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Hugh and Sandra Connelly

Hugh and Sandra Connelly were interviewed on February 19, 1986 by William Schneider and Doris Southall in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this excerpt of the first tape of the interview, Hugh Connelly talks about working as a section crew member for the Alaska Railroad, the pay scale and work conditions, and working out of Curry. In addition to the railroad, Hugh talks about more details of his life, and his judge career, and Sandra talks about working as a nurse, conditions at the hospital, life in Anchorage, meeting her husband, and working for the Weather Bureau in Fairbanks. The full interview was recorded on two tapes and the audio of both are available in this project.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History H86-27

Project: Railroads of Alaska
Date of Interview: Feb 19, 1986
Narrator(s): Hugh Connelly, Sandra Connelly
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Doris Southall
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Some of the influences on his decision to come to Alaska

An invitation from his uncle to move to Alaska

His first few days in Anchorage

Taking a job with the Alaska Railroad as a gandy dancer

Training to be a locomotive fireman

Working at the stores department for the railroad

An endurance test by Uncle Fudd on the Seward train

Taking a hostler job in Fairbanks

The old roundhouse in Fairbanks and working at Curry

Burning up an engine and being fired

Getting rehired by the Alaska Railroad

The dice and card games at Curry and Healy

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let's take a moment and back up and we'll ask Hugh about how he got to Alaska. So Hugh, what -- what brought you to Alaska?

HUGH CONNELLY: Well, I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and when I was five years of age, my mother and father -- and actually, it was my stepfather at that time -- talked with a gentleman who was working at the state printing office with both my mother and my father, who had, in effect, temporary jobs because they worked on a day basis as needed during the Depression.

And he'd been to Alaska and had done some mining, and apparently around Nome, he had a nice great, big gold watch like a railroad watch that was all covered with gold nuggets and a great, big gold nugget chain. And he talked several of the people into investing into a mining venture, so the whole family was going to come on up and get involved in mining offshore at Nome. So that was the first thing that whetted my appetite for Alaska. And then a couple years -- and we were getting ready to go. I was supposed to go to school in Canada, and then spend the summers with my parents at Nome.

Shortly before we were intending to leave, oh, about two months before we were supposed to leave to come to Alaska, a tanker allegedly -- "allegedly" went down off the coast of Nome, oil tanker. And as a result, they said that there was oil on the water and that they wouldn't be able to use the seagoing dredge that they had purchased for something like 25 years or something and before all the oil would get out of the way because the oil would settle on the plates and they wouldn't be able to get the gold.

So that was my first exposure to Alaska, in effect, the first thing that planted any impression about Alaska in my mind. And then a little bit later, I was in school, and the Glacier Priest came to the school and he showed us pictures of Alaska. And this was Father Hubbard, and he had -- he was known as the Glacier Priest. He showed us a number of slides and a few movies, and things like that. And I was going to a Catholic grammar school at the time, and that sort of reinforced or re-wetted my appetite.

Then the following year, Admiral Byrd went through Sacramento, and they had a great, big show for all the school kids from all of the schools, down at the municipal auditorium, and we went down. Now, I know that he went to South America, but you know, you got the figure of ice and snow and you saw penguins and dog teams and the rest of that, so that sort of refortified my ideas of Alaska.

And then I went on through when I was through grammar school and high school, went in the Navy, got discharged from the Service after World War II, and was in St. Mary's College, and I was a prelaw student. And at that time, my uncle came by in 1948, in probably very late September, early October, and he asked me to come to Alaska with him. He'd been a bird colonel in the Army as a chaplain,

Catholic chaplain, and he got transferred to -- he took a discharge after World War II, started a boys camp in Texas, and then decided that he wanted to go back in the Service, went back in the Army at that time, as a Lieutenant Colonel. Came by St. Mary's College and invited me to go to Alaska with him. Well, it was right in the middle of the semester, so I told him I really couldn't go. And then final exams came along, and I blew one of my final exams. I got a B instead of an A I thought I was going to get, because I got a B on the final exam, oral exam, in psychology, which really hurt.

So that blew it for me, and I just quit. And went over, stayed at a buddy's house for a few days, and then went home, told my folks that I was ready to go to Alaska and to be with my uncle who was stationed at Fort Richardson in Anchorage. And his name was John Kenneth Connelly. He was a Lieutenant Colonel, and he was the Chief of Chaplains for the Alaskan theater. So I got my money out of the bank and bought a batch of clothes and everything, got ready to come to Alaska, and went to Seattle.

