The Alaska Highway

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CraigBaird

When we look at the engineering marvels of he 20th century, various projects come to mind including Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal, but one project absolutely should be on that list and it is the Alaska Highway.

Today, I am looking at how this highway came about, how it was built and how it changed western Canada forever.

Once the Klondike Gold Rush kicked off, everyone from the average person to provincial and federal governments began looking at creating some sort of proper road to the Yukon and beyond into Alaska. For the United States, being able to link Alaska to the rest of the country was something they were very much behind. Unfortunately, for much of the early 1900s, there was little need for this and the cost was simply too high to warrant it.

In the 1920s, Thomas MacDonald of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads began to promote the idea of a highway that spanned from the United States, through Canada, into Alaska. To help generate interest for this, he enlisted Slim Williams to travel the route. Williams, who also traveled with John Logan, set out from Fairbanks on motorcycle, on a journey to Hazelton, B.C. Two months later, he reached Dawson, worse for the wear but ready to reach his destination. Then, 17 days later, he reached Whitehorse, unshaven and looking ragged. Finally, after weeks, following the telegraph line, he reached Hazelton, with a very battered motorcycle.

In order to accomplish the publicity event, Williams needed to travel through Canada and have the support of the Canadian government. At the time though, the Canadian government saw no reason to put up the funds for such a road, and the only benefit would be to a few thousand people who lived in the Yukon. The initiative, at least the first one, died at that point.

In 1929, the British Columbia government began to see the benefit to having a highway that took Americans up to Alaska and with the help of U.S. President Herbert Hoover, a board of one American and three Canadians was created to look at the idea. The report would not be finished until 1931 and in those two years, everything had changed. The report did state that there was a benefit for the military to be able to get to Alaska, but when a joint commission found that the cost would be $14 million, with Canada putting up $12 million, and with The Great Depression looming large, the project was canceled.

In 1936, as the Americans were fully into their New Deal Program, building huge projects in order to jumpstart the economy, they approached the Canadian government about building a road to connect Alaska to the United States. Once again, Canada refused but it wasn’t so much about the money as about Canadian neutrality. There was the worry in the Canadian government that if a war erupted between Japan and the United States, the road would prevent Canada from remaining neutral in the conflict.

Nonetheless, the Americans began to gain steam in their desire for a road and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would bring it up to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King during his visit to Washington in March of 1937. At this point, the cost was roughly $30 million for the road and Roosevelt attempted to convince King that it would help as part of a larger defense against Japan.

One year later, the Americans offered a $15 million interest-free loan to cover half the cost of construction. Still, the Canadian government passed on the idea.

Everything would change completely on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. At this point, the worry about the Japanese attacking the North American mainland became much more real and the building of a road became a priority not just for America, but Canada as well.

On Feb. 6, 1942, the United States Army approved the project and it was soon authorized by the United States Congress. Canada then agreed to allow the construction to happen through British Columbia and the Yukon on the condition that the Americans pay the full cost, and that the road be turned over to Canada following the war. Canada did agree to provide timber and gravel, and it waived import duties, sales and income taxes and immigration regulations.

The project was put under the guidance of Colonel William Hoge, a First World War veteran, who would serve in Europe later on during the Second World War and in Korea. Hoge was given the job because after serving in the First World War, he commanded a battalion that built bridges in the jungle of the Bataan Peninsula, and then ran a flood-control office in Nebraska.

The next step was to decide on a route, of which there were three proposed.

Route A was preferred by the Americans, which started at Prince George, went through Hazelton, up to Whitehorse and into Fairbanks. The issue with this route was that there was the possibility it could be attacked by the Japanese from the ocean, there were no airbases along the way, and it had very steep grades with heavy snowfalls in the winter.

Route B was the choice of the Canadians, which would also start at Prince George but would follow the Rocky Mountain Trench, up to Dawson City, down the Yukon Valley and into Fairbanks. This route had the advantage that it was safer from enemy planes, was shorter with lower elevations and would likely cost less. The issue was that there were no airbases and it bypassed the main city in the Yukon, Whitehorse.

Route C was called the Prairie Option. It would begin at Dawson Creek, then move on to Fort Nelson, before going to Dawson City and into Fairbanks. It was far from enemy planes, close to the airfields used for the Northwest Staging Route and there was more level terrain and only one mountain pass over 1,300 metres. This would be the route the highway would take.  

The choice of Route C was not always a popular one. Sgt. Troy Hise, who worked on the project would say, quote:

“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.”

There was a Route D, which accessed the oil fields at Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories, but it was the longest route and it was scrapped early on.

