Yukon Nuggets

1944 Yukon Nuggets

Rusty Dow


Today, the Alaska Highway is considered the main street of the Yukon and Alaska. Easy to drive and quick to get there. It wasn't always so. Back in the early 40s, there was no highway. In the late 40s you needed a pass to travel on it. In the 50s and 60s, it was a dusty, muddy trail to nowhere - at least, it felt like you were going nowhere. My, how times have changed.There was a time, during construction in the 40s, that women were rarely seen anywhere and certainly not in a job meant for men. Thus, Rusty Dow was unique. She was an Alaskan who was noted for being " a woman who actually does a man's job in this war." That's the way the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote of her, in a 1943 series on U.S. Army Engineers in Alaska during World War II.

Rusty Dow was a female truck driver. She was one of a small group of women who worked at important jobs for the US army engineers in the Alaska Defense Command. Rusty, said the paper, "with her kindly blue eyes, unruly red hair and the khaki coveralls, drives an engineer mail truck through the ruts and roads and forts of Alaska." She usually drove a temperamental Studebaker 6-by-6.

Rusty Dow was born in Texas in 1894, moved to Alaska in 1934, and married a former ski champion named Russell Dow. In the early 40s she got a job with the engineers and often noted: "They get lots done when the going's hardest."

At first there were many skeptics that a woman could fill a man's trucking job, on the rough Alaska highway, but Rusty persisted and drove through blizzards, over dog trails, and on primitive roads with no accidents. Lt. Gen. Simon Buckner, commanding general in Alaska, called her "a real sourdough."

Army engineers completed a pioneer road in November 1942, and then contractors went to work in spring of 1943, straightening and improving the road and building permanent bridges. In 1944 Rusty Dow was the first woman to drive the entire length of the Alaska Highway. In a truck loaded with five tons of cement, Rusty made the 1532 mile trip in seven days. She was then fifty years old.

After the war, Rusty Dow took up painting and became a noted Alaskan artist. She spent her last few years in a nursing home in Palmer, Alaska, operating a wheel chair. The sign on the wall of her apartment read:"I drove the Alaska Highway - both ways - dammit." Rusty Dow was 95.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.