The ALCAN Highway – A Modern Engineering Marvel

Driving the entire 1400 mile length of Alaska Canadian Highway (ALCAN) from Delta Junction, AK to Dawson Creek, BC is the adventure of a lifetime for some and an absurdly long car ride for others. For the handful of skilled truckers with antifreeze running in their veins, driving the ALCAN year round is a job they take very seriously because of: the slim margin for error while driving on the two-lane highway that winds and climbs through the Canadian Rockies, the difficulty getting help quickly if one breaks down or gets stuck out in the wilderness, and the complete dependence of the communities along the route on the fuel and supplies the 18-wheelers haul. However, while safely completing/surviving the ALCAN (especially during December-March)just once is a noteworthy accomplishment for amateur road-trippers, motor home jockeys, and professional drivers alike—it pales in comparison to the challenges faced by the men who trail-blazed the road and carved the highway’s path through the largely unexplored Northern Canadian wilderness during 8 long months in 1942.
When US Secretary of State William Seward persuaded the US Senate to approve the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire for 7 million dollars (about 2 cents per acre) in 1867, most Americans viewed the Alaska territory as little more than a giant “icebox” and its purchase as a waste of money. This image changed somewhat the late 19th Century when the discovery of gold in the Klondike sparked a gold rush and hinted at Alaska’s tremendous but latent reserves of natural resources (oil, minerals, fish) but Alaska, for most American citizens and politicians in the “lower 48”, remained a remote frigid, far-away, foreign frontier territory of uncertain value.
December 7, 1941 changed everything. The Japanese surprise sunrise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor naval station in Hawaii changed the rules of warfare by introducing the awesome fire power of the aircraft carrier attack fleet, awoke the US from its isolationist slumber, and greatly boosted Alaska’s strategic value. The visionary US Air Force general, Billy Mitchell, was one of the first US leaders to recognize that in the age of aviation, Alaska was “the most central place in the world for aircraft”. Due to its proximity to the North Pole, Alaska “is closer than anywhere to everywhere if you are flying”. General Mitchell even said that “He who controls Alaska, controls the world.” Not only was Alaska located in Japan’s “backyard” and was thus an important defensive and offensive position, but Alaska was located even closer to the Soviet Union--a fellow Allied power, who at that moment was bearing the full force of a German offensive that had pushed to within sight of the gates of Moscow and decimated Soviet army and air force units in its path. As Stalin regrouped during the winter of 1941 and prepared to launch a counteroffensive in Spring 1942, his military relied tremendously upon the Lend-Lease supplies (especially the thousands of military aircraft) that were flown up to Alaska from the lower 48 and then either flown or shipped across the Bearing Sea and unloaded in the Russian port of Vladivostok.
At this time, there was no overland route connecting the lower 48 states (or even Canada) to Alaska—only a railroad that went as far as Dawson Creek, BC and then a series of 8 remote but vital airfields (known as the Northwest Staging Route) between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks. This severely limited the Army’s ability to move men and supplies efficiently to Alaska and then onto Russia. Consequently, the US government deemed the construction of the ALCAN Highway as a military necessity.
An initial idea for a coast-hugging highway from Seattle to Anchorage was quashed by fears that it would be vulnerable to attack from carrier-based aircraft and supplanted by the conviction that an interior road linking the lower 48 to Alaska would be best and had to be built ASAP!! President Roosevelt authorized the construction of the ALCAN in February 1941 and by March, finalized an arrangement with the Canadian government in which the US agreed to pay for construction costs and turn over the Canadian portion of the highway to the Canadian government after the war. In exchange, the Canadians agreed to provide right-of-way, waive all import taxes and immigration regulations on the supplies and men brought into Canada to build the highway, and to help provide construction materials along the route.
Construction of the ALCAN started in March 1942. The US Army Corps of Engineers provided technical guidance while the US Army supplied the labor force in the form of 7 divisions of US Army troops (~10,000 men)—most of whom had never encountered sub-Arctic weather conditions or even knew that they were going to Alaska. The final objective was clear: to build a “pioneer road” through the pristine and rugged wilderness linking Dawson Creek, BC to Fairbanks, AK. However, a plan to achieve this objective did not exist and had to be improvised on the fly. Army engineers grappled with major engineering and logistical challenges—building a highway in uncharted and un-surveyed territory, moving huge amounts of men and material into the wilderness, and working with machinery and men in extreme weather conditions which limited the construction season to only six months during the year (May to October).

During the Spring, Summer, Fall and early Winter of 1942, the ALCAN highway slowly grew across the Canadian wilderness via a leapfrog approach. Bush pilots flew a couple miles ahead scouting out the best route and reporting to survey teams on the ground who staked out the proposed trail. The work crews followed on the surveyors’ heels using bulldozers of all sizes to clear a path through the wilderness and around mountains, a variety of earth-moving machines to shape and grade the gravel road, and sweat equity to build temporary wooden bridges across streams and rivers—averaging 8-10 miles of completed road each day.
The soldiers worked 16 hours per day, 7 days a week and endured mosquitoes and black flies in the summer, extreme weather conditions (as low as -70 F) in the winter, isolation from civilization, and frequent food shortages. Nevertheless, the soldiers blazed away—often motivated by healthy competition started between work crews—and completed the pioneer road by October 1942 (1,500 miles in just 8 months!!) making it possible for vehicles to travel the entire length of the highway. Civilian work crews followed behind and helped convert the primitive pioneer road into the permanent all-weather road that we still drive on today.
The ALCAN was opened for public use in 1948 and many of the work camps that sprung up during its construction evolved into more permanent settlements and towns. Today, American and Canadian work crews work year-round to repair, improve and plow the ALCAN highway and maintain its bridges. Where no path existed before, there now is a beautifully maintained road that countless tourists, truckers, and a few brave cyclists and hikers cruise along each year---enraptured by the natural beauty surrounding them but possibly oblivious to the sacrifice, ingenuity and legend of the ALCAN Pioneers whose footprints preceded them.

For more ALCAN history, check out this government filmstrip circa 1949.

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