Feature Stories

My Life As An Alaskan Trucker in 1947

In November 1946, I was working at the Seward power plant when I received a phone call. My mother was dying in Dillon, Montana. After packing some clothes in a suitcase, I took a taxicab to the airport and flew from Seward to Anchorage on Christensen Airways. Once in Anchorage, I booked a flight to Fairbanks on Star Airways. At the Fairbanks airport I got a flight to Edmonton on Canadian Pacific Airways. The last leg of my journey was over 600 miles from Edmonton, Alberta to Dillon, Montana, by bus. Arriving in Dillon, I found my mother still alive, but breathing her last.

After the funeral was over I had some of her personal belongings to bring back to Alaska and an idea struck me. I could buy a vehicle and drive back home, up the Alcan Highway. After finding no pickups available to purchase, I learned it was possible to pay $3,050 for a Diamond T flatbed chassis in Belgrade, Montana. I made the purchase, drove it to Idaho Falls, and had an 8 by 16 foot flatbed with side panels built for it. They built it tight enough to haul grain, with 5-foot sides and an end gate.

By chance, while I was back in Dillon, I ran into Frank Wine who ran the Seward Sawmill out at Bear Lake. Since there was a shipping strike going on, he and I figured we could purchase a load of food, haul it back to Alaska, and make some money in the process. We bought a ton of Great Northern beans, 1400 lbs of ham, and 150 lbs of sweet cream butter right out of a creamery in Butte. With the food, the household furniture, and the rest of my mother’s stuff, I had a full load.

Buck Buchanan's new Dodge Power Wagon

Buck Buchanan’s new Dodge Power Wagon

I arrived at the US Customs at Sweet Grass, Montana near the end of December. However, the Canadian Customs at Coots, Alberta, would not let me travel on Sunday, so I had to sit around for a whole day. The next day, December 31, 1946, I crossed the border and drove 500 miles, all the way to Edmonton, where the temperature had dropped to around zero degrees.

A day later, in Athabaska, it was minus 45°F and it took me two hours to warm up the truck for travel. I had to warm the engine, the transmission, and the rear end. As the day wore on, due to a warm front, the temperature rose to minus 10°F. About this time I met a fellow named Buck Buchanan driving a new Dodge Power Wagon. He thought it would be nice if we traveled together up the Alcan and I agreed it was a good idea. Buck was pulling an empty trailer, so at night we rolled out our mattresses and sleeping bags and slept on its floor. There was no heat, of course.

We couldn’t make more than about 250 miles a day, with different things slowing us down. Some of the big grades were icy because of the warmer weather. On one particular grade, I didn’t make it to the top. When I started sliding backwards, I tapped the brakes and steered, going back down the hill until I hit a gravel spot. After recovering my shaky nerves, I took a better run at the hill and made it the second time.

It took us about five days of traveling to get to Whitehorse, where it started getting much colder again. I remember driving one particular starry night, when the moonlight was so bright, I could look off and see mountains, which I judged to be 100 miles in the distance.

At the Canadian/Alaskan border, there was no customs station, so we drove another 90-95 miles to Tok before checking in. The fellows at American Customs wanted me to unload my truck so they could check the contents. It was minus 45°F. I didn’t offer to start unloading and they didn’t seem too ambitious to do it. They looked over my manifest and soon took my word for it. The next day Buck and I went our separate ways. He headed for Fairbanks, while I started for Anchorage.

Diamond T at Slims River

Diamond T at Slims River

Going through Indian River between Tok and Chistochina, about a quarter mile of the roadway was flooded with water running over the highway. I didn’t know if I would make it, but I hoped for the best and sure enough made it through that overflow. I stopped at Harry and Gladys Heinz’s store in Glennallen. Gladys hadn’t seen me around before and asked suspiciously, “Who are you?” I’ll never forget the tone of voice she questioned me with.

It was minus 30°F when I arrived in Anchorage on January 10th. I stayed in a rental house I had built in 1940. Every morning I warmed up the truck and went out to sell my load of goods. Unfortunately for me, the shipping strike was over by this time and most of the merchants in town would only take a bag or two of the beans, saying that was all they could buy because their main shipment would be arriving anytime. I sold the butter for the same price I bought it for in Montana, and eventually got rid of all the ham and most of the beans. I told Frank Wine, “Well, we got our money back is all. Here is a check for what you put in.” He understood.

Once I sold most of the food goods, I started thinking, What am I going to do with the truck?

