The McKanna Family: Pioneers of the Northwest
In 1886 Michael Bernard McCanna loaded his wife and five young children into a wagon bound for adventure. Alaska beckoned with abundant land and treasures of gold. The Alaska Pioneers’ Association numbered among its members those who had settled into this virgin and wild world by 1887. A picture hanging on a wall in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum includes Michael’s wife, Katherine Ann Rooney McCanna, and four of their children. (Michael died in the Yukon goldrush fields in 1899.) Its documentation places their arrival in the newly opened territory as August of 1886.
(Top row, right of center) Katherine Ann, Emmet, Elizabeth, Philip, and Jim
After my mother, Mike Willis, died in 1960 I found a note in her handwriting in the family bible. It listed all of the children of Michael and Katherine, with their birthdates. She named a child who has disappeared, John, born in Miles City, Montana, on June 7, 1882. During a conversation about the family, Mickey McKanna, a son of Philip McKanna and Kathleen Doyle McKanna, related how on the trip from Montana to Alaska one of the children fell out of the wagon and perished. I suspect this accounts for the lost, and seldom if ever mentioned, John. It also underlines the rigors of this pioneering journey.
The McCannas settled on Douglas Island, across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau.
Douglas, the Gastineau Channel, and Juneau in the distance
`The family lived in Douglas; Michael labored as a hard-rock gold miner in adjacent Treadwell. The family grew by two as Elizabeth gave Michael two more sons: Robert John on May 21, 1889, and Hilary on June 11, 1892. In the course of day-by-day events on the Island like these, the surname “McCanna,” so spelled from Ontario to Minnesota to Miles City, morphed into “McKanna,” as written to this day.
Back in the states, in San Francisco Robert John Willis, (I) had married. His wife, May Lewis, gave him two children: Howard John on October 6, 1886, who died eight months later; and Hazel Mae on October 12, 1887. As the fates would have it, on September 25, 1895 he disembarked in Juneau from the Topeka, sailing out of San Francisco, in order to take a position as a salesman in the Treadwell-Alaska Goldmining Company store on Douglas Island. May would birth their last child, Lillian, on June 9th the following year before following him in August with the two girls to Alaska. The family resumed their life in Treadwell, a company town, next door to Douglas.
From 1892-1898 Elizabeth McKanna, having graduated from St. Ann’s Academy in Juneau, found work on the Island as Douglas’ s postmistress.
Disaster soon visited both the Willis and McKanna families. On October 11, 1898 May Willis came down with meningitis and speedily died. Her body was shipped back on the steamer Dirigo to San Francisco for burial. Robert Willis now had two young girls, ages eleven and two, to raise, at the same time as he worked to support the family. Then Michael McKanna, mining in the Yukon gold fields with his two oldest sons, Jim and Emmet, came down with Brights Disease, a kidney ailment. Making his way back toward Douglas with Jim as his support, Michael died near the shores of Lake Bennett, in the District of Atlin, British Columbia. When news reached Douglas, his daughter Elizabeth took a boat to Skagway and a recently built rail line up the Chilkoot Pass . She and Jim buried their father’s body in a small miners’ cemetery located at the top of the Pass, one the Forest Service maintains to this day.
Miners’ Cemetery, top of Chilkoot Pass, near Lake Bennett
In 1901 the citizens of Treadwell elected Robert Willis as the town’s first mayor. The next year the federal government appointed him as Treadwell’s postmaster. It is no surprise, given the situation, that on November 7, 1903 he married twenty-eight-year-old Elizabeth McKanna. The wedding took place in the McKanna family home in Douglas; Rev. Peter Bougis, S.J. officiated. Nine months later, on August 18, 1904, Elizabeth gave the couple their first child, Robert John Willis (II), and the girls a baby brother. According to the baptismal register of Our Lady of the Mines Catholic Church in Douglas the same Jesuit priest, Fr. Bougis, did the official welcoming into the Catholic communion. Philip McKanna stood as his godfather.