At Seattle I stayed with my cousin for a while, visited him. He was a minister, Presbyterian minister at the time, and he and his wife and I all went up to Vancouver on a short weekend trip, went back to Vancouver, and I spent a few extra days there. Instead of taking the boat and coming up to Alaska on the boat, found out about the non sched airline, so I took Arnold's Airline, a non sched airline -- non scheduled airline.

I guess I still have that bad habit of using abbreviations. And it was a two engine plane. We had a box lunch. We sat -- it was a plane that had been purchased from the Service, you know, Army -- Army or Air Force surplus. We had webbed seats that we were sitting on, down the side of the plane, not typical seats, but you faced each other across the aisle, and then the whole center of the plane was filled with cargo, with a big cargo net over it. And that's significant because in that cargo was a large coffin, slightly oversized coffin.

We flew into Annette Island, we had to stop at Annette on the way up, we refueled. We had a bad landing at Annette, but we didn't crash because we had a bad crosswind. That was a little landing that caused your heart to go into your throat for a minute, but everything was fine. But we were able to get coffee and we had a bite and they refueled at Annette Island, and then we came on to Anchorage. And landed in Anchorage the day before Washington's birthday. Or Washington's birthday in 1949, very early in the morning.

Got off the plane, went to the Parsons Hotel, which has since burned down. And my first shock after we got off the plane and got into a big, tight -- well, let's see. I can't remember what you call the high type station wagons. Similar to a weapons carrier, only it was a civilian vehicle. And we started into town. And my jaw just about dropped because the first thing that struck my attention was the parking meters on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage,

and I couldn't believe that they had parking meters in Anchorage. Because when I was doing my research and doing my checkup on Anchorage before I came up, I looked -- I went to the California State Library and we couldn't even find Anchorage on the maps in the California State Library. But anyway, we went to the Parsons Hotel. We got to the Parsons Hotel, and about two weeks before I'd seen a movie that had a little bit to do with Alaska and it had to do with the Nenana Ice Pool. And what did I see but two ice pool cards up behind the clerk.

So I knew what they were because somebody won the ice pool in the movie that I had seen. So I put a dollar on the time, and checked in, and went into a dormitory type room. There were four to six beds in the room. And I couldn't call my uncle because I didn't have a phone number, although he knew that I was coming. And I called my uncle then the following day. Couldn't reach him the morning when I got up because that was Washington's birthday and we couldn't find out where he was. I called him the following day and reached him. I landed in Anchorage with about $60 in my pocket.

SANDRA CONNELLY: Better than I did. I came up in absolute luxury on the Alaska steamship. Beautiful meals, et cetera, but we had $8.

HUGH CONNELLY: Well, I had about eight bottles, eight fifths of Four Feathers, which was whiskey, in the -- in my baggage, because in this movie that I'd seen about Alaska, I heard that booze sold for about $50 a bottle, so I figured I might just as well bring -- bring some up, see if I could make some expenses. And it was real funny. So I managed to contact my uncle, he came in and picked me up and went out to the base, at that time Fort Richardson,

and he put me up with his orderly in a Quonset hut across the street from where he had his quarters, and this little, tiny, in effect, home chapel as opposed to the base chapel where he had most -- most of his masses and things. And I stayed there. And he told me to come up because he could guarantee me a job, and he guaranteed me a job with Birch, Liddell & Green (phonetic). Of course, the day after I got here, when we started talking about jobs, Birch, Liddell & Green folded up business in Alaska.

So that made it a little bit more interesting, but he said that he knew Paul Shelmerdine on the Alaska Railroad, and he was the personnel director on the Alaska Railroad at the time, and he felt was certain that I could get a good job there.

So we went on down. And we went in -- my uncle made an appointment and we went in to see Paul Shelmerdine who was the personnel superintendent for the Alaska Railroad at the time. My uncle


HUGH CONNELLY: My uncle suggested that I take an office job, if I could get one, and I didn't want to work in an office, although I was experienced in working in an office. I preferred to go to work as a locomotive fireman. My -- or as a brakeman. My uncle thought I should be able to start out as an engineer or conductor, and he found out that that's not the way you do things.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you have a previous experience with a railroad?

