“I was ready to live here permanently the day I got here – the land just drew (me) in,” says Velma Hull. The day she is speaking of was 57 years ago, when she and her husband – well-known local handyman and one-time bike shop owner Red Hull – came up the Alaska Highway.
Velma – a spry 83-year-old with a lively face, a shock of white hair and quick hands – was born in central Alberta. She came first to Keno in 1958 back when the town was still a hot-bed for the mining industry. During this time, her husband was a hard-rock miner, an occupation which saw them move again, this time to a town in the same region called Calumet, which no longer exists.
“It was just a little town where the mines were. All you’d see of it is houses on the side of a hill that goes like this,” she says, slanting her hand at a 45 degree angle.In 1960, following the No Cash Mine Fire, Velma and her husband moved to Alberta. Velma recalls the tragic incident in detail.
“One of the men in the mine was a firebug… an arsonist, I guess you’d say,” she says, shaking her head. “Set the garbage in the lunchroom on fire… the way the mine was built was like a chimney…. my husband was one of the last three men out – four people died in that fire.”
Despite this tragedy, Velma couldn’t stay away from the Yukon for long, and a year later returned to Carcross, where she and her husband lived until 1971, when they moved to Whitehorse so their eldest daughter could attend high school.
“We never had much to do with Whitehorse until we moved here, but it’s grown so much. It’s amazing to see,” Velma says, speaking of the changes which have come since she settled into the territory’s capital.
Velma’s friend and colleague, Joyce Van Bibber, 68, certainly agrees.
“Whitehorse was always a grimy town,” she recalls. “There was paper every where, being blown about by the wind. They’ve done a lot of work (on the town) and now it’s beautiful.”
Joyce moved to Mayo from Edmonton in 1952, when she was just five years old. She later moved to Watson Lake, where she lived for 30 years before moving to Whitehorse in 2005. She can remember, she says, when the Alaska Highway was just a dirt strip with no place to pull over, no place to go to the washroom, and the dirt so thick people got into accidents on account of not being able to see through the thick cloud the cars in front kicked up.
“They used to sell the dust from the highway for 35 cents in a can (as a souvenir),” Joyce says. “The Yukon has come a long way since I got here.”
Now both senior citizens, these long-time Yukoners are some of the first faces the newcomers and visitors to the territory are greeted with: both ladies work at the Tourist Information Centre on 4th Ave here in Whitehorse and love their job.
“Having this job at my age is really remarkable,” says Velma. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, as far as work goes.”