During the first years of the war, business picked up a little and Mrs. Giles went back. Came the big mail just before Xmas where everybody had sent out for gifts and goodies. The little room at the back was jammed with brown paper bundles and boxes. In the very early morning a wisp of smoke appeared. Marjorie, a half a mile away, looked out of the kitchen window and saw a column of smoke. She remarked idly, “Wouldn’t it be funny if it were the Post Office?” It was! And it wasn’t funny at all!
What could a water-tank and a bucket brigade do? The whole town gathered, wondering whether their Christmas parcel had come on that train. There wasn’t time to re-order.
Other people had more serious problems. The war effort funneled through the Post Office also. For a few weeks the old Legion Hall served, until a Nissan (Quonset) hut was assembled — looking like half of a greatly over-sized culvert pipe — at the site next to Wade’s Style shop. Mr. Sharp was awarded the O.B.E. for “bravery under fire”. Shortly afterward, he left for Ontario and service in the Air Force.
Suddenly young Mrs. Giles, Assistant Postmistress, was left with the steadily mounting volume of mail. The Alaska Highway construction brought in thousands and thousands of men, who either went into service occupations in town, or on to construction camps up the Highway. All of the personnel and also all of the highway confidential army communications not flown from Edmonton funneled through the cramped quarters.
The nucleus of the staff from beginning to war’s end and after consisted of Mrs. Bullen, now retired, Mrs. Anne (Bullen) Halverson still working efficiently in the service, and the late Mrs. Irvine, the mother of Dr. Irvine of the city. Others came and went. Some were good and some were awful. All of them could get much more money as waitresses up the highway in the camps, where the American soldiers “tipped” lavishly.
Mrs. Giles (now Mrs. R. Daw of Victoria) remembers vividly. “There were no conveniences. The sanitary inconveniences out-of-doors were more than ever inadequate, when over-chlorination of the water supply by the American army (so strong that you couldn’t smell turnips cooking!) made digestive disturbances epidemic. The waterman arrived infrequently with water for hand washing after dragging the filthy mail sacks around.
“Hot as Hades in summer, due to the uninsulated tin roof and cold as the devil in winter. Just one stove near the front of the structure, everlastingly needing to be stoked with wood”.
Marjorie says, “In winter, Anne and I solved the clothes problem by wearing flannelette pyjamas with long wool stockings pulled up over the legs, heavy woolen ski pants, and a woolen cardigan over a blouse – and a toque! When we were sorting mail at 40 below we added an overcoat or ski jacket and a mitt on the left hand.”
Outside the wicket the people waiting for “general delivery” stamped their feet and rubbed their hands – there was no room to swing arms! Outside the queue was often four abreast far back past Wade’s Style Shop. If the walk hadn’t been built up a foot and a half above the street, one might have been able to break through the line to reach one’s private “box” in the lobby. Once I saw the line extend back nearly to the “Corner Drug” when the Christmas mail was arriving. On that occasion I was lucky. A truck equipped with a homemade caboose caught fire from the little stove inside. Someone suggested that the gasoline tank might explode. There was a general scattering of the queue, and calculating the risk not to be imminent, I got in and unlocked my box before hastening away myself. After all, we had become so accustomed to fires that a little one was hardly noticed — at least until after the disaster of February 1943.
The staff generally sorted the first class mail and parcels before leaving for the night, getting as much out as possible to make room. They usually left around 10 PM or as late as 2 AM around Christmas.
“Then”, remembered Marjorie, “for a long time the out-going train left at 6:45 AM so I was up at 5:30, sorted mail and locked the bags and gave them to the carrier, Mike Ryan. Back home at 7 A.M. for two hours sleep, then at work at 9:45 A.M. It was a long day”.
“During the earliest and busiest rush, 1942-43 the trains rarely arrived on time, so sometimes I slept at the office on a sorting table with mail sacks for a pillow. Someone had to be there to receive the mail, check the registered mail and lock it in the safe. One morning I bent down to put my key in the lock when a flashlight suddenly beamed in my face blinding me. “Put that thing down! What do you think you are doing”, I said. It was a policeman who thought I was breaking in.
“When he found that I habitually came across at that time (5:45 A.M. just then) and all of us walked home late at night, he was horrified”. (No wonder! The plainest women were sometimes knocked down and robbed on payday, right in town centre. These women had a half-mile to walk, gas for cars being rationed).
“After that”, she continued, “if their duties allowed a police car was generally cruising by and picked us up – until I got my dog, George, that is. George was a St. Bernard – husky cross. No one ever came near me when he was there. He would lie beside me at the counter, and if a voice or voices were raised on the other side, he would stand up and look through the wicket. It had an instantaneous effect.”
Marjorie had praise for the Railroad Post Office (R.P.O.) “I doubt if the R.P.O. clerks were ever appreciated by the public, who probably never heard of them. They had two cars at first, – wooden, old, rattly, with two bunks and a hot plate or something. They brought food with them and some of them made marvelous stews, with a little help from my garden”.
“The trip from Edmonton took nearly two days each way. Sorting everything whilst being shaken and jostled and rattled around”. (The roadbed of the N.A.R. did not improve under heavy traffic!)
“Then a steel car was added – cold as cold could be while here at the station with no heat from the engine”. (That would be unhooked and in the round-house for servicing.)
“They were a good group, cheery and very helpful to us at all times. Of course, we tried to help them. The last of them has just retired and is surely enjoying it”.
“The young man who was with us when Mr. Sharp left soon quit to take a job up the Highway at better pay, so that left all females. We soon learned that loading and unloading parcel sacks isn’t a matter of strength, but of knack and we soon mastered it.
“At the time of the explosion, not knowing how far the fire would spread, Mrs. Irvine and I emptied all the first class mail remaining in boxes and General Delivery into a locked sack, then all the COD’s and important things into locked sacks, ready to move if necessary. As it happened, the fire did not spread south. As it was a Saturday, it meant that on Sunday, we had to take it all out and resort it. We were not happy! But it didn’t matter too much as someone always had to go in on a Sunday to send out the Rolla mail with Mr. Coons”.
The writer remembers a characteristic incident concerning Mrs. Giles on that awful night. I had had a presentiment of fire earlier in the day, and had arranged to take six thousand precious ration books, wrapped for delivery to country points, to the Post Office by closing time at 10 P.M. In all the confusion, Marjorie remembered that I had not come. She walked at least a half-mile out of her way to see whether I had come home from the ration office, which by that time was consumed in the holocaust, but where I would be working alone. I had been home and was away to hospital duty as emergency aide. The ration book boxes and bundles were just rectangles of white ash, drifting off in the wind when I got permission to visit the cordoned-off smoking ruins next morning.
Mrs. Giles (Daw) never got any recognition for the faithful service that she rendered so cheerfully in those seven years. When the Postmaster returned after the war, she, who had never been recognized as “Postmistress” simply resumed her place at the wicket.
I do not think that she ever got the chance to work in the new building that was constructed on the corner where the Woolworth store now stands. Mrs. M. Bullen served competently until she retired. Her daughter, Anne Halverson is still sorting out the crises that arise from time to time.