North To Alaska

September 1, 2002 by Les McLaughlin

A worker drapes his head with netting to keep insects at bay.

I have no recollection of my first journey north over the Alaska Highway, although years after our 1944 bus ride my mother recalled that my shenanigans amused the Greyhound driver. We were travelling from northern Alberta to the land of the midnight sun, where my 65-year-old father hoped to find work in Whitehorse, an American military boomtown in Canada’s fabled Yukon Territory.

The American army had built the 1,523 miles of pioneer road through British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska in nine months in 1942, and for the duration of World War II, they owned it. Travellers required authorization and had to carry a pass signed by the United States commander in Dawson Creek. The policy was strictly enforced, so as a three-year-old, I too carried an American military pass permitting travel in Canada.

In 1944, the road clearly lived up to its image; a crooked, dusty, trail to nowhere. There were no roadside lodges or gas stations and not much traffic. Makeshift refuelling stations were established at army camps and gasoline was pumped directly from 45-gallon drums.

I have travelled the highway often since then. Change is everywhere. Today, it is almost completely paved. There are no unnecessary curves, no dust, and it is about 50 miles shorter than it was in 1942. Even the revered black and white mileposts are gone, replaced in the ’70s by kilometre posts when Canada adopted the metric system. However, highway veterans have not stopped referring to important locations as “mile” such and such.

And, if you look closely, the ghosts of the old road are everywhere, including that of Donald Macdonald, a U.S. government engineer, who suggested an overland route to Alaska in 1928. Five years later, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a committee to study the proposal. In the late ’30s, B.C. Premier Duff Pattullo, a staunch proponent of a highway to Alaska, visualized the enormous economic impact it would bring his province. But the federal government wasn’t interested.

By 1940, Alaska’s population had reached 70,000 and citizens were clamouring for a road link with the southern states. They feared that a coming war in the Pacific could cut their only supply line, the west coast shipping lanes.

As talk of a wider war grew, Canada and the United States formed the first Joint Defense Board and agreed on the need to upgrade a string of airfields that had been established in the 1930s along the so-called Prairie Route from Edmonton to the Yukon. The reconstruction of these airfields required a road, yet both U.S. and Canadian governments were reluctant to commit the massive amounts of manpower, money and machinery needed for the undertaking.

Then came Dec. 7, 1941. “The day that will live in infamy” at Pearl Harbor changed everything. Alaska was virtually defenseless and vulnerable to attack.

On Feb. 11, 1942, President Roosevelt issued the directive to build a military highway along the Prairie Route, following the string of air fields. The Canadian government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King gave its approval on March 5. None too soon a decision for Canada’s pride and sovereignty, since troops of the 35th American Combat Engineers were already on their way by train from Edmonton to Dawson Creek, a tiny cow town of 500 people that would soon become world famous as Mile 0, the beginning of the Alaska Highway.

In less than a year, more than 11,000 American troops and 16,000 civilian workers from Canada and the U.S. with 7,000 pieces of equipment, were thrown into the monumental task of penetrating a vast, unknown wilderness.

Dawson Creek, B.C., at the end of steel for the Northern Alberta Railway, was the logical place to begin. By mid-March, the village was teeming with trucks, bulldozers, and men in uniform. However, most of the soldiers were not staying long. The mighty Peace River, 35 miles away, was still frozen and the road builders had to move tons of equipment across the river before the ice went out. When it did, they had to rely on a dilapidated ferry that created a massive bottleneck until the Peace River suspension bridge at Taylor, B.C., was completed in 1943.

North across the Peace River flat lands, Fort St. John, Mile 47, is one of the oldest Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading posts in the North. Nearby Charley Lake is a small, seemingly placid basin of water. Yet here, the highway proved it was, as advertized, “no picnic” to work on. Eleven soldiers drowned in the spring of 1942 when a freak prairie windstorm blew in while they were floating bulldozers across the lake aboard pontoon barges. That day, the Alaska Highway delivered its first hero. Canadian trapper Gus Hedin witnessed the unfolding disaster, leapt into his small homemade wooden rowboat and in three dangerous trips to the scene, rescued five soldiers.

Except for mud, the first 150 miles of the road were like a Sunday walk in the park until suddenly, without warning, travellers encountered the dreaded Suicide Hill that winds for miles around the mountains down into the deep dark valley of the Sikanni Chief River. The top of the hill held a hint of the horror to come; an ominous sign painted in huge black letters read “Suicide Hill–Prepare to Meet Thy Maker.”

Early travellers who survived the terror of Suicide Hill faced another hurdle when they encountered the crookedest 50 miles of highway in the world. This section gave rise to an Alaska Highway legend. Surveyors, the story goes, were ordered to make the road as crooked as possible so military convoys would not be strafed by Japanese fighter aircraft. A bush legend to be sure and not true, according to the American who commanded the construction in 1942.

Many years ago, I interviewed that man, Brigadier-General William Hoge. He had built roads in the jungles of Singapore before being chosen to lead soldiers and civilian contractors in the road race to Alaska. “We were under orders to push the pioneer road through to Fairbanks in nine months,” he told me. “We couldn’t wait for surveys. Sometimes I’d tell my tree cutters to head off into the bush and shake the tallest tree. Then I’d tell the bulldozer drivers to head for the trembling tree.” No wonder the road was crooked.

“We had no maps,” Hoge recalled. “We used maps I found in old National Geographic magazines. We had no soil surveys and only found out about permafrost when it was too late. After we cut down the trees and stripped the overburden, trucks and caterpillars sank into the muck till they were out of sight. I thought they’d end up in China.”