The first task was surveying. The general route was known but the smaller paths to make that route were nearly found on the spot, or with the help of airplanes. Local guides were used to help locate routes for the new roads, but sometimes the decision was made as the machinery sat rumbling nearby.

A Captain Eschbach would relate, quote:

“One man would set up with his compass on the staff and utilizing the chosen bearing, locate the second man who would proceed through the brush, waving a signal flag from the top of his staff as far as he could be seen. At that point, he would stick his staff in the ground, set up his compass, align it on the chosen bearing and a third man would then move ahead of him. Leapfrogging in this manner, the unit could make as much as eight or ten miles a day.”

With no roads, most of the supplies for the survey teams, which consisted of one officer and nine surveyors. The survey teams were also not far ahead of the construction crews. Typically, they were only about 15-20 kilometres ahead of the construction crews that were approaching fast.

Construction on the highway began at 1:30 a.m. on March 9, 1942, with the temperature sitting at -35 Celsius, work began on the highway starting from Dawson Creek. On that fateful day, Dawson Creek had a population of 600, but the first train arrived carrying American troops and quickly the community’s population went from 600 to 10,000 within a short time. The community would be one to benefit the most from the construction.

The Peace River Block News would run a headline that stated

“United States Troops Invade Dawson Creek To Build Alaska Road.”

In the notice that went out in Canada, looking for workers, it stated, quote:

“Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, do not apply.”

One story states that when the workers arrived, they asked their Major where they were going to stay. He responded with, quote:

“Take any snowdrift you like.”

Then, he threw his bedroll on one snowdrift and said, quote:

“This one belongs to me.”

Included in the worker and troop numbers were 174 steam shovels, 374 blade graders, 904 tractors and more than 5,000 trucks, not to mention cranes, snowplows, generators and bulldozers.

For many of the American soldiers, the harsh northern British Columbia winter was something they had never experienced before. The weather was so cold that to use concrete to build bridges, the soldiers and workers needed to keep the concrete warm for 10 days so it could set properly using huge fires and heaters. For the machinery, ice clogged wheels, engines and more were common and repair crews would often build fires directly under frozen machinery and feed the flames with oil to get the machinery and equipment running. If a vehicle drove through water of any kind, it had to keep moving until it reached its destination. If it stopped for even a few seconds, the ice would lock the wheels of the truck and any attempt to move forward would snap the axle.

Wrecked machinery lined the entire highway as the supply of spare parts could not keep up with the demand on the road.

When the warmth of summer came, it brough masses of mosquitoes and blackflies that tormented the workers for days on end.

The mosquitoes were called bush bombers by the troops, with Hoge stating quote:

“You had to eat with your head net on. You would raise the head net and by the time you got food on the spoon up to your mouth, it would be covered in mosquitoes.”

There were positives to the summer season. The near 24-hour sunlight meant that extra work could be done, and crews worked double shifts as a result. In June alone, 643 kilometres of highway was built.

Sid Navratil would state, quote:

“We are working 16 hours a day, working like hell blazing a trail just ahead of the cats. Our terrific chow shortage is getting everyone grumpy. The daily menu. Breakfast, three pancakes, thin farina, coffee, lunch when there is any. Two biscuits size of a quarter each and just as hard. Supper, fish and potatoes, no cigarettes.”

For the isolated Indigenous and traders, the sudden arrival of workers and the road was a shock. One trader would state, quote:

“We were taking goods into the north by horse and dog sleighs the way our fathers and grandfathers had done. Then we met a great fleet of trucks as far as the eye could see. Time went ahead more in a few minutes than it had in a whole lifetime. Like the snap of your fingers, we changed the old to the new.”

One Canadian army observer would say, quote:

“Those U.S. troops, I felt sorry for them to begin with, then was amazed at what they did. If you weren’t there, you just couldn’t understand it. I saw fellows so tired, they were ready to drop in their tracks. It was rush-rush-rush. Fellows were doing 18 to 20 hours a day on bulldozers. One was up to his neck in ice water repairing timbers in subzero weather. God, I admired them.”

On June 3, 1942, when the Japanese bombed the military base at Dutch Harbor, it pushed the crews to get the road done out of fear that the Japanese may soon invade Alaska.

Through the construction of the highway, called the Alcan Highway by the federal governments but the Oil Can Highway by workers because of the large number of discarded oil cans along the way, 27,000 workers, most of them soldiers, would carve a path through forests and mountains. The United States would assign 10,000 men to the project, 3,000 of which were Black Americans in what were called Negro Regiments. In order to build the route, the American Army commandeered local riverboats, locomotives and even housing that was meant for use in California.

As each regiment completed its section, it would then leapfrog over the regiment ahead of it in order to start on the section after them.

