Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

The Alaska Highway Opened to Public in 1942

The Alaska Highway was built by the US Army across Canada’s north to Alaska, a road across mountains, permafrost and rivers, as a military supply route

Preparing the roadbed near Whitehorse, 1942 - Robert Cartter, photographer

The Japanese were making Canada and the United States nervous in WWII. The enemy was getting too close, bombing Pearl Harbour in 1941, threatening the west coast and the Aleutian Islands. It was time, the American military decided, to carve a supply route through Canada’s north into Alaska. President Roosevelt approved the plan, and an agreement was forged with the Canadians, noted CBC.ca. The Alaska Highway began construction in March 1942.

A route was planned from the southern starting point of Dawson Creek, BC. Using aerial photos, maps and fresh surveys, according to Scribd.com, the plotted road curved, twisted and snaked across bogs and rivers, around and over mountains and floated across permafrost and muskeg. From Dawson Creek, it touched the towns of Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, BC, and crossed over the Yukon border into Watson Lake and Whitehorse. The road continued northwest into the state of Alaska, touching on Tok to its final destination of Delta Junction. The Canadians saw no use in the road for themselves and so did not supply men; this was an American project.

US Army Corps of Engineers build the highway

The American military virtually took over Canada’s northern area to work on the Alaska Highway. Seven Regiments of the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived with bulldozers and equipment, and full complement of 11,000 soldiers. Three of the Regiments – about 1/3 of the troops – were African American soldiers. At that time, segregation was in effect and the Regiments were not mixed. Each Regiment, said Scribd.com, was given a section of approximately 350 miles to complete. Regiments proceeded from both the north and the south, to meet half-way.

The first section did not go quickly. By June 1st, “the Army Corps of Engineers has completed only 95 miles” of highway, said PBS.org. The work was grueling, the hours long, and the weather was disastrous for men not used to the snow and dire cold of the north. Because of softening permafrost, portions had to be underpinned with a “corduroy road”, logs laid side by side with gravel overtop.

Highway-building was grueling in muskeg and wilderness

As the weather improved, progress leapt ahead, doubling and quadrupling the miles of road development. Though more miles were completed, the task was still difficult. Bulldozers sank into the muskeg, 12 men drowned during a sudden storm on Charlie Lake in BC, and much of the wilderness demanded manual labour to clear the route. Another hindrance to some of the Regiments was that the African Americans were not always given heavy equipment to work on sections. PBS.org stated that “Although the 95th [Regiment] had more experience operating the equipment, the machinery was given to the all-white 35th Regiment. The African Americans were given hand tools to use.”

The soldiers persevered. On October 25, 1942, the Regiments met at Mile 588 on Contact Creek on the -35 C degree day. It was an auspicious moment for the men of the African American Regiments, with black and white engineers shaking hands as equals at the site. This was one of the great moments that eventually changed US military policy to desegregation.

The Alaska Highway was opened to military convoys

While not fully ready for use, the Alaska Highway was officially dedicated on November 20, 1942 at Soldier’s Summit. The same day, the first military truck convoy set out from Whitehorse, Yukon for Fairbanks, Alaska. The rough road was then handed over to civilian contractors to make necessary improvements.

The construction of over 1,600 miles of the Alaska Highway was a military feat, built in only eight months. Approximately 1,100 miles of the highway are on Canadian soil. The Canadian government took control of its section and paid more than $120 million to the United States for the construction, buildings and assets. The Alaska Highway opened to the public in 1948, and the entire road is now paved.

In 1967, Canada Post celebrated the Alaska Highway with an 8-cent stamp featuring a painting by AY Jackson, member of the Group of Seven.

This article was first published on Suite101.com in 2007.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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