The first effort to build an overland route toward Alaska came in 1897, when the Northwest Mounted Police completed a route survey from Dawson Creek to Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River. The survey party eventually traversed the 2600 km to Fort Selkirk, and reported that an overland route into the Yukon Territory from northern British Columbia was not feasible.
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 presented Canada with the dilemma of maintaining sovereignty over the Yukon. To counter the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Railway, which favored American access, the Northwest Mounted Police started to blaze an overland trail to the Klondike gold fields in 1905; however, only 600 km of a horse trail was completed.
The territory of Alaska was unsuccessful in its own efforts to lobby for a road to the south until 1939, when the argument for an overland route to Alaska was presented in relation to the national security for both the United States and Canada. Soon after the start of World War II, Nazi Germany developed battle plans to invade and conquer Russia for its resources, and then shift its focus on the conquest of the British Isles. With this knowledge, Britain and the United States knew that support to Russia was an absolute military necessity in order to eventually defeat Nazi Germany.
In June 1941, after Russia was invaded, the Allied forces initiated action to support the defense of Russia. The supply of materials and equipment to defend Russia included a sea route west to Vladivostok in Russia's far east. This route was shorter than the eastern route and less vulnerable to attack because of the Japanese preoccupation with the South Pacific; Vladivostok was linked to the Russian west through the Trans-Siberian Railway.
What Russia needed the most for its defense was equipment such as aircraft delivered from North America ready for use. The shortest and fastest route for delivery of these planes was a "great circle" polar route from the United States, through Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Upon the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany, the work began to upgrade an established supply route in the northwest into the Northwest Staging Route.
The Northwest Staging Route had two major functions during World War II. Firstly, it was a significant factor in the route location for the Alaska Highway and it was very useful in the highway construction. Secondly, the airfields along the highway were used to ferry planes to Fairbanks to be picked up by Russian crews for lend-lease to Russia.
In mid-1942, Americans were in northern British Columbia readying for the eventual activity associated with the Alaska Highway. Very shortly after Pearl
Harbor, support of a road to Alaska was accepted by the American people as a necessity for the defense of Alaska against the Imperial Japanese invading forces.
In March 1942, the first train carrying troops arrived in Dawson Creek to begin construction. The help of local trappers, prospectors, and First Nation members was enlisted to help locate the road, and local packers with their mule teams were used to help supply the advance survey parties. US military personnel were mobilized through to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, by rail to begin work northward toward Alaska, through to Whitehorse by rail to begin work northward, and southward, and through the Alaska coast to construct southward toward the Yukon from Alaska.
In April 1942, route location personnel were at work along the entire road alignment, with heavy equipment following close behind. Five to six kilometers of road could be built in a day because construction could proceed 24 h a day with the long summer daylight hours.
The most difficult problem for the construction was the inexperience of military engineers in building a highway on permafrost. In many areas along the route where the top layer of ground was removed, the underlying ground thawed and produced a quagmire that was difficult to build on. The best strategy in these areas was to leave the permafrost intact and build the road on top of it by spreading a layer of insulating gravel.
The next significant problem was bridging the many small streams and major rivers along the route. Over the entire length of the highway, a total of 133 bridges and 8000 culverts were constructed.
Another significant problem was maintaining the flow of supplies to the construction activity. This problem was compounded by adverse weather conditions, remoteness of the area, and the lack of enough ships to mobilize supplies to the coastal supply points.
The pioneer road was completed in eight months and twelve days. An opening ceremony was held at Soldiers Summit on Kluane Lake on November 20, 1942 to officially celebrate the completion of the overland link.
The pioneer road constructed in 1942 was a single-lane, rough road that would have to be upgraded in order to be usable by the increasing military and civilian traffic. In early 1943, the job of upgrading the road to an all-weather structure became a civilian exercise. The upgrading included reducing road grades, straightening road alignments, and constructing permanent bridges.
The road, when completed, traversed over 2500 km (1500 miles) from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, Alaska. The total cost of the road was over $138 million 1941 dollars.
The Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan or Alaska-Canadian Highway) has remained an important and essential overland link to, and between, the communities of Alaska, the communities of northern British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and the northern portion of the Northwest Territories via the Dempster Highway. The road provides a route for commercial traffic, and a route for tourist traffic that number in the hundreds of thousands.
The highway has been steadily upgraded over the years to improve its alignment and grade, and its width and driving surface. The unpredictable and potential treacherous nature of the original Alaska Highway has essentially become history as well.
Kenneth R. Johnson
See also Alaska; Dempster Highway; Transport Further Reading
Coates, Kenneth (editor), The Alaska Highway: Papers of the 40th Anniversary Symposium, Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1985 Coates, Kenneth & W.R. Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II: The US Army of Occupation in Canada's Northwest, Toronto: University of Toronto, 1990 Twichell, Heath, Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway, New York: St Martin's Press, 1992
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