Working in the extreme environment of the North, facing an urgent time line, a supply line of significant distance, and daily challenges to their engineering skills, crews still managed to punch a pioneer road through more than a thousand miles of wilderness in 8 months and 12 days. (©MILEPOST Archive Photo/Edwin Bonde)

Construction of the “Alcan” Highway (ALCAN was the military acronym for the Alaska-Canada Highway) officially began on March 9, 1942. A massive mobilization of men and equipment took place in that first month following the executive order to build a military road to Alaska. The Public Roads Administration tackled the task of organizing civilian engineers and equipment. Trucks, road-building equipment, food, tents, office furniture and other supplies all had to be located and then shipped north. By June, more than 10,000 American troops had poured into the Canadian North.

The general route of the Alcan Highway determined by the War Department was along a line of existing airfields from Edmonton, AB to Fairbanks, AK, known as the Northwest Staging Route. (This chain of airfields was used to ferry more than 8,000 war planes to Russia as a part of the Lend-Lease Program.) But mapping out a general route for the Alaska Highway in Washington D.C., and actually surveying the route in the field, proved to be two very different things.

Some sections of the proposed route followed existing winter roads, summer pack trails and winter trap lines. Where no trails existed, reconnaissance parties scouted through river valleys and mountain passes, often struggling through waist-deep snow and climbing over “boulders as big as boxcars,” according to Theodore A. Huntley, Senior Administrative Officer, Public Roads Administration, in his report, Construction of the Alaska Highway. (Read the full report, a fascinating look at the first year of construction on the Alaska Highway.) Recon parties often depended on local guides to help locate possible routes for the new road. And, like the early-day explorers who preceded them, along with those who called this country home, the Alaska Highway construction crews often left their mark by naming the lakes, rivers and mountains they found along the way.

Once the route had been scouted, the survey crews would move in. “One man would set up with his compass on the staff and—utilizing the chosen bearing—locate a second man, who would proceed through the brush, waving a signal flag from the top of his staff as far as he could be seen,” recalls Capt. Eschbach in Alcan Trail Blazers. “At that point, he would stick his staff in the ground, set up his compass, align it on the chosen bearing, and a third man would then move ahead of him… Leapfrogging in this manner, the unit could make as much as 8 or 10 miles on a good day.”

For the soldiers and civilian workers building the Alaska Highway, it was a hard life. Working seven days a week, they endured mosquitoes and black flies in summer and below zero temperatures in winter. And the farther away from base camp you were, the harder the living conditions. Weeks would pass with no communication between headquarters and field parties. According to Theodore A. Huntley’s report, “equipment was always a critical problem. There never was enough.”

In Alcan Trail Blazers, Sid Navratil describes the daily hardships for the troops. “We are working 16 hours a day, working like hell blazing a trail just ahead of the ‘cats.’ Our terrific chow shortage is getting everyone grumpy. The daily menu: breakfast, 3 pancakes, thin farina, coffee; lunch (when there is any), 2 biscuits size of a quarter each (and just as hard); supper, fish and potatoes… No cigarettes.”

In addition to the hardships imposed by the climate, the challenging physical labor and remote location, African-American soldiers working on the Alaska Highway faced racism in various forms. Of the seven regiments that were in place in June 1942, three were designated as “Negro regiments”: the 93rd, 95th and 97th Engineer General Service Regiments. Journalist and author Lael Morgan points out that “the Alaska section [of the highway] was built solely by Black troops of the 97th Regiment under the command of white officers.” In Heath Twichell’s book, Northwest Epic, the author interviewed his father, Col. Heath Twichell Sr., who had been in command of a Black unit during construction of the highway. The elder Mr. Twichell noted the “ceaseless effort” of his men, who built a timber bridge in 72 hours.

In June 1942, the Japanese invaded Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians, adding a new sense of urgency to completion of the Alcan. Crews working from east and west connected at Contact Creek, YT, on Sept. 15. Construction ended on Oct. 25, 1942, when it was possible for “a few vehicles to travel the entire length of the highway,” as reported by Huntley, although “the road was not good enough for any considerable movement of freight.” Grading and surfacing between the Donjek River and the Alaska border “were hurried and sketchy, as the ground had frozen for the winter before the construction crews met.”

The official ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Nov. 20, 1942, on Soldier’s Summit at Kluane Lake, YT. The Alaska Highway was opened to public traffic in 1948. The highway was named an International Historical Engineering Landmark in 1996.


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