Beryl Johnson: Growing up in Skagway

89-year-old recounts her youth in Southeast Alaska

Posted: Saturday, June 20, 2009

"We did what kids do," said Beryl Johnson, 89, describing her life growing up in Skagway. So what did kids do without Facebook, TV, cell phones, Internet, movies, video games and Twitter?

Kathleen Metcalfe / For The Juneau Empire
Kathleen Metcalfe / For The Juneau Empire

For starters there was the swimming hole. Young boys dug a slew off the Skagway River and widened a hole so there was a place to swim, Johnson said. "The boys swam without clothes until they got old enough to be interested in girls. So they put on some pants and we girls could go swimming too," Johnson said.

A neighbor's horse provided Johnson and a girlfriend some entertainment.

"We would put about six gunny sacks over that spine that was sitting up there, and we would climb on and ride all around," Johnson said.

When neighbor yelled out a window, "Hey Beryl, do you want to hear this?" she walked through the door and witnessed the dawn of America's electronic entertainment era, at least in Skagway. It was one of the first radios in town, Johnson said.

"They called them crystal sets, and he was trying to tune it in," she said.

Johnson was one of eight siblings, all born in Skagway.

"I was number five, right in the middle where they can't find you," she said, laughing.

Her father, Hal Johnston, worked as an agent for Canadian Pacific Railway. Her mother, Ethel, had a huge garden and grew much of the family's food.

In addition to play, everybody worked and many young people worked in the tourist industry, Johnson said.

"Tourists were an essential part of our economy," she said. "They were not an intrusion."

As a child she sold flowers to tourists coming off passenger boats.

"When I got older, I waited on tables in hotels," she said. "All three boats had orchestras and they would come up and play. So we would dance two or three nights a week until two in the morning and then I got up at six and waited tables."

When Johnson was 15, her father moved the family to Seattle for two winters so the older children could attend college and business school. It was her first trip outside.

"The boat was an entirely different environment," she said. "Wonderful food, wonderful service, spotlessly clean. We were sitting there with four forks to the left, five spoons to the right. We had never seen anything like that.

"I can still remember coming into the port of Seattle and seeing all those lights. It was magic."

The roar of the city made her uncertain about ever sleeping again. In Skagway, one lonely light sufficed for Broadway, the main street, and only a couple of families had cars. At night the only noise came from the river and a waterfall, she said.

There were two churches in town, Presbyterian and Catholic.

"Fortunately we weren't divided at all," Johnson said. "The town was too small, the Catholic kids couldn't just play with Catholic kids.

"There was one thing; we were dreadfully racist. Indian Town was behind the Presbyterian Church and even in that church they couldn't sit with us.

"Natives couldn't come to our dances, they couldn't sit on the main floor in our theater, they couldn't come into our bars and drink. They were what we called siwashed, always siwashed, and if a white man didn't behave himself he would be siwashed."

Siwash was a derogatory word for a Native.

With its 100-mile railroad to Whitehorse and the Yukon River, Skagway was an important gateway to interior Alaska in 1941. So shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army came steaming up the Lynn Canal to Skagway with thousands of soldiers and much of the equipment and supplies needed to build the Alaska Highway.

The military imposed a form of marshal law in Alaska. No one could leave or come into the territory without the military's permission. In Skagway, everyone was ordered off the streets by 9 p.m., and during the day citizens were not allowed to go outside of the town. The military commander strutted down the boardwalks dressed in putties and carrying a swagger stick, said Johnson.

Things soon relaxed, the curfew was canceled, and the commander was gone. "There was some stress, you had to adjust to their needs and sometimes their orders. But I would say by and large that they were well received. We all had a job to do. Our Skagway boys were overseas doing their jobs. No one got to stay home," Johnson said.

After the war, Johnson moved south and later came back to Alaska. She now lives in Anchorage where she and her husband, John Johnson, raised two children, Christine and Jay.

• Mac Metcalfe, of Juneau, is retired from public school teaching and from the Army National Guard.

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