The Second World War brought many changes to the northern regions of British Columbia, and throughout the Yukon. With the need to quickly get soldiers and supplies into Alaska, new airports and roads quickly opened. The most famous, of course, is the Alaska Highway. Constructed between March 8, 1942 and finished before the end of the year, it would transform the area.
While the Alaska Highway gets most of the attention, the Fort Nelson Airport, known as the Northern Rockies Regional Airport, now, played a vital role itself.
Established in 1941 as part of the United States Army Air Forces Northwest Staging Route, the airport would quickly become a very busy and important stopping point. According to a newspaper article from September of 1941, after the site was chosen, W.W. Kelland arrived with his instrument men by landing on the frozen Nelson River, and then walked 4.5 miles to the site of the future airport.
Used primarily for refueling, it would see 8,000 aircraft move through during the war. At the time, the airport had two runways, measuring two kilometres and 1.5 kilometres. Passenger service was operated at the time by Canadian Pacific Air Lines.
There isn’t much information about the people who worked at the airport during the war years but one such person was John Yeo from Nanton, Alberta. In 1943, he was working for the American army at the airport as part of the well drilling crew, living in camp and, according to his own account, enjoying the work.
On Sept. 4, 1941, the Strathmore Standard printed a report on the ability to travel all the way to Russia via several stops at Canadian airports. The article praised the Fort Nelson Airport heavily. The article mentions that things were more expensive for workers in Fort Nelson but that the everything from darning wools to food and beds were taken care of for the soldiers.
The article continues, “the Fort Nelson port is by far the most spectacular in the entire chain as far as man’s conquest of nature is concerned.”
The influx of people coming into the area due to the war put a strain on a lot of aspects of Fort Nelson’s infrastructure. To alleviate this somewhat, the US Army implemented a rule in September of 1943 that stated all personnel traveling on commercial aircraft whose destination was the Fort Nelson Airport must have a letter authorizing them to be at the airport. Many Canadian citizens were unhappy about this, and the fact that Americans were limiting their ability to travel within their own country.
Following the Second World War, operations transferred from the USAAF to the Royal Canadian Air Force. Soon after, the RCAF gave ownership of the airport over to Transport Canada.
From those early years as a vital stopping point for air force planes in the Second World War, to today where the airport continues to serve an important role, the Fort Nelson Airport has played an important role for those who live in the north.
Suggestions for columns or questions? E-mail Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to his podcast by searching for “Canadian History Ehx” on your podcast platform. Find his show on YouTube by searching for “Canadian History Ehx”.
Information for this column comes from About YYE: History, Wikipedia, the Nanton News, Strathmore Standard and The Alaska Highway in World War II.