Yukoner: Rolf Hougen
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By Sam Holloway
Originally published in The Yukon Reader, October, 1991
"Every individual... intends his own gain, and he is in this,
as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which
was no part of his intention... By pursuing his own interest he frequeantly
promotesthat of society more effectively than when he really intends to
promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to
trade for the public good."
The Wealth of Nations, 1776
There's hardly a Yukoner alive over the age of two who hasn't
been in The Hougen Centre on Main Street in Whitehorse. Well, what about the
man behind it all? A few weeks ago, I went to find out.
If we could know what Rolf hougen knows about the last half-century
of the Yukon's history, we could write a fair-sized book. While some folks were
swept along by events, he grabbed history by the reins and made it pay. Not
just in dollars, but by playing a big part in everything that's happened over
the past 48 years.
Sounds like I'm talking about someone quite ancient. But
Rolf is still in his prime and going as strong as ever. He's just finished a
term as Chairman of them Canadian Chamber of Commerce. If you notice a new postage
stamp next year depicting the Alaska Highway 50th anniversary logo, well, Rolf
had a lot to do with that too. When the White Pass Railway was about to be sold
for pig iron a few years ago, Rolf Hougen said to us all, "It won't happen."
And it didn't.
What impresses many Yukoners, besides his going down to Toronto
where he "took on the big boys and won," is the fact that he reinvested
in the Yukon. Over the years since the Gold Rush of 1898, hundreds of fortunes
have left the Yukon, with the owners retiring somewhere on what they took with
them. The worst example of that, perhaps, is the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation.
They took millions out of this country and left not so much as an outdoor skating
rink for the little folk growing up here.
But the Hougens are still here - Rolf and Margaret, their
six grown-up children and nine grandchildren.
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Let's go back, to the summer of 1906. A Norwegian
sailor is walking into the Yukon. He had been eight years at sea on a square
rigger sailing ship that took him twice around the world. There was no Alaska
Highway then, only the White Pass rail line that starts at Skagway on the Pacific
Tramp, tramp, tramp. His feet sometimes stumbled
on the ties which were too close together for his long legs. He kept his eyes
down as he laboured along therailroad tracks. The roadbed led up, up through
a great mounatin pass. Hour after hour he walked, shifting his pack often toease
the pain of the straps cutting into his shoulders.
On each morning of his hike through the White
Pass, a train came up behind Berent Hougen and he quickly stepped aside to let
it pass him. In the evening the same train, on it's way back to Skagway on the
hundred-mile run from Whitehorse, rumbled past him as he slept among the rocks
beside the tracks. By the third day the trail levelled outand he walked a little
faster. Still the high granite walls towered upward on his left and right. The
narrow tracks clung to the mountainside, bridging great chasms that took his
breath away if he looked down as he crossed the narrow wooden trestles. One
more day's walk and he started to go down. It was as if he glimpsed the first
sight of his dream- his goal since leaving Vancouver on a ship to Skagway, his
goal since leaving his native Norway. He was looking down into the Land of Gold-
the Yukon Territory.
It was still fifty-some miles to Whitehorse
and the train would have stopped for him if he flagged it down. But he couldn't
ride. Not if he wanted to save any money for food. So he walked the remaining
miles to Whitehorse. There he stopped just long enough to build himself a raft.
then on he went, alone, down the Yukon River to Dawson City.
|1945: Rolf Hougen outside the 2nd & Wood
location. The '98 Hotel site is in the background.
year 1906 was a bad time to arrive in the Klondike. The Gold Rush had
been over for seven years and the days of easy money and rich gold claims
were past. Dawson was full of abandoned buildings and more folks lefts
on every riverboat. Hougen worked for different mining companies for six
years, finally moving on to Cripple Creek, Alaska where he and a partner
operated a hotel for several years. That country too was failing so he
sold out and left for Norway. There he met and married his wife Margrethe
and they emigrated to Canada.
But the dream of the Yukon stayed with
him. In 1944, he returned, bringing Margrethe and the youngest of his
seven children, a fourteen-year-old boy named Rolf.
Back to Top
The Yukon was booming once more. A brand new
road connecting to the south had just been built. Thousands of American soldiers
lived in big camps along this highway as they called it (actually just a trail
through the wilderness: the Canadaian government is still making it a real highway)
but the biggest camps were at Whitehorse. Berent hougen had a good job with
the Highways department. He had no intention of leaving again. He and his wife
and son opened a small store which sold Rawleighs products and photography supplies
to the soldiers. While Berent worked on the highway, his wife and son ran the
store, with Rolf working after school and on weekends. Some money came in from
the sale of Berent's property in Prince Rupert and that went into the new business.
They moved to larger quarters on Main Street. By now the Americans had left,
precipitating one of the Yukon's periodic busts. The population of Whitehorse
suddenly from 30, 000 to somewhere around 6000. However, the coming of the Alaska
Highway had put new life into the town and it was growing steadily.
