I have driven the Alaska Highway or Alcan more than a dozen times. The first time I drove it was when my husband and I moved our family to Alaska. More than fifteen years passed before I drove it again with my six children in a small car. That year we traveled the road both ways in order to attend a family reunion. It was an adventure about which several of them wrote college essays. Another fifteen or so years passed before I drove the Alcan with my husband when we purchased a new truck. That year I traveled the highway three different times. The first with my husband, the second with my youngest daughter while taking her to college, and the third with my husband when we became snowbirds. My husband and I traveled the road twice each year for several years to spend the winter months helping his aging parents.
My latest trip down the Alcan took place several weeks ago. I noticed that the journey was harder on my older body, but I still enjoyed the expedition. I have always used The Milepost on previous trips, wearing out several of the guides over the years. I purchased a new Milepost for this trip, but I barely opened it because my husband and I know the road so well.
I happened up a little pamphlet titled Bell’s Travel Guides – Alaska Highway Mapbook 2015. I opened it and found an interesting introduction to the Alaska Highway. Bell writes that the “Alaska Highway was the engineering marvel of World War II and was once described as the largest and most difficult construction project since the Panama Canal.” Bell reminds us that the highway “is a wilderness trail with gravel roads, steep grades, muskeg and log bridges to navigate.”
In all my study and travel of the Alaska Highway I learned something new about the Alcan from Bell. I did not previously know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt started lobbying Canada in 1936 to make a road to Alaska. FDR wanted the road to “shore up military defenses on the west coast in case of a Japanese attack.” Canada was not interested in building the road until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The plan for the Alaska Highway was approved by the U.S. Army on February 6, 1942, and it was authorized by Congress and FDR “five days later.” Then the USA approached Canada again.
“Canada agreed to the construction if the United States would bear the full cost and that the road and all facilities in Canada were to be turned over to Canadian authority at the end of the war. Less than a month later, on March 8, 1942 construction began.
“More than 11,000 soldiers and engineers, 16,000 civilians and 7000 pieces of equipment were called upon to build this 1500 mile road through the vast wilderness of northern Canada and Alaska. In less than nine months these hardy men managed to connect Dawson Creek, British Columbia and Delta Junction, Alaska. And, on November 20, 1942, the official ribbon cutting took place at mile 1061, known as `Soldier Summit.’”
The road was completed in such a short time because there were five teams working on the road. Two teams worked north from Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson while two other teams started in Whitehorse and worked in opposite directions. The fifth team started in Delta Junction and worked south. The Alcan cost $140 million in US dollars and was “the most expensive construction project of World War II.”
The road was mostly gravel when I first drove it, but it is mostly paved or chipped sealed now. There are many bumps in the road because of frost heaves, but the road is much better now.
In my mind, Canada got a great deal because the USA not only paid to build the road, but it also pays to maintain it. The drive from Anchorage to the northern border of the USA is nearly 2500 miles. I am grateful to have this road out of Alaska because it helps me to feel much less isolated in the Far North.