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Harold Tilleson, Part 1
Harold Tilleson

Harold Tilleson was interviewed on November 28, 2006 by Marie Mitchell at Elmer Rasmuson Library on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Harold talks about his responsibilities during the construction of the winter ice road from Livengood to Sagwon (known as the Hickel Highway); working as a heavy equipment operator; naming of the winter ice road the Hickel Highway; and the tenacious crew hired to build the road. Many of his stories demonstrate a spirit of triumph and comradeship among those who worked on construction of the road.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-28-08_PT.1

Project: Dalton Highway Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Nov 28, 2006
Narrator(s): Harold Tilleson
Interviewer(s): Marie Mitchell
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
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1) Family background

2) Growing up in Manley Hot Springs and moving to Fairbanks

3) Living near Ruby, and his family's mining activities

4) Getting a job with the Alaska Department of Highways, and getting married

5) Being assigned to work on construction of the winter ice road (Hickel Highway)

6) Keeping equipment running in cold temperatures, a fire incident at the Yukon River Camp, and dealing with a broken axle in a remote location

7) Working on construction of the ice road, and leadership of Elmer Parkinson

8) Crew maintaining the equipment, and working in cold and remote conditions

9) Members of the crew he worked with

10) Challenges of building the ice road

11) Why the road was constructed, lack of amentities along the way, and toilet paper flying out of the outhouse

12) Dealing with the cold, darkness, remote conditions and long work hours, and needing to rest and threatening the cook with a gun when he wanted fuel delivered

13) Modifying equipment

14) Hauling supplies along the ice road, and telling a story about ptarmigan in Anaktuvuk Pass

15) Working with Alaska Natives

16) Toughness of the crew

17) Camaraderie among crewmembers, and putting up a sign on the road

18) Constructing an ice bridge

19) Maintaining the winter ice road, and hiring truckers from Texas

20) Use of the Hickel Highway, and other road projects he worked on

21) Other members of the crew

22) Types of equipment, making a fuel delivery trip from Fairbanks to Schrader's Bluff, and having the tanker break down

23) Completion of the ice road, and planning of the Haul Road

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Section 1: Harold Tilleson was born in Alaska in 1935 at Saint Joseph's Hospital. His birth father is Bob Issacson. His mother and father moved to Manley Hot Springs in 1928. His parents separated and his mom, Milda Severson, re-married to Hans Tilleson.
birthplace -- Alaska\ Saint Joseph's Hospital\ Issacson, Bob -- father\ Manley Hot Springs -- relocation\ Severson, Milda\ re-married --Tilleson\ Tilleson, Hans -- stepfather|

Section 2: Harold's father's sister lived in Manley Hot Springs with her husband Dan Green, who owned a roadhouse. His dad moved frequently to make money. His mom was a cook for different venues. When his mother re-married, his stepdad set her up with a rocker box for gold mining in 1932. In 1935, the family moved to Fairbanks after she lost five children. Harold is the surviving child out of seven.
Manley Hot Springs -- aunt’s residence\ uncle -- owner of a roadhouse\ cook -- mother\ gold mining -- family business\ siblings -- five\ Harold -- surviving child|

Section 3: Harold was raised near Ruby, Alaska. His family mined for gold there from 1937 to 1953. When mining closed down during World War II, the family moved to Arlington, Washington and bought a farm. Harold was schooled in Washington. After the war, the family returned to Alaska and mined until 1953. Harold worked at mining with his family and for the Goodnews Bay Mining Company at Platinum, Alaska. He eventually moved to Fairbanks to work for the Alaska Department of Highways, which is how he was involved with the winter ice road (Hickel Highway).
childhood -- Ruby, Alaska\ gold mining -- family business\ duration -- from 1937 - 1953\ World War II -- effects of\ gold mining -- shut down\ Washington -- relocation\ farm -- purchase of\ post-war -- effects of\ Goodnews Bay Mining Company -- employed with\ Platinum, Alaska\ Fairbanks, Alaska -- moved to\ Alaska Department of Highways -- employed with\ winter ice road -- involvement with|

