An acquaintance of dad’s and mine drives his Prius to Alaska every other year. As far as I can tell, the only reason he does so, is because it is possible. Roger is not the average tourist, who goes camping or sight-seeing. He’s only shot a handful of photographs. Roger is only interested in driving from Nebraska to Alaska and then returning.
Some people say Roger became an eccentric after a serious car wreck many years ago. Others say that he was awarded a small fortune from the insurance settlement. There’s probably some truth to the gossip, but I’ve never been able to get him to talk about that part of his life. All I know is that he likes to drive to Alaska via the ALCAN Highway.
The ALCAN Highway, or Alaskan Highway, or Alaska-Canadian Highway is one of those projects that was built by sheer US assertiveness. The ALCAN Highway history intersects with the histories of Canada, the United States, World War Two, and the profession of civil engineering.
In the early 20th Century, Alaska had only recently attained official Territorial status in 1912. It had previously been a District, administered by the US military. The vast wilderness of the Territory was uncharted and the living was difficult. Those who lived or traveled there depended upon trappers, bush-pilots, and first nation people as guides. There were only two regional railroads that provided the only mechanized
land transportation aside from riverboats.
Less than 50,000 people occupied the Territory, which is about a fifth of North America. Less than half of those people were white settlers who had migrated during the gold rushes of the 1800s. The rest of the population was comprised of first nation people, including Inuits, Eskimos, Aleuts, and others. Because of the sparse population, Alaska Territory remained mostly wilderness. The few roads were unpaved dirt and mud paths. Modern water and sewer systems were non-existent.
Even though Alaska had recently been a military District, the territory had very few defenses. Its most vulnerable area was the Aleutian Island chain. The small, makeshift base was run by the US Army Signal Corps.
The first real proposal for a road to Alaska was a 1920s pipe -dream of U.S. Bureau of Public Roads director Thomas MacDonald. Since most of the road would be in Canada, Canadian official support was mandatory. The British overseers and Canadian government felt that there was no benefit to Canada from such a road. Funding was impossible due to the Great Depression’s impact on the economy. The idea was shelved.
There were also concerns that if the US became involved in any war, that a road through Canada would prevent the possibility of Canadian neutrality. However, during British King Edward’s visit to Washington D.C. in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt suggested that a highway to Alaska would be important as a part of the larger defense of the British Dominion’s interests in North America. FDR wanted a road built as soon as possible.
The onset of World War Two in Europe ended British, and, in turn, Canadian thoughts of neutrality. The Axis alliance with Japan and the US entry into the war, following the Pearl Harbor attack, made defense of Alaska and the west coasts of Canada and the US, imperative.
In February of 1942 construction of the ALCAN Highway was approved by the US Congress and FDR. Canadian officials agreed to construction as long as the US covered the full costs, and that the road be relinquished to Canadian sovereignty, after the war.
The objective was primarily military in nature. The entire route from Prince George, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was for a “pioneer road” to be completed as quickly as the troops could finish the job. Any refinements could be undertaken if additional time was available. The goal, for completion, was Autumn of 1942.
Survey crews were deployed right away, in February. Aerial photography and local residents helped the engineers map out the route. Seven construction engineer regiments were assigned at different points on the route. They were each responsible for building a 350-mile section of roadway. The route was determined by the need to link the airfields that sent lend-lease aircraft from the US to the Soviet allies.
The 93rd, 95th, and 97th regiments were African-American in makeup. Alaska defense chief, Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. attempted to bar them from his area of command. Buckner was the son of a Confederate Army general. His objections supposedly centered around possible “trouble” between the African-Americans and the native Canadian peoples. To placate General Buckner, the three regiments were stationed apart from any settlements.
Physical construction of the road commenced on March 8, 1942 under the command of Corps of Engineers Brigadier General William Hoge. His troops worked through the most extreme conditions. Winter temperatures dipped to minus 70 Fahrenheit. When the weather warmed in late spring and summer, mosquitoes and other biting insects made work even more miserable. General Hoge once told reporters that by the time you got food on your spoon and raised the mosquito net to reach your mouth, the food was covered with insects. Troops couldn’t help but eat mosquitoes with their chow.
The US Army took over equipment like railroads and riverboats. They lived in prefab housing originally intended for use in California. The engineers had to develop new ways to build through fragile wilderness and permafrost. Methods used on conventional roads had to be re-thought or disregarded altogether. Building roadway through frozen marshes, presented new challenges.
The primitive road was completed on schedule. The last work finished on October 28, 1942. The official celebration ceremony took place, and broadcast by radio, almost a month later, on November 21st. The onset of severe winter weather conditions prevented use by general army vehicles until the next year.
Allied progress against the Japanese, eased the imminent threat of an Axis invasion of Alaska and Canada. So further contracts were not awarded to contractors for highway upgrades.
At the conclusion of hostilities with Japan, it came time to turn over the route to Canadian authority. The original documents required that the Canadian stretch of road must be relinquished within six months from war’s end. On April 1, 1946, the US Army officially transferred the British Columbia and Yukon Territory stretches over to the Canadian Army’s command.
The US stretch of road was improved to gravel surface during the late 1950s and 1960s. Meantime, the B.C. and Yukon stretches were totally paved with a rocky aggregate spread with sprayed on asphalt emulsion, smoothed out by mechanical roller vehicles.
Today, the British Columbia provincial government owns 133 kilometres (82.7 miles) of the road. Public Works Canada manages the rest of the road through Yukon Territory. The State of Alaska owns the remainder of the highway within its state borders.
Perhaps it’s the history of the ALCAN Highway that fuels Roger’s obsession with his regular trips north? He won’t say.
The Blue Jay of Happiness wonders about this obscure James Allen highway quotation. “The man who cannot endure to have his errors and shortcomings brought to the surface and made known, but tries to hide them, is unfit to walk the highway of truth.”