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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Alaska Highway was built 80 years ago (Part 1)


When the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were dozens of locations across the Pacific Ocean that were in danger from Japanese attack and occupation. One such location was the Alaska Territory. 

Strategic reasons to build the Alaska Highway

Because of its location, a land route to Alaska became a high priority. Why? Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are closer to Japan than any other point in North America. The United States armed forces needed to build air bases in Alaska in order to protect the U.S. and to (eventually) bomb Japan.

Secretary of State William H. Seward arranged to acquire Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million (about 2 cents per acre). He foresaw economic opportunities for the nation from Alaska’s bounty of fish, timber, whales and gold. President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty in May 1867. Critics called Alaska “Seward’s Folly,” although the acquisition was generally advantageous (and more so after gold discoveries began in 1886).

However, Congress took little interest in Alaska, and neglected “to pass land laws, fund roads, establish courts, or even provide a means for marriage.”

The biggest problem with Alaska was how to get there. A practical land route from the contiguous United States to Alaska did not exist. Virtually all transportation was by sea. Prior to World War II an airline had begun operating between Seattle, Washington, and Alaska. However, its airplanes carried what Anthony J. Dimond, Alaska’s non-voting delegate to Congress, termed “an almost infinitesimal fraction of the transportation service needed for the Territory.”

Connecting roads from the U.S.-Canadian border went only as far as Dawson Creek in British Columbia. This was approximately 1,400 miles from the town of Big Delta (which is near where modern-day Delta Junction, Alaska is located). 

Canada had not bothered to build a connecting road across the rugged terrain of its lightly populated northwestern provinces. Railroads had no reason to lay track in the area either. As noted by Dimond, Alaska was connected to North America by land, but was “almost as much an island as is Puerto Rico.”

Alaska becomes a “high priority”

The Japanese advances in the Pacific Theater made Alaska an almost overnight priority. If the Japanese established bases in Alaska, they could potentially bomb U.S. cities on the West Coast. 

Sending military supplies to Alaska by sea and air became critical, but also even more dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. A less risky option was needed to meet the Territory’s military needs. It was agreed that a road (as well as a pipeline) across Canada to Alaska was necessary. The pipeline would serve the airfields mentioned above. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the project on February 11, 1942 (slightly more than two months after Pearl Harbor), and Canadian officials agreed to U.S. construction in their nation on March 18, 1942.

Planning a land route

As they planned the road’s route, officials considered four possibilities that had been studied before the war. They agreed on a hybrid course that linked seven airfields that had been built by the United States and Canada before the attack on Pearl Harbor, with “equipment laboriously brought over frozen winter trails or by river barge and portage during warmer weather.”

The route chosen for what was originally called the Alcan Highway (Alaska-Canada) would run northwest from Dawson Creek, “where usable roads and rail lines from the south ended,” to Fort Nelson, British Columbia and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, and to Big Delta southeast of Fairbanks. At Big Delta, traffic could use the Richardson Highway to connect with Fairbanks and Alaska’s road network.

At this stage of the planning process, it was not clear whether a road could be built across the Rocky Mountains between Watson Lake and Whitehorse (no road had ever been considered previously for that route). As far as a road between Watson Lake and Fort Nelson, there were simply no details known at all. 

In order to move more quickly, it was decided to build the road in two separate phases. During 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would “carve” a “pioneer road” through the difficult terrain. It was to be located as close to the planned route as possible. It was hoped that supply trucks would be using the pioneer road before year’s end. The second phase would be handled in 1943 by contractors working for the Public Roads Administration (known as the PRA, it was the Federal Highway Administration’s predecessor in the 1940s), who would follow the Corps of Engineers and work on the permanent road. The contractors would use as much of the pioneer trail as practical.

In a war with many challenging engineering projects, building the Alaska Highway was one the most difficult. Moreover, the urgency of the project made it even harder – the U.S. military ordered the pioneer overland route to Alaska be completed in 1942. The pioneer road was cut through the wilderness and most of the early bridges were made from nearby timber, and many “disappeared” during the first winter. A report by the PRA described a 272-foot-long timber bridge that had a 10-foot clearance this way: “The ice at that time was more than 15 feet thick and the bridge had been swallowed up completely.”