Section 4: When the family mining business shut down, Harold worked for the Alaska Department of Highways. He worked in Valdez, Glennallen, Paxton, and Fairbanks. Harold worked as an operator - operating blades, trucks, and snow plows. Harold was involved with mining since childhood. The first time he operated a CAT (Catepillar) was at the age of six, and h ehas been operating similar equipment ever since. In 1964, he was employed with the Alaska Department of Highways. In 1969, he re-married for the third time, and remained married for 32 years to Naomi Tight. He met Naomi after her husband passed away. Harold describes how he met Naomi tending bar at the Malamute Saloon in Ester, Alaska. A month and three days later, they married.
mining business -- closure of\ Alaska State Department of Highways -- employed with\ year -- 1964\ operator -- equipment\ blader\ trucks\ snow plows\ mining -- childhood\ youth -- heavy equipment experience\ CAT (Caterpillar) -- operation of\ youth\ marriage -- 1969\ Tight, Naomi -- re-marriage\ marriage -- thirty two years\ wife -- story of meeting\ Ester, Alaska\ Malamute Saloon|

Section 5: Walter Hickel was the Governor of Alaska. Hickel ordered a winter ice road to be built from Livengood to the Yukon River. By the time Harold was assigned to this project, there was a construction camp in place at the Yukon River. The winter ice road was also extended to head north to Sagwon. The purpose for the winter ice road was to haul oil drilling pipe supplies up north to Sagwon with trucks. The winter ice road was used for 2 years. The path of the road went from Fairbanks to Livengood, to the Yukon River, passed 30 miles upriver from Stevens Village, through Bettles, and up the John River to Anaktuvuk Pass. The crew was delayed for two weeks at the campsite at the Yukon River (85 degrees below zero). He was driving from Fairbanks to the Yukon River camp. The pick-up truck they were driving stalled 7 miles from the camp. While walking toward camp, they saw a frozen rabbit along the trail.
Hickel, Walter -- Alaska Governor\ winter ice road -- construction of\ route -- Livengood to Sagwon\ campsite -- Yukon River\ winter ice road was also extended to head north to Sagwon\ winter ice road -- purpose\ supplies -- delivery of\ oil drilling pipe supplies\ Sagwon -- delivery to\ transportation -- trucks\ winter ice road -- used two years\ route -- Fairbanks\ Livengood\ Yukon River\ Stevens Village\ Bettles\ Anaktuvuk Pass\ Sagwon\ Yukon River -- story of\ weather conditions -- extreme (85 degrees below zero)\ crew -- delayed\ truck -- stalling\ hiked -- to campsite\ rabbit -- frozen|

Section 6: Story about a fire incident at the Yukon River Camp.
ice road\ winter\ road -- construction\ Yukon River\ cold\ ice bridge\ camp\ Nesland, Erling\ equipment -- starting\ fire\ equipment -- burned up\ dumptruck\ grader\ vehicle -- react to cold\ equipment -- breaking\ road -- maintenance\ truck -- trailer\ Dall Summit\ driver -- ill\ truck -- retrieval\ truck -- breakdown\ stranded\ remote conditions|

Section 7: In 1969, The Alaska Road Commission started working on the winterice road. Harold started the job when he was 34 years old, and just married. The crew built the winter ice road during the first year, and maintained it for the second year. The crew had to rebuild the ice bridge. This winter ice road was called Hickel Highway. Harold would have rather called it the Parkinson Trail (after Elmer Parkinson), who led the crew along the winter ice road. Parkinson had been traveling trails in that area for many years. The crew used an old miners' trail, and changed the route where necessary to reach Sagwon. Several individuals on the crew knew the miners' trails. Pilot (Billy Carlo) flew over the mining trail to assist the crew with the route. Tennessee Williams had a truck route between Umiat and Happy Valley, so he assisted with the route. Oliver Backlund was the location engineer for the route.
Alaska Road Commission -- winter ice road\ Tilleson, Harold -- thirty-four years old\ married\ winter ice road -- constructed first year\ maintenance -- second year\ ice bridge -- Yukon River\ winter ice road -- naming of\ Hickel Highway\ Parkinson Trail -- preference\ Parkinson, Elmer -- crew person\ engineer\ winter ice trail -- gold miners' trail\ Carlo, Billy -- pilot\ route -- assistance with\ Williams, Tennessee -- operator\ route -- assistance with\ Backlund, Oliver -- location engineer|

