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Juneau-Douglas City Museum


Stewart, Ben and Edna

by from an oral interview done by Judge Tom Stewart and Dee Williams
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The history of my family in Juneau began with my father as a mining engineer in the Couer d’Alene country of Idaho/Montana. He was working for a mine there, when the head of the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Company, Frederick Bradley, sought his services as a qualified mining engineer to survey the main tramming tunnel of the A-J which was being developed.

Benjamin Duane Stewart, my father, was born and reared in Missoula, Montana, in 1878. My mother, Edna Ewin, was from Missouri, where she attended college and taught English. While visiting her married sister, who was living in Wallace, Idaho, she met my father and they were married in 1906 or 1907. Moving to Juneau in 1911, they raised their family here with all of us graduating from Juneau High School.

My father was responsible for the survey of that main tramming tunnel which connected the mine to the mill at tidewater. (The remains of that mill can be seen on the hillside above the waterfront in Juneau today.) The tunnel was 24 feet wide and 16 feet high with double tracks to move the ore the three miles down from the mine to the mill. It was built on a 1% grade with a curve so the locomotives did not have to work so hard pulling the loaded ore cars. It was built from both ends simultaneously, and when the two sections met they were within inches of each other. Shortly after 1912, my father went into private practice as a consulting mining engineer and did a lot of work all over Southeast Alaska for the next ten years.

The first son, Benjamin Duane, Jr. was born in 1911 before they moved to Juneau. He became a civil engineer and worked for the Alaska Road Commission in Fairbanks on the building of the Alaska Highway. He worked with them until Statehood in 1959 when he went with the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, which became the Federal Highway Administration. Upon retirement he lived in Seattle on Mercer Island and Lake Washington dying in May 1992.

John Ewin was born in Juneau on December 9, 1912. He graduated from medical school in 1941, and shortly after the United States entered World War II, he joined the Navy and served in the Pacific Theater. After the war he went back to Boston and obtained his specialty in Orthopedic Surgery. He moved to Seattle where he and his wife made their home on Mercer Island and raised six children.

My sister, Jeannette, was a rather interesting person. She had an illness with an extended high fever when she was about 14, which left her totally deaf. She will celebrate her 87th birthday in January 2001 and has not heard a sound in those intervening years. She went to school at the University of Washington and got a degree in Library Science. She worked as a catalog librarian at the Library of Congress and ultimately moved to Portland, Oregon, where she worked and has made her home. Now retired she has gone through life with that handicap never learning sign language, but being an expert lip-reader.

My younger sister, Mary, a delightful personality and beautiful young woman, was born in 1922. As with the rest of our siblings, which at one time was the largest family to have all gone completely through all the grades in the Juneau School system, she graduated from Juneau High School. After a year at the University of Washington, she returned to Juneau and worked for a year at the Baranof Book Store before going to Mt. Holyoke College where she graduated. She was an assistant headmistress at a girls’ school near Philadelphia where she met her husband, Robert Fellows, whom she married in 1947. He was the head of the Alaska branch of the U.S. Geological Survey and worked in McKinley National Park for two summers. In 1949, Bob had a heart attack while in the field and died at the age of 35. Mary took their eight year old daughter, Anne, and went back to the Baldwin School for a while, returned to Juneau for a winter and then took a library job at Swarthmore College. There she met a famous British Arctic explorer, Charles Swinbank; they were married in 1960, and moved to England. They had a long and interesting life together until she died in 1999 at 77. They had two children - a daughter and a son.

I was born January 1, 1919, and after graduating from Juneau High School, I attended the University of Washington, obtaining a degree in 1941. Pearl Harbor came and I applied for Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I got into a skiing unit of the Army and went to Camp Hale, Colorado, for training in the mountaineering troops with the 87th Regiment. In June 1942, the Japanese occupied two of the Aleutian Islands - Attu and Kiska. The 87th was selected to drive the Japanese off Kiska. We landed on Kiska in August of 1943, but fortunately the Japanese had evacuated the island about two weeks earlier. We occupied the island until December and then were sent back to Colorado. I was released from the service in the fall of 1945.

