The Alaska Highway

While being something of a WWII history buff, I’ve always focused on Europe with little attention paid to the conflict in the Pacific. So, a lot of what I’ve learned about the building of the Alaska highway surprised me. Of course, I take some of it with a grain of salt, recognizing the scent of American propaganda, but the facts are not in dispute.

First, let me comment on the various names this road has gone through, of them ‘AlaskaN highway’, ‘Alaska-Canada highway’, and ‘Alcan highway.’ The latter is my favourite as it seems more inclusive. But since the purpose of the exercise was to create an inland route to Alaska, I can accept the decision to go with ‘Alaska highway.’ 🙂

The Alaska highway was commissioned in 1942 a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There was a very real fear that Japan would attack the west coast of North America. The Japanese even had an outpost just 700mi and change for the Aleutian Islands. The air route across Canada and into Alaska territory was unreliable as were the off shore sea routes. The Alaska highway would serve two goals: provide a secure overland route into the territory and reassure the American public that the Americans were doing everything possible to secure North America against the Japanese.

The building of this highway astounds me. It was done in eight months with very little planning by a team that had no experience in sub-arctic road construction, cold-weather survival, or heavy equipment handling. The American army engineers basically blasted their way through the wilderness and in doing so created a feat of engineering some say is only second to the building of the Panama Canal.

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Some 4,000 of the 11,000 men who built the highway were black, working in segregated troops under white commanders.

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These men worked against formidable prejudices–that they were too lazy, stupid, and unsuitable to cold climates to be of any use. Yet, they persevered in the hope that they would be rewarded with changed circumstances back home.

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Dawson Creek has a relatively new (2007) museum devoted to the building of the Alaska highway. It is located right behind the Mile 0 post that stands in the centre of the intersection of 10th Avenue and 102 Street. Admission is free. Plan an hour and a half to visit the museum in order to take in the 60 minute PBS movie about the building of the highway. This movie is peppered with commentary by actual engineers, both black and white, involved with the project. My favourite part of the museum was the showing of home movies by one of the engineers; they are in colour!

Today, the Alaska highway is shorter and straighter than it was back in 1942. It is paved and lined with all the comforts and trappings of civilization. And, yet, it is still synonymous with adventure.

A friend said to me, about being at Mile 0, that I must be ‘vibrating.’ Oh, yes. Very much so. 🙂

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