HUGH CONNELLY: No. But other than my next door neighbor used to work for a railroad when -- when I was raised.

SANDRA CONNELLY: He also had toy trains.

HUGH CONNELLY: My great uncle used to take me down to the railroad area, to -- and took me onboard a couple of engines and things like that, but I came -- on that plane I came up with, a gentleman by the name of Kenny Fuller, who was a locomotive fireman for the Alaska Railroad, was on his way back to Alaska. And we talked on the -- on the plane, and when I found out that I was going down to the railroad, I decided that I'd like to go to work as the locomotive fireman or locomotive engineer. Mr. Shelmerdine said that was fine but they weren't hiring for that position right now, so I'd have -- but I could get on as soon as they started hiring.

So if I wanted to do that, then I'd have to start out as a section hand, or as we used to call it, Gandy dancer. So I started as a section hand on the extra gang in Anchorage, and we swept the switches and cleaned the snow out of the switches and shimmed track and put in a couple of switches and things like that. And I worked that from about the, oh, 28th or so of February until 16th of March, when I was able to get hired out as a locomotive fireman.

Started out, made my student trips as the locomotive fireman. Now, to start out with, my salary as a Gandy dancer or section hand was a dollar fifty four an hour. And then my starting salary as a locomotive fireman, while I made my student trips and took my training, was a dollar eighty a day, plus I got meals when we stopped at a place where the railroad had meal service, and I got my room no matter where it was because they had dormitories in each one of the stations.

So I made my student trips, made my student trips on hand fired engines, hand fired locomotives.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Steam locomotives?

HUGH CONNELLY: Steam locomotives, on stoker fed coal locomotives. And I've got some pictures of them right there. And on diesels. South of Anchorage as we went to Seward, we were on hand fired engines, generally the 550 Class, and one of them's the 5 -- the old 555 is -- last time I saw it was in the park in Anchorage on L Street. And we also used those in the summer on work trains.

But we had all steam engines going to Seward at the time. And we had diesels most of the time from Anchorage to Whittier, and the reason for that was because of the two long tunnels, and you got an awful lot of smoke and stuff like that, and the trains were bigger, too, into -- we're out of Whittier, into Anchorage. North of Anchorage to the Jonesville Mine, just out of Palmer, we always used a steam engine, generally a 550 Class.

And then north out of Anchorage to Curry, initially it seems to me we had a steam engine that we used but generally there we used a 700, 800, or 900 Class, which were all coal stokers. One of them was an oil burner but the oil burner they used south someplace. And then from Curry to Fairbanks, usually at that time they were using the diesel. So I made my student trips, hand fired and stoker fired and as a diesel fireman.

I completed my student trips on -- gee, I can't remember for sure now. It was about 30 days. So that would have been March 16th to April 16th. Got back and took a few more student trips than needed because I wasn't going to be able to go to work as a fireman right away because there were too many people on the extra board and there was -- things were really slow. Snow fleet wasn't working that much. Got back, found out that things were real tight, went out, made some more student trips, and then got back and they said we'd made all the student trips that we should make.

So we had to go around and find a job someplace, so we got a job at the stores department for the Alaska Railroad. And there we were out working with the cranes, unloading cars that had -- had coal come in with using a clamshell. And unloading extra wheels for replacement for cars and stuff like that. And ties and everything because they were getting ready for the big push for rebuilding the Alaska Railroad and putting in heavier steel and new ties.

Worked at that until I got my first pay trip on the 26th of July. I was called on the 20 -- on the 25th of July, missed that call because I was already working, so I told them in -- in the stores department, and was then available to take the next call that I got on the 26th of July, and got a job on a work train inside the yard in Anchorage. And then the next job I got was running -- a run to Seward with one of the steam engines and back.