Section 8: The crew was responsible for maintaining the equipment. One trailer was 30 feet long with double bunk beds inside. Nine men slept in there at a time. There was one table for clothes. The quarters were crowded. One night a crew person, Bobby Lee, forgot to shut the door. During that time the crew used Number 2 heating oil for fuel, so the line froze and the furnace quit. The carpenter had to go outside to repair the line by thawing the furnace (the temperature was 85 degrees below zero). The crew was very angry. With temperatures of 85 degrees below zero, the equipment would not operate. Harold recalls one crew person trying to blade at that temperature. The blader had brand new tires. As he was blading, the tread flew off the tire. "This was not a good idea to blade the trail at minus 85 degrees". He and Bud Anderson were amazed at the barrel of kerosene that thickened like honey. During the cold spell at the Yukon River, the crew changed all the transmission oil from 90 weight to Type A. They also had to keep engines running. This resulted in the crew having to stay at the Yukon River camp for two weeks. Harold said after the "frozen rabbit" incident, he started hunting rabbits because the crew was getting hungry. The cook said "It takes an old Norwegian to catch the crew a few rabbits and keep the cook-house fueled up." (the crew appreciated Harold's culinary skills).
crew -- responsible for\ equipment -- maintenance\ trailer -- bunk house\ bunk house -- description of\ bunk house -- story of\ winter\ door -- open\ crew -- freezing\ fuel -- froze up\ carpenter -- repair\ temperature -- 85 degrees below zero\ equipment -- inoperable\ blade operator -- story of\ blader -- brand new tires\ temperatures -- extreme\ blader -- damage to\ tires -- thread unraveled\ kerosene -- story of\ thickened\ engines -- running continuously\ extreme temperature -- effects of\ crew -- delayed\ immobile\ Yukon River\ hunting -- food resource\ rabbits\ supplies -- limited|

Section 9: Harold recalls the names of the crew (to the best of his memory): Bud Anderson, crew boss; Elmer Parkinson, project boss; Frank Gurtler, dozer operator; Bobby Lee, blade operator. Frank Honer, another dozer operator, was the only one who was injured. A tree limb broke through the dozer's cab and pierced his chest. The dozers had tarps over the engine to keep the cabin warm. One could heat canned soup on the truck manifold. Others on the crew were Erling Nesland and Andy Miscovich.
winter ice road -- crew\ crew -- names of\ equipment -- description of|

Section 10: The winter ice road route was difficult to blade. The land was frozen tundra and ice. The oil companies needed a winter road for travel. The area is difficult to travel during the summer because the land is too boggy and muddy, and the only way they had to cross the rivers were by winter ice bridges. When the crew reached the Yukon River, the weather was minus 85 degrees, which delayed the progress (for two weeks). The winter ice road was completed in 3 months. Governor Hickel thought it could be done in 3 weeks. This was the first time any crew was making a winter ice road in that area to haul heavy loads (of supplies for the oil fields).
winter ice road route -- difficulties with\ landscape -- frozen tundra\ oil companies -- road access\ construction -- winter season\ reasons for\ summer -- boggy land\ summer -- transportation challenges\ Yukon River -- no bridge\ ice bridge -- creation of\ winter ice road -- completion of\ timeline -- three months\ Hickel, Governor Walter -- wanted three weeks\ road access -- none beyond the Yukon River\ winter ice road -- to haul heavy loads\ gold miner’s trail -- modification of|