I decided to sell lots from land I owned, a ways outside of Anchorage, in Spenard. My property, which would later become 25th Avenue, bordered that of Dr. J.H. Romig. I sold some of these lots for $87.00 a piece.Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!

I drove my Diamond T out to McKechnie Sawmill by the Butte near Palmer and loaded it up with house logs, brought them back, and started building a cabin for myself on one of the lots, while living in a tent. Figuring that a lot might sell even better with a load of logs sitting on it, I got more loads, this time of 16 foot, three sided logs, and ended up building a second cabin. I also modernized the original Anchorage house I built in 1940, putting in a well, pressure system, and plumbing to get it ready to rent. These activities kept me pretty busy clear up until fall.

In October, deciding it was time to go back to Seward, I arranged to put my truck on the Matheson Brothers Barge in Anchorage. They crossed Turnagain Arm and docked in Hope long enough to drop off my truck and me. There was no road connecting Anchorage to Seward in 1947.

Back on the Kenai Peninsula, I used my truck to haul hay for Frank Towle in Cooper Landing and delivered hemlock lumber to the sawmill at Bear Lake in Seward. After the lumber was planed, it was brought back and used for the flooring in the Cooper Landing Community Club.

At this time, the Alaska Road Commission was pushing the road from Hinton’s Lodge towards Kenai. It was mostly just a “cat trail.” There was a lot of brush to clear, many swamps to cross, and bridges to build. One of their burn piles got away from them and burned 50 square miles.

After the road was pushed through to Kenai, I heard about a contract open for bid to haul construction materials from Moose Pass to Kenai for the new territorial school. I won the bid and hired two other guys to help—Bill Bratten, who already carried the mail from Hope to Seward, and Bob Jacobs. There were three train boxcar loads of sack cement plus steel and sheetrock on flatcars, making a total of 300 tons of material for us to move. Hauling the cement, we could do two loads, five tons each, to Kenai a day. I was getting $100 a day and paid my drivers $25 a trip.

On one trip, with a load of 24 foot steel H beams and sheetrock, disaster struck. I couldn’t climb a certain hill … not taking a big enough run at it. Using the brake, I backed down the hill and was just sitting there at the bottom, when the heavy weight of the truck made a rotten culvert give way. My fully-loaded truck just lay over on its side like a horse. Since there was a gully and creek right there, it rolled all the way over, upside down with all four wheels sticking up!UCM-320-x-180-bear

I took out the wrecking bar, which had gotten mixed up in the spokes of the steering wheel, and laid it down on the ceiling of the truck. Then I climbed out and unhooked the battery. I didn’t want any sparks since gasoline was dripping out of the gas tank. The transmission oil, engine oil, and oil in the rear-end all ran out too.

After a while, a gravel truck came by on the way to Cooper Landing. The driver said if I got the right equipment, he would wait and try pulling me out. He sat there on one side of the road most of the day. I got word through another passing vehicle to Bob Jacobs in Moose Pass to bring rope, a snatch block, and other gear we needed. When he showed up, we tied a line around three spruce trees using the snatch block. The second line went from the frame of my truck, through the snatch block, to the gravel truck. I also loosened the binders on my load. After we got everything ready, the driver of the gravel truck slowly pulled forward. The truck righted itself, leaving the load of steel and sheetrock behind. It took us two days to re-load. The only real damage to the truck was a dent in the hood.

That hauling contract for the territorial school brought in enough money to pay for the truck, but not much extra to buy new tires and such. I decided I didn’t want to be a trucker after all and sold my Diamond T. The trucker’s life was not for me.

Al Clayton, Sr. enjoyed many adventures while calling Alaska his home from 1940 until his death in 2008 at age 94. His daughter, Maraley McMichael, lives in the Mat-Su Valley.

 

 

7 replies »

  1. Interesting story. Love the little bit of history especially for Seward. I have been here all my 68 years. My uncle here in 1915

  2. Very interesting read. I spent 6 years in Alaska, 1970 -1976. My husband was in the Airforce, stationed at Eielson AFB, south of Fairbanks. We were there the year temperatures dropped to 83 below at North Pole. We drove the Alcan going to and leaving Alaska. Had many interesting adventures and lots of good memories.

  3. Such a great story! My grandfather owned City Express in Seward and my father bought it from him. All seven of us kids born in Seward. Dad wrote several stories about growing up in Seward. I love this one! I married a trucker!

  4. I know next to nothing about Alaska, trucking, or surviving in the cold, but I found this story mesmerizing because of the courage and ingenuity of the characters who embraced this way of life. Beautiful story! Mayli-Anne Waterbury, Wickord, Rhode Island

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