Coming to Alaska in 1950 -- Interview with Robert Johnson

My grandfather, Robert Johnson, was born in 1922, (he's the baby pictured) not too far from Shickshinny, Pennsylvania. Grandpa was the oldest of 14 children.

The family farm was 56 acres. They raised potatoes, tomatoes, chickens, and dairy cows. In 1949, he and my grandma, Rosemary, were married. In 1950, while Grandma was expecting their first child, Grandpa came to Alaska for the summer in search of work. He got a job with the road commission. In 1951, they moved the little family to Alaska for good. With this wealth of knowledge available to me, I got to interview him a few years ago about moving to Alaska. (I recorded Grandpa's words pretty much verbatim instead of correcting the sentence structure and so forth. -- Amanda Bowles)

Why Alaska?

"Well, a couple friends of mine come up here one year. They worked on the Alaska road commission. Started to build the Denali Highway in Alaska. Sounded pretty good. We got married. So a buddy of mine, we took off. Rode a Greyhound to Seattle, then waited on a non-scheduled airline. When they got the plane full, we flew up to Anchorage."

"I had a guy's phone number and name, of a buddy of mine who had been in the Army up here for a year, who lived in Mountain View. So I had the phone number. We looked around to see if we could find a job or something. Nothing. In the late afternoon I called him up and told him who we were. He said, "Well, the bus comes out to Mountain View. They come out here to this address, have dinner with us." He liked us. He said, "Well, you can sleep here tonight on the floor in the living room," which we did. He said he worked for Coca-Cola. Said a guy quit right at quitting time. So what they do, they hire the first guy who comes in. So we flipped a coin, and I went to work the next morning. My buddy found a place for us to sleep and that happened to be the house of the resident engineer that was going to be up in Cantwell. His chief saw us and hired us to go up there. A week or less, we headed up on the train to Cantwell."

"They set up a tent camp, so we were in a tent camp all summer. Worked from there, Cantwell to Denali park, which was about 32 miles I believe, and then 50 miles out to the Susitna river. We shut down when winter came."

"I went back to New Jersey for the winter with a buddy of mine who worked there. I got a job. So we moved down right away into New Jersey from Pennsylvania. I'll never go to New Jersey for any reason ever again. We had a basement apartment with concrete floor. We had a little infant baby. I was always afraid she would fall out of her high chair or something and crack her head open on the concrete floor."

"When spring came, the old boss from up in Cantwell called my buddy, and said, "Your job is waiting if you come back." Boy, I left New Jersey as fast as I could. We drove up that time. I had bought a new car after the first summer up here. Saved all my money. There was nothing to spend it on up here anyhow. Bought a new Chevy and packed our stuff up in the back. Had a bassinet for the baby. It was built up almost to the back of the seats with our clothes and stuff like that, and the bassinet just sat right there where my wife could just turn around and take care of the baby. Put her in the car and we took off, coming back to Alaska. I traveled the highway a couple times. Go back down in the wintertime. Taking the old road through Canada, that was no problem. You had to have $100 with ya' to enter the country. Should be enough to get you through, going to Alaska. Now you have to have a passport and probably several hundred dollars."

How did you and grandma meet?

"A long time ago. I'd go down to the square dance with a buddy or two of mine. One of them went and picked up Rosemary (Grandma), cause he was taking her to the dance. That was the first time I ever saw her. The next dance, I didn't have any girl to take. I guess I talked to my sister who was going to high school with her. So my sister and I went and picked her up, and that's when I started going with her.  Old square dance. I never learned to round dance, cause after square dancing, you were sweating, and then they'd have round dancing. No darn way! You'd get outside where it's cool and cool down. I still do a little dancing now. I guess I could still do some dancing now without my walker."

"I came up with a buddy of mine, and that's when our first baby was born, while I was in Alaska. She was down there in Pennsylvania. We rented a little tiny two room house."

When you came up here, how come you never homesteaded any property?

"My wife said, "If there's a road to it and electricity, I'll homestead." So that ended that. I looked at some property right in Eagle River and then I inquired and found out it was reserved for something. I don't remember what anymore. Somebody finally did buy it and subdivide it, cause everything in Eagle River is subdivided now. But working on a survey crew, after about 4 years, I forget his name, but he was the head of surveying and engineering at the college, and since I had been surveying for four or five years on the highway, he just sent me a license. Now you have to have at least four years of college before you can even apply for the license. So I did a lot of work in McKinley Park (Denali Park), bridge site surveys and so on. That's a pretty rough road at the very beginning. It's so much better than it used to be."