Sometime during this period, Robert Willis took over the management of the Alaska-Treadwell store, certainly during 1905-1906. But other opportunities beckoned. His best man, Douglas Ledbetter, purchased with Earl Wallace a general merchandizing store in Goldendale, a small farming community in south-central Washington State. Ledbetter talked his manager/ friend into transferring with him to Goldendale; he would manage the new store’s agricultural department. Willis accepted the offer. In February 1907 Robert Willis preceeded his family to their new home; they joined him on the Fourth of July. Thus began the transporting of the combined McKanna and Willis family from the Alaska Territory to Washington State.
The two oldest McKanna boys for some years followed their father’s path. Emmet mined around Dawson from 1897-1900, Jim from 1897-1904. When Emmet came back to Douglas, he worked first as a clerk in the P.H. Fox Department Store (Patrick Fox was married to Emmet’s aunt, Madge McCanna, Michael Bernard’s sister). On July 15, 1909 in Douglas he married Lillian Penglase, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of John and Mary Penglase, residents of Douglas since 1894 when they migrated there from Upper Peninsula, Michigan.
McKanna-Penglase wedding photo, Douglas, looking toward Juneau
(Lillian and Emmet near white pole; Katherine Ann and Jim to Emmet’s left; Philip and Elizabeth at far right/forward; Bob and Hilary at back/right, Penglase boys on either side of them)
Soon afterwards he and Lillian struck out across the water to Juneau. Emmet bought an interest in a brokerage firm, Epsteyn and Gilmour; by 1914 he acted as a wholesale agent for the company of Geddes and McKanna. In 1917 he, Lillian, and their three children (Emmet, Mary, and John) followed Bob and Elizabeth Willis to Washington State. They settled in Yakima. There Emmet sold automobiles for three years before he switched to real estate, a business career he practiced with notable success until his death in 1958.
I knew Aunt Lil and Uncle Em during my childhood years (it took ages before I could fix them as my father’s uncle and aunt, not mine!). On occasion, especially after Sunday mass, we visited them, sometimes for lunch. In their sixties they seemed to me to be a happy and peaceful couple, contented in their lives and family. Through the eyes of my lifetime boyhood friend, Dick Dietzen, the son of Mary McKanna Dietzen and husband Joe, I valued them as “Nana” and “Tutu,” his well-loved grandparents.
As I think about them, two memories stand out. In one I am chasing Uncle Em around his house. He has his hand behind him; he is hiding from me his gold ring fashioned from a raw nugget. I don’t recall him regaling me with stories about Alaska and the Yukon; I know from others that he could do so, and would, at the drop of anything resembling a hat! He especially defended his journey into the Yukon gold fields with his father and brother as occurring in the spring of 1897, a whole year before the stampede begun by a shipload of gold-laden miners disembarking at the Port of Seattle. As a boy, I only vaguely recognized his sourdough past, though I had some sense of the exotic about his life.
On one visit to the McKanna home I met Bishop Gleeson, a gray-haired, gentle, yet imposing missionary pastor of Alaska. He served the Territory as Vicar Apostolic until 1951. At that time Pius XII created the Diocese of Juneau; Bishop Gleeson stayed on as Vicar Apostolic for the rest of the Alaska Territory, with his base in Fairbanks. Although I hardly understood it, the Bishop belonged also to the Jesuit Order. He–and the likes of Fr. Hubbard, the Glacier Priest–held a special place in the affection of the Willis-McKanna family. In my life in Yakima this extended to the Jesuits at St. Joseph’s parish and the adjacent Marquette High School. My father, Robert Willis, particularly liked and valued the Jesuit pastor there, Fr. Richard Bradley. Only in recent years have I come to realize the intricate connections between our family, its Alaska origins, and the Jesuits’ role in serving our family in that pioneer land. Raised as we were in this Jesuit milieu, one that seeps into ones psychological fibers, I more easily understand how Jim and I attended, without a moment’s question, Marquette High School, and how we both decided we had a call, be it from God or from our family tradition, to enlist in the long-robed ranks of the Society of Jesus.
