The Alaska Highway, also known as the Alaska-Canadian Highway, is one of the most famous and important roads in North America. Constructed during World War II, it was the first all-land route linking the contiguous United States with Alaska, allowing for rapid transportation of goods and people along some of the most remote regions of the continent. To this day, the Alaska Highway forms a vital link in the economy of Alaska and the Arctic Circle, and it has also become a major tourist attraction in its own right.
The planning and construction of the Alaska Highway was fraught with danger, but in recent years, the Highway has become considerably safer to travel due to modern infrastructure improvements. Read on to learn about the history of the Alaska Highway.
The Alaska Highway and the Arctic Circle
The Alaska Highway is a 1,387 mile (2,232 kilometer) highway connecting Dawson Creek, British Columbia with Delta Junction, Alaska, just south of Fairbanks, one of Alaska’s largest cities and the hub of economic activity in the Alaskan Interior. Originally 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) in length when it was completed, it has been shortened over the years due to extensive rerouting and straightening of several sections.
The Alaska Highway was originally conceived in the 1920’s in order to alleviate transportation problems between the lower 48 states and Alaska. When the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, transportation was a low priority due to Alaska’s perceived worthlessness and small population. However, the Klondike gold boom in the 1890’s caused Alaska’s population to explode, causing numerous logistical problems, which were heightened by the fact that Alaska is physically separated from the mainland U.S. by Canada.
Thomas MacDonald, who served as the director of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, conceived of the Alaska Highway in the 1920’s as a means to solve transportation routes. To gather support for the highway, Slim Williams, an Alaskan fur trader, traversed the proposed route for the Alaska Highway by dogsled, becoming a minor celebrity due to the fact that the route was considered impossible to travel.
Because much of the Alaska Highway traversed Canadian territory, support from the Canadian government was necessary to begin construction. However, Canada declined to help finance the project due to the fact that the part of Canada that the highway would traverse was sparsely populated, meaning the project would disproportionately benefit the U.S.
In 1929, the provincial government of British Columbia proposed a road linking Alaska and the contiguous 48 states as a means to promote tourism and economic activity. President Herbert Hoover created a panel of American and Canadian experts to explore the idea. While the board’s 1931 report supported the highway’s construction for economic reasons, the board also came to the conclusion that the highway would bolster the power of the U.S. military. In 1933, the commission recommended that construction costs be borne by the B.C. and Canadian governments, with the U.S. contributing only a small amount of operating capital, but the Great Depression and Canada’s disinterest in the highway stalled any further plans.
In 1936, highway negotiations were restarted between the U.S. and Canada. President Franklin Roosevelt touted both the economic and military benefits of the road, as Japan had become increasingly belligerent during this period and the U.S. hoped that Canada would contribute to a mutual defense of the Pacific coast in the event of war. However, Canada remained uninterested in funding a highway that would primarily benefit the U.S., and Prime Minister Mackenzie King also feared that if the U.S. and Japan went to war, the U.S. would use the road to violate Canadian neutrality.
In 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into World War II and changing the political landscape for both the U.S. and Canada. Due to Alaska’s position, it assumed great military importance in the Pacific theater as a launching point for attacks against Japan, and Japan would also occupy sections of southwestern Alaska during the war. The U.S. needed a highway connecting Alaska to the lower 48 states in order to quickly move men and material between both regions.
In 1942, the U.S. and Canada finally agreed to begin construction of the Alaska Highway. Canada assented to the highway’s construction on the conditions that the U.S. bear the full cost of construction and the portions of the highway within Canada be turned over to Canadian authority after the war ended. Construction began in Dawson Creek on March 8, 1942, using what was referred to as “Route C” by U.S. Army planners due to its relative insulation from Japanese attack.
Construction on the Alaska Highway was rapid due to builders working from both the southern and northern ends. On September 24, 1942, both construction crews met at what would be later named “Contact Creek.” Construction was handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using resources from both the local area and shipped in from the mainland U.S. The highway was formally completed on October 28, 1942, though it was not usable by vehicles until 1943.
The necessity of rapid completion due to World War II made the Alaska Highway unsafe to travel during its early years, as it featured an array of tight switchbacks, steep grades, poor surfacing, and a lack of guardrails. Many bridges along the route were pontoon bridges, which were gradually upgraded to log bridges and then steel bridges as time permitted. A section of the highway in Yukon became temporarily impassable in 1943 due to thawing permafrost.
In 1946, per the original agreement between the U.S. and Canada, control over the Canadian leg of the Alaska Highway was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Canadian Army. Following this, the Canadian Army transferred portions of the highway to the control of British Columbia and Yukon, though Public Works Canada retains control of a selection of the highway’s length in British Columbia. The U.S. Army later passed control of its portion of the highway to the Alaskan government.
Road maintenance along the Alaska Highway was very uneven in its earlier decades due to differing priorities and resources available to the managing governments. While the Alaskan portion of the highway was completely paved during the 1960’s, the Canadian portion was not paved in its entirety until the 1980’s. The British Columbia and Yukon governments have also rerouted several sections of the highway to shorten it and make it safer for general traffic.
Since the end of the war, the Alaska Highway has become a major artery in the North American road network, as it offers the only direct overland route from the U.S. to the Alaskan Interior. Many truckers use the route to transport goods to and from Alaska, with economic activity picking up in the 1970’s after the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The highway has also become a major tourist attraction, with numerous businesses along the route’s length catering to visitors. A number of towns were also founded along the highway to support its construction, such as Destruction Bay in Yukon.
The Alaska Highway remains one of the most important roads in North America, providing a direct land link between the mainland United States and the 49th state, as well as serving many small communities in western Canada. While a difficult road to travel, infrastructure improvements over the decades have made it much safer for tourists to traverse. The Alaska Highway’s historical significance combined with its gorgeous sights ensure it will remain a major tourist attraction for years to come.