Until the early 1940s, Alaska was a neglected U.S. territory. The Klondike gold rush of the 1880s and ’90s was a distant memory, and oil had not yet been discovered. There were a bunch of trees and rivers and snow, but nothing really worth exploiting, so the vast wilderness was pretty much left to the bears and the hardy few who lived on the frontier.
Although proposals had existed since the 1920s for building a highway through western Canada into Alaska, the Canadian government wasn’t very keen, and the plans were shelved.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, coupled with their military incursions into the Aleutian Islands, changed things in an instant. Suddenly, Alaska became a potential Japanese invasion route to Canada and the Lower 48, so both governments agreed that the road would now be built.
Military necessity dictated the route. It was a far cry from the original highway-commission blueprints and their more topographically friendly, meandering roadways. The Alaska Highway — like the Burma Road for moving Allied supplies from northern Burma to China — would take little account of mountains, wilderness, water or elevation.
The U.S. Army assumed control of the project, and the Corps of Engineers — augmented by thousands of civilian contractors — began construction through the northern wilderness. By any measuring stick, it was grueling, backbreaking work.
In the end, the 1,500-mile highway, stretching from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was completed in an astounding eight months. In many places, it was a “highway” in name only, instead resembling a glorified footpath with stretches of unpaved road, murderous switchbacks and no guard rails or shoulders. Vehicles had a tough time negotiating the road, and traffic didn’t really pick up until 1943.
After the war, major improvements were made to the highway, and it opened to general traffic in 1947 when wartime travel restrictions were lifted.
To commemorate the anniversary, here are some photos our drive up the Alaska Highway in 2013. Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway, and thanks for the memories!
After leaving Dawson Creek, one of the first historical sites along the highway is a memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in a ferry disaster on Charlie Lake.
One of the most famous sites along the Alaska Highway is the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake (Mile Post 635), home to more than 100,000 signs. I’m guessing that the homesick soldier who started it in 1942 never imagined what it would grow into!
And a few shots along the highway….