Not that it mattered. The Americans had plenty of equipment and spent little time searching for sunken trucks or repairing mud-choked bulldozers. For years after the military withdrew, local residents enjoyed a steady supply of equipment left behind because it was too expensive to remove.

Contact Creek at Mile 564 is a “blink and you miss it” kind of stream. But in the hallowed halls of highway history it holds an honourable place. All summer during that mosquito-ravaged year of 1942, road builders had been working in teams, one carving a trail south from Whitehorse as another worked northwest from Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. On Sept. 24, when they met and touched bulldozer blades at the little creek, the Canadian section of the pioneer road was complete.

Nearby, at Mile 635, is Watson Lake, the Yukon’s first community reachable from the south. In the summer of 1942, a minor accident there had a major aftermath. A dump truck ran over Carl Lindley’s foot.

While recuperating, he took a can of paint, some battered boards and inscribed the name of his home town. Then he tacked up his sign with an arrow pointing south to Danville, Illinois. Carl could not have imaged what he started. Today, Lindley’s simple seed has sprouted to a sizable signpost forest. The signs tell a unique story. Tens of thousands are posted every year, including city limit signs from Austin to Aklavik.

At Mile 810, Ted Geddes, a native resident of Teslin, Yukon, was a witness to the blitzkrieg-like approach of General Hoge and his military workers. Ted told me that one day in the blissful summer of 1942, he and some friends from this tiny Yukon trapping village were sitting on a lakeshore log eating lunch when they heard a strange noise in the bush.

They were startled to see five big bulldozers shoving down trees. By afternoon the men and machines had disappeared over the hill, leaving a cut line in their wake. That was the first the Teslin trappers had heard about the road. But it wasn’t long before Yukon native people were using their horses and their knowledge to guide the weary road builders through the boreal mountain forests.

McCrae, at Mile 910, was the busiest place on the highway for nearly a year and was the location of the Yukon’s biggest Quonset hut movie theatre where the North’s first live national radio broadcast originated. In 1943, to coincide with the North American premier of Irving Berlin’s movie musical “This is the Army,” the Americans staged a Hollywood-style party that was carried live by the Mutual Broadcasting System and the CBC over the newly built telephone line.

Even Canadian poet Robert Service, then in his 70s and living in Vancouver, was invited to attend this public relations milestone. Wisely, he passed on the invitation to ride the rough dirt road and instead sent recorded greetings.

Whitehorse, Mile 918, was our final stop on that bus trip of 1944. The ramshackle town of 750 hardy Yukoners had multiplied to nearly 4,000 workers during the heyday of highway construction.

Whitehorse is the Yukon’s capital city now, but it was not when the highway arrived. That honour went to Dawson City. However, the writing was on the wall for the famed city of gold when on April 3, 1942, the scheduled White Pass and Yukon Route train from Skagway arrived at Whitehorse with a shipment of supplies and soldiers. Within a week, the town became an American military garrison. Combat-ready engineers of the 18th Regiment set up huge tent cities near the Whitehorse airport. The busiest place in town was the little local liquor store where on one occasion two box cars full of beer lasted a single day.

The town boomed and foretold a black day for proud Dawson City. In 1953, the federal government decided that Whitehorse would become the Yukon’s new capital city. Dawson residents blamed Whitehorse for their loss, but should really have chided the highway, for without it my home town might still be a little village.

Northwestward, the road winds toward the most majestic mountains in North America. The St. Elias Range is clearly visible at Haines Junction, Mile 1016. Past these timeless peaks, the road heads north to Soldiers’ Summit, Mile 1061, where the highway was officially opened on Nov. 20, 1942. It was a bitterly cold, grey day on the shores of Lake Kluane, as the military men in their finest, including a big American brass band, Mounties in red serge, and politicians listened to endless self-congratulatory speeches, while the CBC with the latest in equipment recorded the ceremony for later broadcast to a North American audience.

On Oct. 28, 1942, at Beaver Creek, Mile 1202, the pioneer road had been completed when the 97th U.S. Engineers working from Alaska met the 18th Regt. working north from Whitehorse. By midwinter, most of the soldiers were gone. The U.S. Public Roads Administration took control and employed nearly 16,000 Canadian and American civilians to upgrade the pioneer road to a year-round route. Some workers were driven north to the job sites on board buses from Greyhound, one of the many companies that benefitted economically from highway construction.

On April 1, 1946, in a ceremony at Whitehorse, the U.S. military turned the highway over to the Canadian Army and Brigadier-General Geoffrey Walsh became the first Canadian commander. Walsh sensed that the road, having received so much publicity during the war, would attract the attention of peacetime travellers. Yet lodges and gas stations were still few and far between along the 1,220-mile Canadian corridor and Walsh declared that the military pass system would stay in place. It wasn’t until 1948 that tourists could travel the road without permission.

The Canadian military maintained the route until 1964 when it was formally turned over to the Department of Public Works. Since then, many millions of dollars have been spent to relocate, straighten and pave the Alaska Highway and the work has paid off in boosting tourism and attracting exploration just as Duff Pattullo predicted it would back in the 1930s.

It has also generated academic argument about the impact the highway has had on the land, wildlife and the people of the North. Certainly, the 300,000 visitors who travel through the fragile wilderness every year have an impact. And the highway has opened a pristine habitat to exploration and development of oil, gas and minerals with inevitable consequences.

I will leave the scholarly debate to others except to say that while attending university, the Canadian military gave me my first real paying job working on the highway. Most northerners I know did the same. It gave us the opportunity to see and understand first-hand a land we would not have known if the highway were not there. It allowed us to appreciate the diversity of wilderness and its bountiful life. For that I am grateful to the men and women who built the road to Alaska.

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