Jim McKanna stayed in Alaska. He too married, lived and worked in Juneau, on the wharfs and in a sawmill. On a trip to Oregon in 1918 he contracted the deadly influenza virus and died at the early age of forty-two. He left behind his wife, Frances Morrisette McKanna, and three young children: Edmund (6), Jim (5), and Christine (4). He also left an imposing home, one he built with Yukon gold-money and $10,000 from his wife’s father, on the hill above Juneau. This structure at 236 Gold Street later became the residence of the Alaska Territory’s delegate to the United States Congress. The governor lived in the mansion next door. Both stately places still exist, overlooking Juneau, the Gastineau Channel, and the buildings of Douglas dotting the horizon.
The younger McKanna boys–Philip, Robert, and Hilary–all married. They worked in various occupations. Philip became a prospector in Douglas, a farmer in Montana, a mill worker in Aberdeen, Washington, and even a fur farmer in Juneau. The youngest, Hilary, farmed in Alaska and Washington, worked on a dairy farm as a milker in Juneau, and ended his laboring days as a railroad employee in Spokane, Washington.
Robert, “Uncle Bob” as my father called him, had a special place in Dad’s life. When he decided to go to the University of Washington in 1923 with the intention of becoming a lawyer, he had to support that decision financially. Uncle Bob had recently married a young stewardess of the Alaska Steamship Company, Theodocia Louise Wheeler, or “Theo” as people knew her. Bob and Theo were settling into Seward where Bob managed the docks and supervised loading and unloading activities. Young Bob, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, spent one semester plus summer every year between 1923-1930 boarding with Bob and Theo, unloading ships on Bob’s docks, saving his money for school, and enjoying immensely a rural Alaska life with the young and vivacious couple. He hunted, fished, camped out, fought mosquitoes as big as fighter planes, and lulled around campfires as stories spun their magical webs. In his photo album he has an abundance of remembrances of those halcyon days.
Theo, Bob and Theo, Bob Willis
Those pictures make me smile! I recall one encounter with “Uncle Bob.” Throughout my high school years, I worked, except during football season, as a stock-boy at Montgomery Wards. On occasion–an upsurge of customers or an absence of salesmen–I would put off my coveralls, clean my face and hands, don a shirt and tie, and sub as a salesman. Most usually this would be in three departments: sports, paint, and mens’ clothing.
One toasty summer day, I emerged from the stifling warehouse to exercise my salesmanship abilities in the latter department. An older gentleman approached, in build short and stocky, with a bit of a stubble for a beard. “May I help you, sir?” I said in my most helpful voice. “Perhaps,” he replied in a low growl. “I need a Pendleton. Got any?” Now, I had no idea in God’s wide earth what a “Pendleton” might be. That, however, would not stop me. With professional quickness I scurried around the department, surveying shelf after shelf, hoping to discover where they kept those body-less things. “Well, sir, I don’t see any on display at the moment. I’m sure, however, that we have many in stock. Excuse me for a moment.” I hurriedly sought out first one, then two of the adult and certainly more experienced salesmen. To my earnest inquiries they looked puzzled. They both shook their heads: no Pendletons. As I deflatedly turned back toward the impatiently pacing customer, I happened to glance up. There, standing at the railing of the overlooking balcony, stood by father. He was laughing, alternately putting his hand over his mouth, then bending over with hand to chest or pounding his knee. Suddenly, I got it: I was being had! This guy, whoever he might be, didn’t want any darn Pendleton; he just wanted to see me dance!
It had been many years since I had seen “Uncle Bob.” My, how those two jokers had fun. Shades, I would guess of those good-old Seward days!
Except for occasional excusions like this trip to Yakima, Bob and Theo McKanna never left Alaska. He died of a heart attack in Fairbanks on November 24, 1858, in his sixty-ninth year. His lively companion, Theo, followed him just over two years later, on January 8, 1961. They are buried next to each other in Pioneer Section Two of the Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks. How do I know? A Jesuit missionary, after visiting their burial site, sent me the information. How appropriate.