Section 11: Story about how the toilet paper in the outhouse would fly back out because of the strong wind.
road -- construction\ oil development\ supplies -- hauling\ Sagwon\ supplies -- drill pipe\ Yukon River\ outhouse\ cold\ wind\ toilet paper -- flying out\ amenities -- lack of\ showers -- lack of\ breaks -- into town|

Section 12: Story about being so tired from a long trip to deliver fuel that he pulled a gun on the cook when he tried to wake him up.
friendship\ cold -- temperature\ winter\ remote conditions\ communication -- lack of\ communication -- radio\ movies -- making\ photographs\ seasons\ daylight\ work -- hours\ shifts -- length of\ workdays -- long\ shifts -- 12 hours\ overtime\ tired\ rest -- need for\ cook\ fuel delivery\ gun\ threat\ sleep\ food -- in bed|

Section 13: The crew had to jack the trailers to put skids on and remove the axles (for repair). Type A oil was used for the trucks. Blankets were placed over the radiator, and curtains over the engine in order to heat the air going into the cab. The bladers had an enclosed area with heat. Oliver Backlund and Elmer Parkinson were surveying the route (by plane) ahead of the crew. When the crew arrived near Bettles, Bud Anderson started his shift. He was gone for 12 hours, and ended back where he started. Bud drove in a circle because he became disoriented. The crew never let him forget that incident.
equipment -- modifications to\ trailers -- on skids\ trucks -- Type A oil\ radiators -- blanket cover\ purpose of\ trailers -- open cab\ bladers -- enclosed cab\ Backlund, Oliver -- surveyor\ Parkinson, Elmer -- surveyor\ route -- marked by pilot\ Anderson, Bud -- story of\ driving -- in circles|

Section 14: Trucks started hauling supplies along the winter ice road during the first year. Camps were set-up along the route, too. Bladers maintained and kept the route open during the winter. There were camp sites at Dall Summit, Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass, and Sagwon. Bettles, an old mining town, had an airstrip. Harold was told that an Eskimo-Indian War took place at that location. Harold recalls when he visited Anaktuvuk Pass, he saw a tall fence with numerous ptarmigan inside (and no roof). He asked one of the Native boys how they got inside the fence. He was told, "The birds could fly in, but could not fly out". The ptarmigan crawled through a hole in the bottom of the fence but could not figure out how to get back out or did not try to to fly out the top.
winter ice road -- opening of\ campsites -- locations\ communities -- naming of\ Anaktuvuk Pass village -- story of\ ptarmigan\ Bettles -- amenities\ airstrip|

Section 15: At Anaktuvuk Pass village, there was an exchange of services between the crew and the Natives. The crew would loan the welding machine or provide fuel, and in return received food - such as Dall Sheep. Harold remembers how the people would hang the caribou meat behind their stove. The people from Anaktuvuk Pass helped mark the trail toward Sagwon. He notes that not much has been written about those involved with the winter ice road (Hickel Highway). When the crew was near Stevens Village, he remembers one Alaska Native being hired. His name is Horace "Holy" Smoke. He was hired to help the Yukon River ice bridge crew, which was supervised by Erling Nesland. Another part of the crew was in Bettles building an ice bridge across the Koyukok River. This group was supervised by Andy Miscovich and they stayed at the Bettles Lodge.
Anaktuvuk Pass village -- assistance with\ collaboration\ exchange -- goods and services\ caribou -- story of\ Stevens Village -- recruitment of crew\ Smoke, Horace "Holy " -- crew\ Alaska Native\ Stevens Village\ Bettles -- lodge\ facilities\ airstrip\ Fickus, Bill -- lodge owner|

Section 16: Most of the crew involved with the winter ice road had a mining background. These were hardy men. The crew was prepared, except for extreme weather conditions of 85 degrees below zero. The crew survived. There were no other severe weather conditions (after the Yukon River). Harold recalls how surprised he was when he saw a moose after passing Schrader's Bluff, where there is little brush and willows are 3 feet tall.
winter ice road -- crew\ crew -- heavy machinery experience\ mining background\ crew -- prepared\ extreme weather conditions -- surprise\ survival of\ moose -- story of\ Schrader's Bluff -- location\ moose -- farthest north\ Anaktuvuk Pass -- meaning\ the place of the caribou\ Tilleson, Harold -- hunter|

