Without a Trace – An Alaska Tragedy

On the east side of Anchorage in the Wonderpark area of town sits a decaying gas station. Time and elements have chiseled away at paint and trim. Vandals have destroyed the showroom windows plus a good portion of the interior. Someone lit a tire on fire in one of the garage stalls blackening the walls. In a few more years I have the nagging suspicion Yeager’s Service Station will be gone without a trace. My hopes in writing this are to make sure that doesn’t happen. What I chisel into simple print can last an eternity for the sake of memory.

August 2017 – Credit: Michael Hankins

At one time Yeager’s Service Station was a thriving business. The garage stalls were constantly full. A large air-activated bell sat inside the station office ringing “ding-ding” each time a thirsty car or truck pulled to the pumps. Initially the location was listed as 4906 Glenn Highway. Later on, after a highway reconfiguration, the address changed to 4950 Taku Drive. That road change did not go down without a vigorous fight from many parties. A terrible tragedy few people know about is also connected with the business.

1955 – Credit: Randall Montbriand

Born in Hugoton, Kansas, Victor Yeager married his sweetheart Sylvia Hays in Dodge City. They eventually relocated to Idaho and then Washington State, bringing with them sons Royce and Jerry. It was in Yakima, Washington, that Royce met and married Caroline Metz. In 1952, Victor, Sylvia, Jerry, Royce, and Caroline, plus 10-month-old Denise made the long journey to Alaska. “The Last Frontier” beckoned many folks during that time. In 1955, the Yeager clan constructed a service station with their bare hands. Midwest residents are known for hard work ethics and the Yeager’s were no exception. Jerry eventually returned to Washington State pursuing a teaching career.

Alaska was still a territory at that point. It would not receive statehood for another four years. With Anchorage on the verge of a tremendous growth spurt, time was ripe for such an endeavor.

A 1963 Anchorage Motor Musher’s Car Club bulletin mentions Yeager’s Service Station as staging grounds for Model A’s and other antique vehicles traveling to the Palmer State Fair. I can visualize the drivers chit-chatting about weather as they gassed up their rides. More than likely these folks were warmly bundled for the journey. A thermos of hot coffee or tea would’ve been a necessity. On Facebook a longtime Alaskan mentioned that on road trips coming back from Glennallen, Palmer, or Eagle River, Yeager’s Service Station had the brightest lights seen before entering Anchorage. They were a welcoming beacon to many weary travelers.

The planned relocation of the Glenn Highway coming into Anchorage first came to light around 1958. An aerial photograph shows the road, instead of winding through Mountain View, straightening and bypassing the bedroom community. In doing so Yeager’s Service Station would lose direct access from the highway. Victor and Royce knew this was going to be a detriment to their income. They began a courageous fight to stop the project. Local politicians as well as state officials were notified of their concern.

When the Great Alaska earthquake hit on March 27, 1964 — thankfully the building had been constructed on solid ground by Victor, Royce, and Jerry. Concrete blocks held up remarkably well from all the shaking. Several gas stations in the heart of Anchorage did not fare as good. In many cases fuel lines leading from underground tanks fractured or broke.

An old-time Alaskan told me cars were lined up around the block at Yeager’s after power was restored. It was one of only a handful of places where people could still get fuel. A tanker truck often stopped by twice-daily dropping off loads of ethyl and regular. Ethyl was the given name for a higher grade of gasoline. Oftentimes storage tanks went empty before the tanker could return. With Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Post close by, there was never a lack of customers even before the quake hit.

Besides being a successful business owner Royce Yeager, Victor’s son, was an accomplished hunter and guide. The lobby of his filling station contained numerous animals he killed. They were professionally mounted by taxidermists for customers to view. Visitors coming to Alaska from the lower 48 marveled at such. A brown bear looking to be at least 8-foot high was the most imposing display in Royce’s collection. It was enclosed in a wood and glass case bigger than the bruin. An early photograph supplied by Royce’s wife Caroline shows the Yeager children standing directly under it. Two of the girls are looking up as if expecting the beast to come alive.

In 1969 my father and a man named Isaiah Lewis bought the service station. Being 15 years of age at the time, I vaguely remember the day Victor Yeager turned keys over to Dad and Lewis.  I do recall he was nice to me yet on the other hand seemed on the verge of tears. Dad and Lewis noticed it as well. I suppose it had something to do with all the memories he was leaving behind, including the sadness of losing his son. At that time I didn’t know of the accident. Former customers told me later on that Vic Yeager was never the same after Royce disappeared. I was too young back then to understand, but four years later I better understood Vic’s pain when my own parents went missing on a flight.

On June 3, 1962 Royce Yeager and friend, Glenn Shuff, took off on a flight out of Merrill Field in Royce’s single-engine Cessna 172. They were flying to Shuff’s hunting camp in the Maclaren River area northeast of Talkeetna. The pair was seen eating lunch in Talkeetna before resuming their flight around 3 p.m. They intended to land on the Denali Highway and pick up another man, Denny Thompson. When the trio had not returned by Monday night, search and rescue was notified. Mr. Thompson eventually arrived back in Anchorage after catching a ride via automobile. He reported that the plane never showed.

