Take a moment during your next road trip in The Last Frontier to thank the Alaska Road Commission. Established in January 1905 and in charge of road development until shortly before statehood, the ARC is responsible for much of the major road network that spans Alaska today.
Before the ARC, Alaska was mostly roadless. Alaska Natives traversed the state across a network of trails and waterways. When Russians colonized the land they didn’t venture far inland, sticking mainly to the coast where valuable furs were abundant. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, less than five miles of wagon roads existed in the territory, according to a report prepared for the Alaska Department of Transportation.
Over the ensuing decades, the majority of road building took place around Sitka. The federal government did, however, spend money for crews to survey interior Alaska. That information became crucial in later transportation development. When gold strikes in the north drove population growth and successful miners bemoaned the lack of infrastructure, the government was spurred into taking action.
A delegation sent by the U.S. Senate Committee on Territories traveled to Alaska, from southeast to the Aleutians and up to the northern Pacific, taking stock of transportation in the state and speaking to residents about their concerns. The delegation made transportation recommendations upon their return, and in January 1905, Congress approved the creation of the Board of Road Commissioners for Alaska, more commonly known as the Alaska Road Commission.
Early years of the Alaska Road Commission
The Alaska Road Commission started working quickly, constructing roads and upgrading existing trails. Much of the focus for road building in the early years was to provide transportation to active mining areas and the towns that sprung up with them. As such, the Fairbanks-Valdez route was considered the most important transportation corridor in the territory. It linked the coastal port of Valdez with the interior mining towns and was seen as the main artery from which other routes could be built. The Fairbanks-Valdez trail had been constructed between 1899 and 1901 primarily as a way to link Valdez and the town of Eagle. By the time the Alaska Road Commission was established, Fairbanks had usurped Eagle as the interior’s dominant town. Most of the funds spent by the ARC in the first five years were to upgrade the trail between Valdez and Fairbanks to a wagon route.
Funding was difficult for the ARC in the early years. The majority of the commission’s funding came from the federal government, but some was supplied by Alaska. In 1904, a law was passed that required men who had lived in Alaska for more than 30 days to spend two, eight-hour days each year assisting with road construction or pay an $8 tax that would be used to fund roads. That law stood until after Alaska was established as a territory in 1912, and the territorial government changed the rule to a flat tax of $4 for every man in Alaska.
Alaska’s geography and climate also proved a challenge for the ARC. Engineers from the Lower 48 hired to build roads in the north were plagued by permafrost and muskeg. While it was decades before engineers optimized road construction over permafrost, builders used a variety of tactics to make the roads as stable as possible during the early 20th century. Most common was corduroy road construction, which involves creating a mat of boards on the ground to provide support.
In 1908, shortly after the formation of the Alaska Road commission, Henry Ford started producing the Model T. The mass-produced car was the first automobile affordable to working class citizens and it caused a spike in the number of cars driven in the United States. Only about 55,000 cars were being used in the U.S. in 1905, but by 1910 that number was around half a million.
Despite the increase of cars in the contiguous U.S., the ARC didn’t build roads suitable for automobiles in the beginning. The ARC had three types of road classifications: a wagon road, winter sled road, and dog-team and pack trail.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the ARC upgraded the Valdez to Fairbanks route to motor vehicle standards. While the majority of Alaska’s recognizable roadways today have their origins in ARC work prior to 1917, the ’20s brought some notable road projects. The ARC entered an agreement with the Department of the Interior to construct roads in the Sitka Historical Monument and Denali National Park. There was also more construction to agricultural areas in the ’20s, and by the middle of the decade Wasilla — an area with both agriculture and mineral development — had a more extensive road system than Anchorage.
Alaska didn’t see the same boom in infrastructure construction that other areas of the nation experienced in the 1930s thanks to federal spending through the New Deal. It wasn’t until World War II that Alaska’s infrastructure was transformed.
WWII transformed Alaska
World War II caused federal leaders to realize Alaska’s location made it an important place for national defense. That opened financial coffers and money began to flow into upgrading and expanding Alaska’s transportation corridors. During the war years about $600 million was spent on transportation projects in Alaska, more than 20 times what had been spent over the previous 70 years.
The result was 1,000 miles of new roads in the state, more reliable year-round routes, and—most famously—a highway that connected Alaska to the rest of the country.
In 1956 Alaska was included in the Federal Highway Act for the first time and the Alaska Road Commission’s contributions to transportation in the state ended. Today, Alaska’s roads are managed by a mix of federal, state, and local entities, as well as Alaska Native organizations.