I remember about that time I was working for an engineer by the name of Williams, and we were coming back on the day that they had the marathon race in Seward. And I told them, when they were talking about the marathon on the way down, I told them that I wanted to run it, run up Marathon Mountain, and he couldn't believe it and gave me a bad time, but we got our callout a little bit too early the following day, so I didn't get to run Marathon Mountain race. And as we were pulling out of the Seward yard and headed up toward Grandview and Divide, he pointed out the mountain, and you could just see just a little puff of dust up on the mountain,

first group coming down, first fellow coming down the hill, and he said, you really wanted to run that? And I said, yes. He moved the Johnson bar down about three or four more notches and pulled back on the throttle a little bit more, which made the engine suck coal like nobody's business, so he really worked my tail off until we got to the place where we had our lunch. And when we got there, I was just about ready to fall in that blasted firebox, I was so worn out. And he said, you sure you still would like to have run that race? And I was pretty upset at the time. And I said, you're darned right, a little bit more in the vernacular.

HUGH CONNELLY: So at that time from someplace appeared a bottle, and I had a swig. And then we all -- we shut down our firebox, cleaned it up, and went in for lunch, and came back, and he couldn't believe that I'd done that firing up there all by myself because the engineer and the fireman used to spell off each other a little bit, but he wasn't about to, it was my first paid trip. So then we went on and everything was fine, and we became good friends after that. And he was affectionately called Uncle Fudd by everybody on the railroad. That was his nickname.

SANDRA CONNELLY: Do you remember his name?

HUGH CONNELLY: Elmer Williams.

BILL SCHNEIDER: But he was kind of testing you, huh?

HUGH CONNELLY: Oh, yeah. He really put me to the test, and gave me a little bit extra workout. When we got into town, into Anchorage, his wife came down to pick him up and he gave me a ride on up to the railroad dormitory, and he told his wife that I was the best student fireman and the best first time fireman that he'd ever had, and he was really proud of me, and that made me feel very proud of myself at the time.

SANDRA CONNELLY: Wasn't he in Curry? Did I meet him in Curry?


HUGH CONNELLY: So things were pretty tight. We were able to work through the summer. And then during that summer, I was on work trains most of the time. I made my first trips, first paid trips into Fairbanks. And I was working out of Dunbar just north of Nenana, Standard, Saulich. Where else? Cache. And then for a while, we worked right out of Fairbanks. Then when things started to ease up toward the end of the summer, I got on a yard engine here in Fairbanks for short time.

Then we got transferred back -- we got bumped. Whenever a job closed down, whoever it was that was on that job that no longer had a job on a seniority basis could bump a person who had less seniority on the railroad than they did. And it didn't last very long before I was bumped out of a job. Went back to Anchorage, and then scrounged around to get some type of a job through part of the winter. Ended up working with the stores department again. And that was -- okay, that was '49, '50.

Then April 1st came, I applied for a hostling job, that was servicing engines. And I managed to get one, so that brought me to Fairbanks. So I came up April 1st of 1950. Is that right? When did we meet? We met in '51. Yeah. So April 1st of 1950, I got the job here in Fairbanks as a hostler. At that time, they were just -- if my memory serves me right, they were just completing the or they were still working on the new addition to the Saint Joseph Hospital.

And the streets were still all dirt except for maybe First, Second and Third and Fourth Avenue. I stayed in the old railroad dormitory over what we used to call Garden Island. Crossed the bridge pretty close to where -- right next to what's principally called Rose Apartments. So stayed there. And that's where we lived. Worked on the engines, fueling them, filling them with coal and sand. Then the diesels

BILL SCHNEIDER: What was the sand for?

HUGH CONNELLY: The sand was -- they had big sand boxes on both the diesel and the coal locomotive to keep your drivers from slipping as you were starting out, and also to help you brake. Put sand down so the drivers wouldn't slide on the rail. Or spin on the rail, as you were starting out.

And fuel the diesels. At that time, we were just moving into the new roundhouse. The old roundhouse used to be down just about where the coal drop is now for the Municipal Power Plant, right down in that area. So they just moved out of the old roundhouse down there to the new roundhouse where the roundhouse currently is. Alaska Railroad yard. Then I worked -- worked there through October; and then in October, I went to Curry.

That was October of 1950. And again as a hostler. And the hostler was a six month bid. April I got off of -- in April of '51, I finished my hostling tour; and was then staying in Curry working on helper engines, which were diesels that were cut back into the middle of the train to help them up to beyond Broad Pass as far as Hurricane or Divide, so they wouldn't have to double the hills.

