Building the Alaska Highway

Construction of the "Alcan" Highway (ALCAN was the military acronym for the Alaska-Canada Highway) officially began on March 9, 1942. Army engineers were ordered to construct a road that would proceed in a northwesterly direction from the railhead at Dawson Creek, BC, and connect with the existing Richardson Highway at Delta Junction, AK. They punched a pioneer road through the wilderness in 8 months and 12 days.

An overland link between Alaska and the Lower 48 had been studied as early as 1930, under President Herbert Hoover, but with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it was deemed a military necessity. President Roosevelt authorized construction of the Alaska Highway on February 11, 1942. The U.S. secured rights-of-way through Canada in March. The formal agreement between the 2 countries stipulated that the U.S. pay for construction and turn over the Canadian portion of the highway to the Canadian government after the war ended. In turn, Canada furnished the right-of-way; waived import duties, sales tax, income tax and immigration regulations; and provided construction materials along the route.

A massive mobilization of men and equipment took place in that first month following the executive order to build a military road to Alaska. The Public Roads Administration tackled the task of organizing civilian engineers and equipment. Trucks, road-building equipment, office furniture, food, tents and other supplies all had to be located and then shipped north.

In Earl Brown’s Alcan Trail Blazers, Harry Spiegel describes the scene upon arriving in the North in March 1942 with Company A, 648th Topographic Battalion, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: "We are now located on the last fringe of civilization; 60 miles from the nearest railroad and there are no roads save for one bush trail blazed about 300 miles north to Fort Nelson from here. Many convoys of heavy engineering and pontoon boat equipment are arriving every day. Even though I am in the midst of army activity all around me, all this impresses me as working on a huge, peacetime construction job, or being a member of a wilderness expedition. Very few wartime precautions are observed. Open fires burn at night, no camouflage is used and the trucks do not use their blackout lights."

By June, more than 10,000 American troops had poured into the Canadian North.

The general route of the Alcan Highway determined by the War Department was along a line of existing airfields from Edmonton, AB, to Fairbanks, AK, known as the Northwest Staging Route. (This chain of airfields was used to ferry more than 8,000 war planes to Russia as part of the Lend Lease Program.) But mapping out a general route for the Alaska Highway in Washington D.C., and actually surveying the route in the field, proved to be two very different things.

Some sections of the Alaska Highway followed existing winter roads, summer pack trails and winter trap lines. Where no trails existed, reconnaissance parties scouted through river valleys and mountain passes, often struggling through waist-deep snow and climbing over “boulders as big as boxcars.”

Recon parties often depended on local guides to help locate possible routes for the new road. And like the early-day explorers who preceded them, along with those who called this country home, the Alaska Highway construction crews often left their mark by naming the lakes, rivers and mountains they found along the way.

Once the route had been scouted, the survey crews would move in. “One man would set up with his compass on the staff and—utilizing the chosen bearing—locate a 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,” recalls Capt. Eschbach. “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 8 or 10 miles on a good day."

For the soldiers and civilian workers building the Alaska Highway, it was a hard life. Working 7 days a week, they endured mosquitoes and black flies in summer and below zero temperatures in winter. And the farther away from base camp you were, the harder the living conditions. Weeks would pass with no communication between headquarters and field parties. According to one senior officer with the Public Roads Administration, “Equipment was always a critical problem. There never was enough.”

In Alcan Trail Blazers, Sid Navratil describes the daily hardships for the troops. "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, 3 pancakes, thin farina, coffee; lunch (when there is any), 2 biscuits size of a quarter each (and just as hard); supper, fish and potatoes… No cigarettes.”

In June 1942, the Japanese invaded Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians, adding a new sense of urgency to completion of the Alcan. Crews working from east and west connected at Contact Creek on September 15. Construction ended on Oct. 25, 1942, when it was possible for vehicles to travel the entire length of the highway. The official ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Nov. 20, 1942, on Soldier’s Summit at Kluane Lake.

The Alaska  Highway opened to the public in 1948. The highway was named an International Historical Engineering Landmark in 1996.

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