At that point, I came home to Juneau, getting a job as Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives in the Territorial Legislature. I returned to school and took a masters degree in International Studies in Washington, D.C., in 1947. The following fall I entered Yale Law School where I received my Bachelor of Law in 1950. I returned to Juneau and worked as a law clerk to Federal District Judge George W. Folta. After passing the Bar in 1951, I became an assistant district attorney general from 1951 - 1954. In late 1954, I was elected to the Territorial Legislature as a member of the House from Juneau. I became chairman of what was called the Committee on Statehood and Federal Relations and our primary job was to draft the statutes for holding a Constitutional Convention. My counterpart on the Senate side was Senator Bill Egan, who later became the President of the Convention and the first governor of the State of Alaska. Students have subsequently said the constitution that was produced by the Convention is probably the best of all the 50 states. When the Convention was finished, I went into private law practice in Juneau. In 1961, I accepted appointment as the second State Court Administrator appointed by the Chief Justice and moved to Anchorage. We lived there for five years until I was appointed to the bench in Juneau in 1966. We returned to Juneau in 1967 and have been in the house my parents built in 1916 since that time.

In 1955, I married Jane McMullen, who came to Juneau in 1945 with her first husband, Robert. They had four children, three girls and a boy. The marriage dissolved and Mr. McMullen left Juneau, but Jane remained. Subsequently there were three more children born to our marriage. Our daughter, Mary in 1958, son Caleb in 1960, and son Thomas in 1961. Jane was a very fine musician and piano teacher originally from Oklahoma where she received her musical education. She was a professional pianist and conductor of the Methodist Church choir and was involved in the symphony, lyric opera, community choruses and many other concerts and shows until she was afflicted with an Alzheimer’s type dementia in the late 1980’s.

My parents left Juneau in 1951, to make what they contemplated to be a six month trip to Europe – they returned two and a half years later.

GROWING UP IN JUNEAU –

I remember some very special things about my youth in Juneau. There was no developed playground, so we played where the terrain and topography allowed. For me, my playground was Gold Creek and what was called “The Pond,” known today as Cope Park or Evergreen Bowl. It was actually a lake which filled the entire area now covered by the tennis courts, the baseball field and the whole surface of what we know as Evergreen Bowl. In the summertime, we would build rafts and float around on the lake, and in the wintertime, it would freeze over and we would ice skate.

One of my favorite activities as a youngster was sledding. It wasn’t unusual to have three or four feet of snow in town. When we were youngsters, there weren’t any cars in town. The first cars came in the 1920’s, but the road system was not developed. The main road through Juneau was a plank road and much of the heavy work was done by horse drawn wagons. They didn’t have modern snowplows to clear snow, so many of the streets didn’t get cleared. One of our favorite sledding places was 9th Street where you could go up that hill right down on to the road and sled down to what was called the baseball park (where the Federal Building is now). Or we would slide down Gold Creek Hill (Calhoun Avenue), go across the bridge and down 12th Street to where the dairy buildings were located on what is now Glacier Avenue. The most exciting was Gold Street (Basin Road) to where it goes upwards on Gastineau Avenue just beyond 2nd Street.

In summer time, baseball was the favorite activity. We would play what we called scrub, or what is known elsewhere as sandlot. In the wintertime, the most active organized sport was basketball. I used to play quite a bit of tennis. There was a wooden tennis court down by Gold Creek near the ballpark and another set of wooden courts where the Assembly Apartments are now. My father was involved with a club of people who had those courts built, but they weren’t private.

One of the events that I recall from my younger years was the building of the Juneau-Douglas Bridge which was completed in 1935, and one of the girls in my high school class, Birdie Jensen, was the queen for the dedication of the bridge. There was a big parade and floats.

The Elks Club used to be more active and more significant in the social life of Juneau, and they always had an Elks’ picnic that was held on the beach down near Marmion Island at the south end of Douglas Island. We would go down there on a chartered vessel, and they would anchor a barge off shore that the vessel could tie up to and offload the people to be carried by skiff from the barge to the shore. That was the big event of the summer.

Summertime involved a lot of baseball. The Elks and the Moose and other fraternal organizations and the Douglas and Juneau firemen sponsored teams. The Fourth of July was a big event with the parades. In high school, I loved the wilderness and spent a lot of time hunting and fishing and climbing the mountains. I used to climb Mt. Juneau about once a week between high school and college. I used to hunt ptarmigan in the mountains with Dean Williams, who is still an active resident of Juneau, and mountain goats up Nuggett Creek, Salmon Creek and Granite Basin.