“Anchorage Times” – newspaper story about search

A search by Civil Air Patrol and the Alaska National Guard, using at least 60 aircraft over several weeks found no traces of the men. Rugged mountains and valleys near the river made searching extremely difficult. There are glaciers in the region as well. Information taken from both Anchorage and Fairbanks’ newspapers show Glenn Shuff was a single man living in Muldoon. Royce Yeager left behind seven young children along with his wife Caroline. The search at that time was the largest in Alaskan history. Now, some 56 years later, no wreckage has been found.

Victor Yeager and his wife Sylvia continued running the service station while Royce’s widow and children moved back to Washington State. As if Victor and Sylvia hadn’t experienced enough sorrow, two years later in 1964 the Alaska Department of Highways, holding true to their plan, closed highway access to the service station. A somewhat humorous advertisement the Yeager’s placed in an Anchorage newspaper soon after asked for magical Leprechaun powers to remove the barricade. Reading between the lines, I saw it as an attempt to remain upbeat in spite of the consequences. Many businesses in this area besides the Yeager’s were impacted by the ill-planned government decision.

After the new Glenn Highway was built, cars could enter the station only after turning onto McCarrey Street. They had to make several turns through the neighborhood to finally get there. Where gasoline sales were concerned, sales plummeted. The three work bays still remained busy however. Quality of work performed within the shop was known as top notch. Loyal customers continued to patronize Yeager’s Service Station long after the fence was built.

After my dad and Isaiah Lewis bought the place they changed the name to Wonderpark Texaco. Visitors from outside Alaska continued stopping by each summer asking how Mr. Yeager was doing. Most said they’d made it a point to swing by and say hello each time they came through Anchorage. The gentleman had that kind of following.

I worked in the business after school and during summer months as did Isaiah Lewis’s two kids, Mike and Willie. The three of us had a blast working together. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to participate in sports like a lot of students.  Always having money in my pocket, cars to drive, plus discounted gas, life wasn’t bad.

On January 22, 1972 my parents took off from Merrill Field just as Royce Yeager and Glenn Shuff had done nearly 10 years prior. I received a phone call late that Sunday evening saying my folks never made it to their destination. I was a senior at East High at that time. For three days my mind and body went numb through an indescribable ordeal. Only those having family or friends in similar situations know the feeling.

Miraculously my parents were found alive in the rugged peaks of the Canadian Rockies. They’d been lost for three days. That seemed like an eternity to my brother and me.  Temperatures had gotten down to minus 70 with the wind chill factor. Had dad not borrowed an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) before leaving, most likely they’d still be missing like Royce and Glenn. Unfortunately ELTs were not available in 1962. I can’t comprehend how the Yeager and Shuff family endured so many years without knowing.

My parents sold out their interest in the business somewhere around 1973. Dad went into retail automotive parts instead. I worked with him a while before going my own direction.

Lewis continued to operate the station for several more years. When fuel tanks started leaking he stopped selling gasoline. Federal funding was secured to have the tanks removed. Texaco eventually forced him to take down their sign. He changed the name to Greatland Auto performing only oil changes and maintenance. Lewis made a decent living repairing cars before closing the shop in 2005. He tried unsuccessfully to lease it during the next five years, but several different parties couldn’t make things work. One of his tenants turned the grounds into a virtual junkyard, before Municipality of Anchorage enforcement officers stepped in, shutting things down.

A humorous ad in the paper. Credit: Randall Montbriand

After quite a spell buyers of the property came forth. To this day nothing has been done to improve the building. A FOR SALE sign currently hangs near the front entrance. It’s just a matter of time before the city steps in once again, this time condemning the structure for demolition. Ground underneath the place is still tainted with leaded fuel. More than likely further federal dollars will be needed for cleanup.

Personally, I’d like to see the city come forward and purchase the place. After all, the government’s partly responsible for its demise.  The cleansed land should become a neighborhood park. The area needs such a jump start on rejuvenation. Most appropriately it should be called YEAGER COMMUNITY PARK. That’s the proper thing to do.

Victor Yeager died on January 7, 1977. His wife Sylvia passed away February 21, 1995. Regardless of what’s done, the small parcel of land in a neighborhood called Wonderpark will always be a Yeager legacy. That will remain forever!

 

Thanks to Caroline Metz Yeager Arnold, Theresa Yeager Rundell, Diane Yeager Peterson, and Randall Montbriand for helping fill in the gaps prior to 1969. I wouldn’t have been able to write this story without their assistance.

Michael Hankins

Michael and his wife Joleen can be found in Lake Havasu City, Arizona when not traveling in their RV. Michael does freelance writing when not exploring the desert.  Alaska will always be their true home!

Previous

Next

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This