In Dawson Creek, the entire community had changed because of the highway and its role as Mile 0. Maclean’s magazine would visit the community, where it was said vice prowled the streets, and no woman dares go out at night.

One woman would say, quote:

“If you walk down the street even in daytime, and go good and fast you are all right. But if you stroll as if you’re looking for trouble, you sure get it.”

The number of men and limited number of women in Dawson Creek also meant that there was a lot of weddings. One minister said that he had done more weddings from 1942 to 1943 than he would have had in Ontario in a lifetime.

Flowers were impossible to find in Dawson Creek, so one woman made a living making paper flowers for weddings.

With living space limited, new arrivals would go door-to-door looking for rooms. Sometimes, families would crowd into unfinished upstairs rooms so that a young person who just arrived could have a place to stay.

Dawson Creek became a town of lineups. Maclean’s writes, quote:

“Even the one picture show the town has is always filled. The line-up is so long, you practically need a priority rating to get your nose inside the doors. You line up for your mail too. All day long there are three long queues of people waiting in lines to ask for mine and looked inside, I am sure there was half a ton of unsorted mail in great heaps on the floor.”

Despite the conditions being tough, the pay for the contractors and civilians was surprisingly good. A foreman would bring in $550 a month, or $8,600 today. Even a clerk was bringing in $275 a month, or about $4,300 today. For someone operating a tractor, the pay was $1.60 an hour, or $25.25 today. Most operators, mechanics and truck drivers received a similar wage. For the support staff, the pay was quite good in the kitchen. The head cook brough in $350, or $5,524 a month, with the other cooks receiving slightly less. Dishwashers earned $225 a day, or $3,500 today. All kitchen help received lodging and board for free, while workers paid $1.25 per day.

For the African American workers, the project was especially difficult. Despite being soldiers in the same army, they were forced to work and sleep in separate areas from the white soldiers. As well, they would not get the same calibre of equipment and were often using hand tools instead of machinery. While most white soldiers slept in wooden housing, the African American soldiers typically slept in tents.

Even with the conditions they were forced to work under, still got the job done. One story tells of the 95th Regiment betting a months pay that they could bridge the river at Sikanni Chief in four days. They would do so in only three.

Of the eight engineer regiments, four were Black regiments. The 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th. The 95th were the best trained, and knew how to use the bulldozers that were used in the construction of the highway.

At one point, Lt. Willis Gardener, the commander of the 388th, fell into the Clearwater River. As he was struggling in the water, two of his men, Sergeant Robert Hayes and Technician Hubert Massie jumped into the water in their full uniforms, with heavy boots, to save him. They fought the strong current and were able to save their commander. They would be awarded the Soldier’s Medal by Brigadier General Ludson Worsham.

Racism was found in Dawson Creek as well. In the town, it was against the law to sell alcohol to Black soldiers and for the most part they were kept out of town.

In August of 1942, Lt. General Brehon Somervell, the chief logistician of the army, made a four day inspection of the highway and found things running too smoothly and believed that the troops would be ill-prepared for winter. He then relieved Hoge of his command and replaced him with Brigadier General James O’Connor. Hoge would later state he was relieved because of a dispute the two men had going back to the 1930s.

On Sept. 24, 1942, crews from both directions met at Mile 588, now named Contact Creek, near the British Columbia-Yukon border.

On Oct. 28, 1942, the highway was complete, only eight months after it had begun.

On Nov. 20, 1942, the highway was dedicated at Soldier’s Summit, with a radio broadcast across the continent.

The construction cost of the highway was put at about $138 million, or $2.1 billion today. A huge sum to be sure, but it was likely much higher. The cost does not include the money used to pay and equip the soldiers who worked on the highway, nor does it include the cost of the Canadian Oil Project, a refinery and pipeline system that went from northwest Canada to Alaska. With those costs added in, the price tag could be over $4 billion in today’s funds.

Work continued on the highway and 11,000 troops remained in the region after the official opening, improving the roads, replacing temporary bridges and more.

While the highway was done, work still had to be conducted and Dawson Creek was still a bustling place to be, but there was danger in that as well.

The day of Feb. 13, 1943 started normal enough for the community of Dawson Creek. It was on that day when a fire began to burn and soon spread over to the livery stable. In that stable, everything from telephone wire, tools, kegs of nails, wooden crossbar arms and tires were being stored by the US Army. At the same time, a vehicle loaded with dynamite for road work was also in the building.

Word soon began to spread that there was dynamite in the building, but it did not stop many people from still watching the fire burn. At the cinema nearby, the movie was stopped, and everyone was moved out of the building. Most people who were watching the fire had no idea that there was the immense danger of an explosion brewing in the building. The construction men in the crowd said that the dynamite would only burn, not explode. What they didn’t know was that there were percussion caps also stored there with the dynamite. A train soon arrived, and several people got off the train and joined the crowd watching the fire.

