The most expensive Second World War project taken on by the U.S., and aided by Canada, the highway was completed on Oct. 28, 1942. It was “an enduring link to northern British Columbia and the Yukon,” C.W. Gilchrist wrote in a Canadian Encyclopedia article. “It contributed to the development of Edmonton which supplied the highway’s construction.”
While a road that connected America to its northern neighbour was discussed in the early 20th century, Canada saw no utility for it and the subsequent Great Depression did not help the cause. It was only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that the two countries sprung into action. Their goal? To build a road that could easily supply Alaska’s military bases during the Pacific War.
“Canada agreed to building of the Alaska-Canada highway, on the condition that the United States foot the bill,” wrote British Columbia’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (TranBC), “and that the route be turned over to Canada after the war.”
“No longer was the U.S. just supplying aid to the Allies and sitting on the sidelines,” wrote the Alaska Department of Transportation and Facilities. “A need to protect U.S. mainland and territorial interests became a reality that devastatingly hit home.”
“If the highway was a dream come true, the making of it was a nightmare.”
President Franklin Roosevelt approved the project in mid-March 1942, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, engineers and civilians —a third of them coming from America’s all-Black regiments—flocked to the construction site with 250,000 tons of material in tow.
Seven regiments were posted along the planned highway route, building north and south to eventually meet the other outfits that were separated by thick forests and multiple mountain ranges. But even with the most tenacious workers that the two governments could afford, soldiers and civilians still faced one near-insurmountable challenge: the weather.
“If the highway was a dream come true, the making of it was a nightmare,” wrote TranBC. “The soldiers worked seven days a week.”
“With the extra ‘daylight’ of the midnight sun lasting 24 hours, crews worked double shifts.”
Muskeg swamps, torrential rains creating pools of mud were typical in the region, especially during the early stages of the project. Engineers sometimes had to cut the trees by hand and fill over wet areas, which is a hefty task for even the most fit workers.
“Speed was the order of the day,” a PBS article wrote. “If the men couldn’t go through an obstacle, they would go over it.”
Still, the area’s weatherly whims hampered the project’s progress, with workers having only completed around 152 kilometres in two months. But the sludge and drudge of the work took on a new meaning on June 3, 1942, when Japanese forces attacked Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
“The enemy’s proximity constantly reminded the men that they were at war, and gave them a renewed sense of purpose in their work,” PBS wrote.
“The Alaska Highway is now a lifeline to communities and a road to adventure for explorers.”
Amidst the mosquitoes, sweltering heat and dusty billows, Canadians and Americans built over 600 kilometres of road by September. And with only a few hundred kilometres left before winter’s grip froze the region, they worked with vigorous efficiency until they faced yet another trick from Mother Nature: permafrost.
The semi-frozen ground west of Kluane Lake delaying their movement, the workers had to continue construction during the frigid autumn, risking hypothermia to finally complete the road and its 133 bridges by late October. Originally called the “Alcan Highway,” the project cost about $185 million to complete, and Canada assumed control of nearly 2,000 kilometres of the highway by April 1946.
While originally built to be part of the Northwest Defense Projects, the road was opened to the public in 1948 and has since become an important artery for multiple industries such as forestry, oil, mining, tourism or trucking. “What was once driven by dire wartime concerns for security and freedom,” TranBC wrote, “the Alaska Highway is now a lifeline to communities and a road to adventure for explorers.”
Attracting 300,000 travellers per year, the Alaska Highway remains one of North America’s major war-time accomplishments, a feat partially achieved by Canadian and American soldiers.