscape, but dwindled as we continued to drive.

“Pretty much,” Dad replied, answering her question. He glanced over at her briefly, smiling, relieved and happy to have his family with him. “You may not have noticed, but seven blocks are surfaced on 4th Avenue. Don’t worry, the word is that next spring, more roads will be improved.”

“That would be nice,” Mom commented. Anchorage was much smaller, far more primitive and certainly not as exotic as she had led herself to believe. This was worse even than Dad’s brief descriptions had alluded to. She sighed and thought, What else are we in for?

Dad described the route we were traveling. South on “L” Street to Romig Hill. Down the hill, around the curve and up the other side to Spenard Road, turn right on KFQD Road, left on Lois Drive. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our new home.

Our New Home, Spenard, 1948.
Our New Home, Spenard, 1948.

Mother’s heart sank when she saw the house. She later wrote in her journal: “What a culture shock! The original shake house was put together with no architectural plans with one end resting on the ground, the other up on cement blocks where the land sloped down a hillside.”

“We’re home!” Dad proudly announced as he pulled into a makeshift parking area in front of a large tent that served as a storage area. Jack and I tumbled out of the car. He started exploring almost immediately, anxious to find our cat Perky, who had been shipped up several weeks prior.

Mom stood next to the car for a moment, gathering her wits about her. Dad mistook her demeanor as appreciation for their surroundings.

“This is such a wonderful country! I missed moose season this year,” he said, “and want to go hunting next fall. The fishing is unbelievable. I’ve already been several times,” he chatted away while pulling some of our suitcases out of the trunk.

Mom followed him inside the house and looked around. It was a stark, uninviting 20’ by 30’ box divided into a large room that served as a living room, dining room and kitchen; two small bedrooms; and a partitioned off area for a bathroom. The flooring was rough boards, walls were not insulated or finished and there was no trim around the windows.

The previous owners had left an old couch, rickety bookshelves, a table and benches and army bunk beds. An upright oil heater stood toward the back and middle of the main room. Mother had left her nice electric range in Portland for a camp type-cooking stove that had to be pumped up before it was lit. Cupboards consisted of wooden Blazo boxes.

Don and Denney Griffith, Jack and Janet 1949.
Don and Denney Griffith, Jack and Janet 1949.

An outhouse stood on the downhill side of the house. That will be fun when it’s 30 below! Mom thought.

She looked around for a moment, and then let out a huge sigh. She’d grown up on a farm in Idaho, with enough to eat and not much else, and both she and Dad had persevered through the Depression and the War. They’d survive this too.

Who knows, we might even learn to like it here, she thought, taking off her coat. Dad smiled at her and together they started to unpack.

Jana Ariane Nelson (nee Janet Griffith) moved to Anchorage in 1948 with her parents, Donald and Denney Griffith, and her twin brother, Jack.

Jana worked in the legal field in Anchorage before moving to Oregon.  She retired from Lane Community College in Eugene where she was the Mathematics Division Coordinator.

Her daughter, Naomi Sweetman, is the Alaska DARE Coordinator and her son, John Nelson, is a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Anchorage.  Jana has 4 grandchildren and one great grandchild in the Anchorage area.  Her brother, Jack, runs the Griffith Lab at the University of North Carolina.

For more stories of early Anchorage, visit growingupanchorage.com.

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