Section 17: Celebrating their arrival at Sagwon with drinking hot toddies, and putting up the trail sign at Umiat to direct those who came on the road behind them.
Sagwon\ entertainment\ off-shift\ alcohol\ camaraderie\ cookhouse\ sign\ trail\ Umiat\ freight\ CAT-train\ airplane\ Williams, Tennessee\ Carlo, Bill\ Yukon River|

Section 18: In 1970, the crew only had to build the ice bridge, blade the gold miners' trail, and haul supplies to the camps. Equipment was left at specific camp locations until the crew completed the road. A blader, pick-up truck, and a CAT were left at camps in order to maintain the winter ice road. During the first and second year, there was a steady flow of semi-trucks that delivered supplies to Sagwon. Truck drivers hired from the Lower-48 were surprised how cold it was, and were not prepared for the weather. Harold tells of a glacier breaking up across Anaktuvuk Pass.
ice bridge -- building of\ road -- blading\ supplies -- hauled\ supplies -- campsites\ campsites -- purpose of\ equipment storage\ equipment -- types of\ blader\ pick-up truck\ CAT\ winter ice road -- completion\ truckers -- delivering supplies\ route -- Hickel Highway\ Hickel Highway -- used two years\ truck drivers -- recruitment of\ glacier break up -- story of\ dangers of\ Anaktuvuk Pass -- location|

Section 19: During the second year, the crew had to maintain the winter ice road and grade it for the truckers. Harold recalls the time when he saw a big black wolf near Dall Summit area. He chased the wolf with his blader driving in 6th gear. The wolf could not get out of the trail because there were 12 feet cuts on both sides of the trail. A Consolidated truck driver was driving behind Harold.
winter ice road -- maintenance\ wolf -- story of\ wolf -- chasing\ consolidated truck driver -- wolf attack\ truckers\ Texas\ equipment -- preparation\ drivers -- preparation\ cold temperatures|

Section 20: The winter ice road (Hickel Highway) was used only for two years because oil companies started building the Haul Road. The Hickel Highway was used to haul the drill pipe and regular freight supplies for the drill rigs. There was enough oil discovered to justify building the winter ice road (Hickel Highway). After Tilleson's work on the Hickel Highway, he continued working in road construction. He worked with the Alaska Department of Highways until 1964.
winter ice road -- Hickel Highway\ transportation -- of supplies\ transportation -- two years\ Haul Road -- proposal for\ Hickel Highway -- temporary trail\ purpose -- hauling\ drill pipe\ freight supplies\ Sagwon -- amenities\ lodge\ airstrip\ oil drilling\ Alaska Department of Highways -- resigned\ year --1964|

Section 21: crew\ Anders, Eddie\ driving truck\ blade operator\ Thomas, Ron\ carpenter\ camp\ stove -- repair\ building -- maintenance\ wannigan -- construction of\ fuel -- oil|

Section 22: fuel\ fuel tank\ tanker\ crew\ equipment\ CAT\ Nodwell\ blades\ trucks\ fuel -- delivery\ trip -- long\ Fairbanks\ Schrader's Bluff\ Roberston, Bruce\ trip -- fast\ Anaktuvuk Pass\ tanker -- breakdown\ tanker -- retrieval\ road construction -- methods|

Section 23: When the winter ice road was completed, there was a celebration and the crew received plaques. The state officials named the winter ice road the Hickel Highway. The winter ice road was needed, which led to the planning of the Haul Road. Harold notes the difference between building a road in Alaska versus building a road in the Lower-48 states.
winter ice road -- completion\ celebration -- honoring crew\ winter ice road -- naming of\ winter ice road -- positive outcome\ incentive -- planning of the Haul Road\ road --construction\ construction -- comparison with\ permafrost -- challenges with|