Then, the explosion hit. Dorothea Calverley saw the explosion and she relates this in an article she wrote for the North Peace Historical Society, quote:

“The burning building and its contents, completely red hot, went hundreds of feet in the air. Where the brightness of flames had been a second before, there was a momentary blackness as the fire was snuffed out like a candle, but a few minutes later there were hundreds of small fires as debris came down over a block away in all directions. Worse was the thousands of miles of copper wire which unrolled from its reels and tied everything in its tangled coils. Over a block away, a school nurse, driving her car, was startled by a flaming auto tire descending on her car’s radiator to hang and flame on.”

One woman who lived nearby was making supper when the front and the back door of her house were blown inside, shooting through the house but missing the glass china cabinet. All her thin wine glasses inside the cabinet were shattered from the concussion of the blast though. In a restaurant, a man and a woman who did not know each other were sitting 15 feet apart. The woman had her baby on her lap. After the explosion hit, the baby was found on the man’s lap, perfectly fine.

An entire block of buildings was destroyed, and the US Army took over control of the firefighting as fires raged in the community. The Red Cross also set up an emergency hospital ward in its club house. By Sunday, five people were dead and 120 were injured.

Other issues began to crop up on the highway as well. Roughly 160 kilometres of it near Burwash Landing in the Yukon was impassable due to the permafrost thawing between May and June of 1943 as the protective layer of vegetation was now gone. To fix this, crews would corduroy over soggy ground using felled trees and then cover the trees with fill. In some cases, the corduroy sections were as much as 15 feet deep. Another thing to deal with was Suicide Hill, which was built at the start of the construction of the highway, and lasted until 1944 when the road was rerouted because it was too dangerous and had already taken some lives due to its immense grade that made it nearly impossible to stop on coming down, and almost impossible to drive up in some cases. A sign at the bottom of the hill stated “Prepare to Meet Thy Maker”

Of course, once all the troops left, it wasn’t just the highway that remained. Mountains of waste, discarded machinery, oil cans and much more sat throughout the wilderness from British Columbia to Alaska.

On July 8, 1944, B.A. McKelvie reported in the Vancouver Daily Province that locals along the highway were extremely unhappy with the waste left behind. One individual told him, quote:

“I hope you can do something to call attention to the awful waste and destruction of perfectly good, and lots of them unused, things that is going on about here.”

In Dawson Creek, a fire burned day and night that year, burning the waste that was left by the soldiers during the construction. Everything from blankets, to boxes, to other supplies were burning. The dump at Dawson Creek was said to be 600 feet long, littered with cans, debris and decaying food.

For some locals, there was opportunity to be had with what was left over. One man told McKelvie he found an unused patent water heater, as well as stoves that never saw a fire. He would say, quote:

“I’ll bring up another stove for anyone for $10.”

Trucks from across the country, as far away as Manitoba, were driving on the road as part of the war effort. One company in Dawson Creek had 1,000 trucks on the road day and night. Driving the highway, even when it was completed, was no easy task for those drivers. One man would say he never took his boots off for three weeks and didn’t have a meal that wasn’t frozen before it got into his mouth. Each truck was manned by two drivers, with one sleeping and another driving. Maclean’s magazine would describe it as such, quote:

“They are a new breed, these hard-bitten sourdoughs of the motor trail, strong-handed and grim, with nerves of steel and hearts of gold. They have to be steady too, to guide the lurching trucks around hair-pin curves where, they claim, they meet themselves coming around every corner. They ease the loads on the greasy mountain sides where you look down 2,000 feet into an unnamed valley below, and a wrong turn of the wheel would mean sudden death and a precious cargo lost.”

On April 1, 1946, the US Army transferred control of the road portion that ran through British Columbia and the Yukon over to the Canadian government.

In 1948, the route was opened to the public, but it was still a rough and often unpassable road depending on the season.

For much of the next 40 years, the Canadian portion of the highway would remain gravel except for 100 kilometres leading to the American border. It was not until the mid-1980s that the entire highway was completely paved from start to finish.

Since the construction finished, rerouting has been conducted by the Canadians and the highway is now roughly 300 to 400 kilometres shorter than it originally was. Various bridges have also been replaced or upgraded to handle more traffic and larger loads, especially in northern British Columbia where the oil industry began to boom in the latter-half of the 20th century.

In 1996, the Highway was named an International Historical Engineering Landmark.

Information from TranBC.ca, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, HistoryNet, BlackPast.org, Filson.com, Wired, Tourism Fort St. John, Vancouver Daily Province, The Romance Of The Alaska Highway,

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