The Story of Grandma's Big Bull Moose

"She went down the road going to McKinley Park (Denali Park), about half way. I was coming down from up above, because we knew there was a moose in there. She was getting ready to shoot. A couple guys stopped there, they encouraged her. She shot and down he went." (The antlers are still in the family. They're huge!)

"I had her shoot a deer once, back in Pennsylvania. I should have trained her to shoot first. The deer was standing about the width of this house from the road, standing right there. I said, "Shoot." She shot and down he went. She broke his backbone right above his hips. That's not where you shoot him! He tried to get us then. He dragged his hind parts, crawling towards us trying to fix us. She was only 20 feet away. Put him into the back of the pick-up and headed for home. We gutted him at home, in the back of my mom's house."

What did you grow in the garden here in Alaska?

"We had a garden. When we had our own place, we always had a garden. Potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and carrots, and kohlrabi. I don't think I knew what kohlrabi was when I was a kid. I don't think they had it. I like kohlrabi. I had kohlrabi for breakfast this morning. We had yellow beans, string beans, and you had to put a little something out or else the beatles would bite holes in them. Always raised some cabbage up here. No pumpkins. They do raise them, some people for the fair, always has some. I think they raise them inside. How many hundreds of pounds do they weigh? They doctor those. Use milk instead of water and I don't know what else. I think that's cheating."

Where'd you find the most gold while recreational panning?

"I never found "most gold." We'd go down on the Kenai Peninsula, the one creek. I'd dig in the bank and throw it into a little sluice box. Keep raking the rocks off. I'd get tired of digging and so forth. We'd clean it out and there would be a couple of tiny pieces. That's all. Put it in a bucket and take it home. She'd (Grandma) pan it the next day or so."

"Once I had a railroad spike with a big head on it. She painted it gold. We went up there on the road going in, on the Denali, I forget the creek that had gold in it, the road going through the tailing pile. I buried this railroad spike in there with just the head sticking up. Somebody found it, I'm sure. Hehehe."

Looking at how much the State has changed, what do you think about the good and bad?

"I don't have a problem much with how it's turned out, cause there was nothing here. There was an old store in Cantwell, a couple log cabins right behind the store. That's where my wife almost went crazy the first year. Living in a tiny one room cabin. The bed was the biggest thing in there by far. Had a little tiny stove. It was right behind the old log cabin store for Cantwell. I think I paid $20 or $25 a month for rent."

I've never found a better place to live. I think my kids would all agree to that. (His grandkids and great grandkids do too!)

Interview of Robert C. Johnson, October 2016, by Amanda Bowles, his granddaughter

Grandpa passed away February 2018. Grandma passed away in January 2000. From Grandpa’s obituary:

“In April 1949, Bob married Rosemary Cecilia Bednarek. Bob first came to Alaska in 1949 seeking a better life and adventure. Bob and Rosemary moved permanently to Alaska in 1951 where they lived in Cantwell, Alaska. Bob worked on the survey crew building the McKinley Park Access Road which was later named the Denali Highway. Rosemary worked as the camp cook while raising the first two of seven children. Bob and Rosemary made their permanent residence in Eagle River, Alaska in 1955. In 1960, Bob became a registered land surveyor until his retirement on December 31, 2013, at age 90. Bob was instrumental in much of the design of Eagle River, Chugiak and areas of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Bob worked for the Alaska Road Commission, Federal Aviation Administration and then as the Owner of Robert C. Johnson, registered land surveyor. Bob, along with Rosemary, were among the founding members of Saint Andrews Catholic Church. They were deeply involved in community, state and national politics. Local and state politicians could count on receiving “guidance” on issues in the community and Alaska. Bob was a life member of The Knights of Columbus and the NRA. Bob served as a community council president, and board of directors of Matanuska Electric Association. Life skills included hunting, fishing, trapping, gardening, cribbage, poker and crossword puzzles. Bob was a friend to everyone that he met. He loved people, he was kind, generous and never had a bad day. He loved to smile and laugh. On February 10, 2018 Bob ended his race and finished his course. He died peacefully in his sleep, in his own home in Eagle River, in his favorite easy chair.

Bob instilled his deep love of Alaska into his children and grandchildren. He will be missed by everyone that knew him.”

Want to read more stories of those who helped to shape Alaska?

The Way It Was -- Coming to Alaska in the 1950's

John Schnabel: Old Time Logger by Edward May

1 comment

What an amazing story !!!!I just loved it !!!! From Norway born 1939 …lived 5 years in Alaska and I loved it !!!!

solveig enersen April 17, 2021

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