Getting started

By March 1942, the Corps of Engineers and PRA survey teams were moving through the wilderness. Some traveled on snowshoes or by dog team; others were in small airplanes exploring mountain passes and the paths of rivers. According to a PRA report, “There were mountains everywhere, linked and overladen with illimitable forests. Sprawling river systems, scores of glaciers, vast swamp areas and a multitude of lakes presented problems seldom encountered in a similar undertaking.”

In early April, the first U.S. Army engineer troops began arriving. The 35th Engineer Regiment had traveled about 2,000 miles from Fort Ord, California, to begin work on April 11, 1942. Meanwhile, PRA established a headquarters office in Seattle on April 20 to begin assembling contractors.  

PRA sent 500 engineers and aides to conduct surveys of the route, while also negotiating with four engineering firms that would serve as project managers. Subsequently, the engineering firms recruited more than 50 construction contractors that “began moving men and materials to the job along three main routes: by rail via Edmonton to Dawson Creek; from Seattle via the inland water route to Skagway, Canada, then on the narrow-gauge railroad to Whitehorse, Canada; and from Seattle by inland water route, across the Gulf of Alaska to Valdez, Alaska, followed by the Richardson Highway to the job.” In total, more than 6,000 civilian workers were relocated to Alaska to work on the highway.

Black troops work on the project

With most of the U.S. Army’ soldiers on their way to fight in the European and Pacific theaters of operation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed additional men. It was concluded that the first units sent to work on the pioneer route of the Alaska Highway would not be able to finish their work in the eight months before construction would be halted by the brutal winter weather. Additional units were needed to work during those eight months.

Black troops were the solution to the problem. Following approval of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, Blacks had been drafted on the same terms as whites, but “Segregation’s legacy of bigotry and prejudice severely limited the possibilities” for the work they were assigned to do. In general, “Black soldiers were assigned to more than their share of units engaged in low-tech, high-sweat duties in the Engineers and Quartermaster Corps.” In these units, Black soldiers generally had less mechanized equipment and more shovels than white units.

Three units of Black soldiers – the 93rd, 95th and 97th Engineers – were shipped to Canada to supplement the white units assigned to the job. (A fourth Black unit, the 388th, was assigned to the related pipeline project.) In total, there were 10,670 men of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assigned to the project, including 3,695 Black troops. 

While all of the troops and contractors faced similar problems, Black troops faced unique problems, such as less desirable equipment. This was a reminder of the “separate-but-not-equal” conditions Black soldiers thought they had left behind when they chose to serve their country.

The troops in the 93rd and 95th units worked on the segments of the Alaska Highway in Canada. The 97th worked on the section in Alaska south to the Canadian border. The 97th was assigned to the more isolated section of the highway (from the small community of Tok to the border).

In the book “The Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway,” author John Virtue wrote that the 97th Engineer Battalion was given “the worst assignment of any of the seven regiments on the highway: the worst weather, the most mountainous terrain and the greatest isolation.” Their first task was to build a supply road from Slana, Alaska (200 miles north of Valdez), north to Tok through the rugged Wrangell Mountains.

Virtue wrote about the slow progress: “The reasons were many: the snow delayed the start of their work; their heavy equipment arrived 10 weeks after they did; the terrain was the most challenging of any regiment’s.” In addition, they were slowed by mudslides, washouts and flooding. “Glacial ice had to be removed by pickaxe or dynamite.”

After two months, the 97th completed work on the road north from Slana. However, when they reached Tok, the 97th was still “100 wooded and swampy miles from the Canadian border.” With winter weather approaching, the Corps ordered the 97th in Alaska and the white 18th regiment in Canada to work from opposite directions toward the border “to close the gap with a one-lane trail that trucks could use until PRA upgraded it in 1943.”

Author’s note: This is one of several articles that has posted/will post to honor Black History Month in the United States.