“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
The Alaska Highway 1,523 miles from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks has a very interesting history. At the Highway House in Dawson Creek they show a 60 minute documentary on the building of the highway. 60 minutes may seem long but the film is excellent and certainly makes you appreciate the highway and the journey that you are about to embark on. The Alaskan Highway celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Imagine what it was like to literally smash a truck track through 1,500 miles of wilderness, and to do it in only 8 months – wow!
In 1942 the USA and Canada united for a cause. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, fear paralyzed North America. FDR, concerned about an invasion of Alaska our northwestern most state, dusted off a decades old idea to build a road to the Alaskan interior. The military needed a secure supply route to haul military good, materials and men from the lower 48 states to Alaska and it had to be completed in less than one year. Even with all of the challenges including permafrost, muskeg, mosquitos, untrained manpower and extreme cold the building of the highway took a little over 8 months in one of the earliest and coldest autumns ever recorded. The story is an engaging one and if you have the time and/or the inclination check it out (the documentary mentioned above is a great overview).
As I drive the highway I frequently think of what it must have been like 75 years ago to forge through this wilderness and build a road. The military was looking for more than just a few good men and this recruitment notice certainly doesn’t make it sound appealing:
‘Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, do not apply.’
Back in early 1942 there were only about 600 people living in the sleepy agricultural town of Dawson Creek. The people of the town had no advance notice when the US troops and civilians along with equipment and supplies began arriving in town.
Gen. William M. Hoge, was given the task of commanding this monumental project. He subsequently commanded the combat unit that captured the Remagen bridge over the Rhine River in 1945 and later served as commander of all United States Army troops in postwar Europe.
“Boulders, swamp and mud. Looks like hell ahead.” – Brigadier General William Hoge, commanding officer of the Alaska Highway
As it became clear how challenging this project would be General Hoge realized that he would need additional troops to complete the road expeditiously. But with the Japanese stepping up their assaults in the South Pacific, most regular army engineers had been dispatched there. The War Department solved the problem by sending black units to Hoge’s aid. The commanders at that time did not reach the decision easily. The army was still segregated in 1942, and officials were hesitant to post black soldiers in areas where their presence might incite racial animosity.
Furthermore, under the misapprehension that African Americans would be unable to withstand Arctic conditions, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had previously refused to post black troops in the far north. But the highway project’s need for manpower finally convinced Stimson to reverse his policy, and three black Engineer regiments — the 93rd, 95th, and 97th — were assigned to the project, boosting Hoge’s numbers by a third and increasing his command to 10,607 men. It was through the efforts of all these hearty yet inexperienced troops that the highway was completed.
“Someday we’ll all be gone I s’pose. But you know what’ll still be here? This highway. All the way from Mile 0 to Fairbanks, Alaska. I wouldn’t give you a nickel to do it all over again, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for a million bucks!” – Chester Russell, 35th Engineers
In November 1942 U.S Army Engineers working with caterpillar bulldozers from the North were met by Engineers from the South and the breaking through of the ALCAN Military Highway was complete. This was however a rough trail and completion of the all weather highway was finished the next year. As late as the close of 1943 some 11,000 military men were still assigned to the region, under the direction of the PRA, as workers replaced temporary bridges with steel spans and relocated some sections to improve the army’s two-lane track. It wasn’t long after that until the road was opened to tourist traffic in 1948 and the “rush” began.
Located at mile 20 of the original Alaska Highway the Kiskatinaw Bridge is the only original timber bridge on the highway that is still in use today. The location of the bridge near a hairpin turn of the river forced the crew of more than 100 men to build a curved bridge, the first curved wooden bridge built in Canada. Today it is the longest curved wooden bridge in North America and can be easily driven or walked across (even with a motorhome!). It is just a short detour from today’s Alaskan Highway on the original highway route. Over the years, road improvements have shortened the highway by about 35 miles.
Driving the Alaska Highway so far has been awe-inspiring. Not just thinking about the tremendous effort it took to build it but the magnificent scenery and the wildlife are worth every bit of the effort. I am sure that today’s highway is much easier to navigate (especially in a 30’ RV towing a jeep) than it was years ago. In 1958 the American Automobile Association recommended that travelers on the highway carry:
“Two mounted spare tires (preferably six-ply or nylon) and tubes, fuel pump, spark plugs, fan belt, light fuses, cold-patch tube repair kit and pump, car tools, a fire extinguisher, tow rope or cable and an extra coil and condenser.”
Fortunately the road is much better today and I am hoping I have no need for the above items!
My first day out of Dawson Creek on the highway was monumental for wildlife sightings. I counted 12 stone sheep, 7 bears, 2 deer, a marmot, moose, porcupine, and too many bison to count. As a solo traveler needing to watch the road I probably missed many more animals off the sides of the road. There weren’t always places to pull over and photograph but I certainly did my best. Pulling the rig over often takes a bit of preparation and the animals are not really good at giving advance notice!
And yes, this bison is sticking his tongue out as he crosses the road in front of the RV.
More about the Alaskan Highway in future posts. There have been stretches of road construction where dirt, dust and mud cover every part of the rig and jeep as well as some rough areas where the best bet is to slow to a crawl. For now the highway and the journey are both awesome.
“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.” – Earl Nightingale