Hougen's dream of a life in the Yukon was now
a firm reality. But he had a clincher on it. He had a son who would work hard
and pour his heart and soul into the business. In 1947, after completing school,
Rolf Hougen took over the full-time management of the company.
In 1949, the Hougen business moved to its present
location. By now they had bought out a few other businesses and their line of
merchandise grew more varied each year. In 1952, a fire gutted the inside and
in a few hours took away everything they had built up over the past eight years.
Undaunted, thy used the insurance money to buy the bowling ally next door to
build bigger quarters than they had before.
|In the meantime, starting in
1948, Rolf made trips to the East to buy products for the store. In those
days it took four days to reach Vancouver-- first the train from Whitehorse
to Skagway, then the ferry down the coast, and finally he boarded a plane
to take him across the continent. At the age of 19, he sometimes had a hard
time being taken seriously by the wholesalers he met there. On those many
continental trips over the years, he took part in aviation history. First
he rode the DC-3's, then DC-4's, turboprop Electra's, and finally was able
to board the first jetliners. By this time he could fly from Whitehorse
to the south and save the four-day coast trip.
|1949: The Main Street Store, bowling alley on
its right. This photo was taken from the ball park across the street,
now the site of the federal building.
Back to Top
History moved along with Rolf Hougen and company-or
perhaps they planned it that way. The capital of the Yukon was moved from Dawson
City to Whitehorse. Buildings went up to house government clerks and appointees-
more customers, steady ones too, for the department store.
As the Yukon grew in populationand amenities,
so did the opportunities. In 1958, Rolf was part of the founding of the WHTV
television station in Whitehorse. It broadcast one black and white channel for
four hours a day; the programs were pre-recorded and six months old. By 1965,
the programs could be trucked in and were only a week old. The stationlater
expanded into a complete cablevision network with over 28 channels. Over the
next twenty years the Klondike Boradcasting Company (CKRW), the local Ford dealership,
a Honda dealership, Hertz Rent-A-Car, the Arctic Investment Corporation- all
these were either founded by Rolf or came under his guiding hand. He has employed
hundreds of Yukoners. It is interesting to note that during this same period
his most serious competitor, the Seattle-based Northern Commercial Company,
shut down their various businesses and left the Yukon for good.
Perhaps the most difficult project but one that's
given him much satisfaction, wa his forming in 1978 of Cancom- Canadian Satellite
Communications Ltd. Through this company, some 2200 remote communities in Canada
now receive multi-channel radio and television services. But that didn't happen
overnight. He had to convince skeptical investors and regulators that it would
work, then convince the CRTC that his company would do the job better than three
other national companies. His proposal to the regulators stated that his company
would spend $21.8 million dollars to set up and operate the system- and that
it would not make a profit for the first four years.
No Yukoner that I know of has taken that kind
of gamble. No wonder the locals look so proud when they say about Rolf hougen:
"He took on the big boys in the East- and won."
In 1990, Rolf's son Craig opened Hougen's first
retail expansion beyond the Yukon border-- COAST MOUNTAIN SPORTS in Vancouver.
in the Hougen Centre, Karen Hougen started ERIK'S VIDEO; Craig and Kelly Hougen
operate THE SPORTSLODGE; Brent Hougen the PHOTO CENTRE, and Greta and Maureen
Hougen run SEASONS FASHIONS. The Yukon has been good to Rolf Hougen and his
family. The reverse side is that no one has done more for the Yukon in return--neither
politicain nor government appointee nor mining magnate--all of whom have come
and gone while Rolf hasn't stopped.
Back to Top
He was president and founder of the Young People's
Association; president and founding member of the Whitehorse Board of Trade;
founder and chairman of the Yukon Research and Development Institute; chairman
and founding member of the Yukon Sourdough Rendevous; founder and chairman of
the Yukon Foundation; a member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers; of the Yukon
Historical and Museum Society; of the Yukon Parents for French; of the Whitehorse
Chamber of Commerce; he was chosen Yukon Businessman of the Year in 1986; and
was awarded Tourism's "Yukoner" in 1987. Nationally, he has been appointed
an Officer of the Order of Canada; is the Honorary Consul for France; is a member
of the Vancouver Consular Corps; a member of the National Council for the Duke
of Edinburgh's Award in Canada; member of the Canadian Cable Television Pioneers
Club; was a vice president of the Conservative Party of Canada; is a company
director of Finning Ltd., Vancouver; of Alberta Power; of Northwestel; of Cominco
Limited; and until very recently was the Chairman of the Canadian Chamber of
Commerce. He has travelled to Thailand, China, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Russia,
and almost every country in Europe, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Australia
and New Guinea, and is probably the most travelled person in the country. He
took his family to Grenoble, France for a year so they could learn French.
|A remarkable career, a remarkable man. The Yukon's Rolf Hougen has done
it all, and he did it in what the rest of the country thinks of as the last
frontier, the frozen north, the land of moose and the wolf-the Yukon
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