Doug Bell–Alcan Pioneer

 

We were guests, not presenters at our second event at the Whitehorse Public Library.  The librarian Mairi Macrae, invited several older residents to come share refreshments and stories of the old days on the Alcan and she invited us to join them.

One very special guest was Millie Jones.  Another incredible guest was Doug Bell.

I wish I had a picture of him, but I don’t.  I’ll substitute a photo of one of the old airfields that brought him to the North Country in the first place.

In 1940 Alaska and the Aleutian Island chain hung out there in the Pacific, extended in a great arc almost to Japan itself. It looked like an inviting path for a potential invasion of North America.  Canada reacted to the threat before the United States did; began constructing a string of airfields—the Northwest Staging Route—from Fort St. John to Whitehorse in early 1941, a full year before the United States Army started the Alcan Highway (which followed the airfield route).

Down in the states, young Doug Bell prepared to enlist in the Army, wanting to get into a railroad transportation unit and learn the trade.  Just before he held up his hand and agreed to the oath, the recruiter informed him that the Army had disbanded its railroad units!  Disgusted, Doug kept his hand at his side and followed his thirst for adventure to Western Canada.

He arrived in Dawson Creek on December 9, 1941, hired by a Canadian contractor to help maintain radio communication between companies working on the airfields.

Doug wound up working at more than one of them, and he remembers that by the standards of the time they became pretty high tech.  He remembers a pilot who lost an engine on his C-54 but was able to land at Fort Nelson.

After the Americans put the Alcan in place in 1942, civilian contractors immediately started to improve it.  And the Canadians used it to supply the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route.  A heavy truck on the old highway stirred an unbelievably thick cloud of dust.  No way a driver behind could see around to know when he could pass.  Truckers  equipped the back of their trucks with lights; turned them on when the way ahead cleared.  Seeing the lights, a brave driver accelerated ahead into the opaque cloud.

Assigned to the Fort Nelson airfield, young Doug missed his wife and determined to build a “shack about big enough to swing a cat” then go back to civilization and get her.  A friend who was a welder took two bunk beds and welded them together to make a double bed. Doug placed the four corners of the bed on chopping blocks.

He met her at Fort St. John and headed west in his old truck, but a few miles out the truck kicked out of gear.  Looking under to check, Doug found his transmission on fire—a few inches away from the gas tank!

He smothered the fire with a blanket then the couple sat in the truck for five hours before someone drove by; stopped to help.

At Fort Nelson,  he delivered her to her new home—with his heart in his mouth.

Her reaction?

She’d always wanted a four poster bed.

“Now there,” Doug remembers thinking, “is a keeper”.

Doug and his wife spent their lives living on and travelling the highway and Doug clearly hasn’t a single regret.