Postcard of Suicide Hill Courtesy Fort St. John North Peace Museum I986.27.06
Driven by wartime urgency, the building of the Alaska Highway remains an epic accomplishment, decades later.
The highway began as a dream.
In the 1920s, the United States wanted a route through Canada to connect Alaska – its largest and most sparsely populated territory – with the 48 states south of the 49th parallel. Some 800 kilometres of land lay between Alaska and the rest of the US. With no overland way across northern BC and the Yukon to Alaska, the northernmost US state was reliant on air and marine transport.
Back then, Canada was just not interested – there was little to be gained, and the next decade brought the Great Depression.
That all changed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The US entered the Second World War and a supply and defence route became critical to both nations. Canada agreed to building of the Alaska-Canada highway, on the condition that the United States foot the bill, and that the route be turned over to Canada after the war.
In March 8, 1942, hundreds of pieces of construction equipment arrived by train at Dawson Creek. More than 10,000 American soldiers were stationed by US Army Corps of Engineers, in Alaska, BC and the Yukon, to build the highway starting from different locations.
Roadbuilding through the northern bush. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
A Dream or a Nightmare?
If the highway was a dream come true, the making of it was a nightmare. The northern winter was harsher than most of the soldiers had ever known or could have imagined. The summer brought sweltering temperatures, choking dust and bloodthirsty masses of mosquitoes and blackflies.
Winter temperatures were hard on soldiers and machinery alike. “Cold weather threatens the steady progress of road building,” said the legendary Lorne Greene narrator of “Pincers on Japan“, a 1944 documentary, made by the National Film Board of Canada. “Ice clogged wheels, engines and treads at 40 degrees below zero, and they need drastic treatment to keep them free and rolling. Repair crews build fires under the frozen cats (machinery) and feed the flames with oil.”
The soldiers worked seven days a week pushing a road through unmapped forest and bush, and around mountains. With the extra “daylight” of the midnight sun lasting 24 hours, crews worked double shifts, and 643 kilometres of highway were laid down in July alone.
“They worked as they have never worked before,” says Greene. “The days bring no recreation – nothing but work and sleep and food and the endless forest…But always the men move on, making time, fighting to finish the road, the vital avenue of supply and defence for ultimate attacks from across the Pacific. Image from “Pincers on Japan,” National Film Board of Canada
Making Roads on Muskeg
The 2,400-kilometre long route from Dawson Creek, BC, through the Yukon, and onto Delta Junction, Alaska was selected over an easier one proposed earlier, that would have started from Prince George. Military strategists picked it to connect with a series of airfields just built by the Canadian army between Edmonton and Whitehorse. However, the highway’s chosen route through the Northern Rockies wasn’t popular with everyone…
“The Alaska Highway winding in and winding out, fills my mind with serious doubt, as to whether the lout that planned this route, was going to hell or coming out!” – Retired Sergeant Troy Hise, stationed at Summit Lake, Historical Mile 392
Possibly, the most frustrating factor was the muskeg, decaying swamps of vegetation which could – and did – swallow roadbuilding equipment whole. Attempts were made to “corduroy” over the soggy ground with felled trees, and cover the trees with fill. Some corduroy sections were up to 15 feet deep.
The challenges of northern construction and corduroy roads U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Road building on northern terrain was new to the engineers who discovered that when they removed the ground cover, the permafrost below would melt, and sink the road and machinery. They then changed the construction method to covering over the exposed road base with fill, before thawing could start. Although plans were to build the route 36 feet wide the first year, it was actually only 12 to 18 feet, according to a video from the Milepost.
A Route to Desegregation
About a third of the US soldiers who worked on the highway were African American, and for them, the hardships were exponential. In addition to working and living separately from the other soldiers, they were segregated from local communities, and did not receive the same calibre of equipment as the others, often working with hand tools instead of machinery. They mostly slept in tents while the other soldiers more often had wooden housing.
Despite this discrimination, the three African American regiments made an outstanding contribution and their efforts have been credited as a catalyst for desegregation of the US military in 1948. About 75 years later, the Alaskan State senate recognized their service with “African American Soldiers’ Contribution to Building the Alaska Highway Day.”
Their story is also being researched by acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill.
Soliders Refines Sims Jr. and Alfred Jalufkamet meet in the middle at Contact Creek, on completion of the Alaska Highway. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
When the Alaska Highway was finished on Sept. 24, 1942 in less than eight months, it was extremely crude. Called the “Alcan Highway” then, it offered temporary log bridges, steep grades, a poor road surface, few guardrails, and almost endless switchbacks among the hilly and mountainous terrain (though some speculate the road’s twists and turns were intentional to avoid strafing from enemy aircraft above.)
The army then turned the road over to the US Public Roads Administration, which hired private road contractors to upgrade selected sections of the road, and install steel bridges. In 1946, the Canadian section was transferred to the Canadian army.
Opened to the Public (Finally)
In 1948, the route was opened to the public. A rousing 1957 Chevrolet commercial “Champs of the ALCAN Run” shows it was still a tough, rough and unpredictable journey: “The lightening flashed, the hailstorm crashed. The rain turned the road into paste. We drove our band through that washed out land and into the Yukon waste. So we made our push through the Arctic bush, on that ribbon of mountainous road. And we held our stride on that rugged ride, in spite of the heavy load.”
Things improved in the 1960s and 1970s, when the provincial government paved from Mile 0 at Dawson Creek, to Mile 83, and eventually the remainder of the route to Delta Junction, Alaska was hard surfaced. The Canadian portion is now managed in sections by the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the federal government and the Yukon government.
Today, the Alaska Highway is fully paved and accommodates all kinds of travellers – from commercial traffic, to caravans of recreational vehicles that yearly carry more than a 100,000 tourists north for an epic wilderness journey. Gone are many of the switchbacks, the gravel surface (except for areas under improvement) and the bumper stickers that once proclaimed, “I Drove the Alaska Highway and Survived.”
A smoother ride these days. Courtesy JF Bergeron
What was once driven by dire wartime concerns for security and freedom, the Alaska Highway is now a supply route to industry, a lifeline to communities and a road to adventure for explorers. The heroic efforts by a group of men decades years ago, who built a 2,400-kilometre route through wilderness and extraordinary hardships, in only eight months, will always be the foundation of this storied route.
Check out more fascinating information about this historic and awesome engineering achievement, including a 1944 documentary produced by the U.S. Army, a US War Department film highlighting construction, a video produced by the U.S. National Park Service showing bridge building by soliders wading chest-deep in water and listings of celebratory events planned for this summer.
We acknowledge the many sources of information for this article – which include National Geographic, the Milepost, the National Film Board of Canada, Military Officers’ Association of America, The US Department of Defence, The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, The Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary Group, History Net (J. Kingston Pierce ) and Lisa Bush.