They started coming into -- coming with the loads out of Anchorage up through Fairbanks. And one day we had an unusual situation that happened. The train was late in getting out of Anchorage. They were required to give us an hour and a half call, but if they cancelled the call before we got to work, that didn't count. Well, I'd just gone into Anchorage the night before when we had the Brill car break down. And the Brill car was like a glorified streetcar. One unit, a large streetcar type vehicle. It was a passenger vehicle.

Went in and they didn't have any rooms at the dormitory, so I didn't have a place to sleep. And I had to wait until I could catch the passenger train the following morning. Caught the passenger train from Anchorage back to Curry. Got to Curry, went to bed, and was in bed only an hour and a half before I got the first call. And then about -- so I had to get back up, shave, and shower, and all that. And then they cancelled that call and gave us another call; they cancelled that call and gave us another call.

And finally, they called us for 11:59 p.m. that night. And they had to call us before midnight otherwise they had to pay us a day's work, you see.

So we got out of Curry at about 2:30 in the morning, and I was back on the second unit of a three unit helper. Three diesel engines back in the middle of the train. And we were coming north out of Curry to Fairbanks and I fell asleep. And the engine that I was on was all open, all the shutters were open and everything, but it, what we called, burned up. It overheated. And the rest. And then the drivers locked up,

so we had to cut that engine out of the train. And I was asked what happened, and I told them what happened, that I fell asleep, and couldn't stay awake. And my bell didn't ring, the alarm bell on mine didn't ring. Did on the other engine, though, fortunately. So anyway, when we went back, I was fired, and went to a hearing. And I was represented by a friend of mine who was an engineer. You got local representation, so to speak, at the hearing. And they asked me what happened, and I told them the truth, that I fell asleep, and that I had worked the night before and the rest,

and I didn't feel good, but I had to go to work, didn't have any choice. But because I burned up the engine and there was a lot of damage, I got fired. And the road foreman of engines, Earl Burnett, recommended that I didn't get fired, but I got fired anyway. But I was the first one that was ever hired back after being fired. I got called back 30 days later. So it was like a 30 day suspension without pay. During that time, I worked for PKMK,

and worked as a flagman for flagging on the railroad south of Anchorage as they were building the Anchorage Seward highway. And there I replaced a man who had been killed on the job.

SANDRA CONNELLY: The guy had been virtually cut in half.

HUGH CONNELLY: In an explosion as they blew away part of the side of the mountain building the Anchorage Seward Highway. And I forgot to tell you, I replaced -- when I went to work on the Alaska Railroad initially, I replaced a very tall black man, and that's why they had that big coffin on the plane. On the extra gang. And they were bringing the coffin in for him and then I replaced him. So I replaced two dead men.

SANDRA CONNELLY: There were two or three men that were injured at that PK accident on the railroad. Because --

HUGH CONNELLY: That was at Rainbow, near Rainbow.

SANDRA CONNELLY: Yes, near Rainbow. Because I remember in those days they didn't have intense care units, of course, and they had private duty nurses, and I know a number of us who, you know, worked days and different things in surgery volunteered to do private duty in the evenings because there was two or three of them that were very, very badly injured. But I remember the one young man had been killed.

HUGH CONNELLY: So when my 30 days was up, I got called back. And I used to see crews every day because I was stopping the trains at the time that they were doing the blasting to build the highway to Seward. And I was working out of Rainbow. So I was told that my job was back if I wanted it, and I immediately gave my notice and went back -- back to work, but I was off 40 days. And I was the first one that was ever hired back after something like that, and I felt very fortunate.

So I went back to work and then I went up to Curry again and I worked out of Curry. Well, we had a lot of fun with our group at Curry. We also had ACS personnel, Alaska Communications System personnel, which preceded all of this local telegraph and business now. And we sat down and we typed out anything on the teletype, and then we rotated the girls' names and we rotated the guys' names. So a telegram would go to each gal, and then it had all the rest of the names, and it would be signed by the guy that went with her, and then all of the rest of the names.

So we rotated them all the way -- all the way around. Well, we had a ball typing that thing up, punching it out on teletype. So we did that.

I used to play Four Five Six, which is a dice game with three dice, as well as play cards. They had some real big games. I was never a real big winner, but they had some terrific really big games at Curry and at Healy. And I know of nights either playing Four Five Six or playing poker when more than one guy would win 5 to 7,000, $8,000. And you know, that was more than I made in a year before that.