The Alaska Highway was and still is a marvel of engineering. The actual route was built in about eight months as every one knows, and was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. While researching information on the highway, I came across a statement by a Canadian Army engineer that stated that the U.S. Army did not build the road — “they merely broke trail.” As I read further, it became clear as to what he meant.
When the Department of Public Works took over responsibility for the system on April 1, 1964, an 18-year Army battle with nature and the elements came to an end. It had been a battle against a personality that was mean, vicious, cruel, and dangerous, yet at times beautiful, satisfying, and relaxing.
It was on April 1, 1946 that the Canadian Army took over from the U.S. Army that portion of the Alaska Highway located within Canadian boundaries. The handover was brief but impressive. A group of heavy construction vehicles roared up to a platform, U.S. Army drivers jumped out and were replaced by Canadian Army soldiers, and the convoy rolled on. The ceremony was marked by a monument a few yards to the east of the Mile 918 roundabout.
Records of the time indicated something akin to awe at the immensity of their task as officers of the Royal Canadian Engineers tackled an undertaking unique in military history. Whether fate had a snowy hand or not was questionable, but it was worthy of note that the first Canadian Commander of the Northwest Highway System was Lt. General Geoffrey Walsh, later to become Chief of the General Staff, who saw the highway system pass to civilian control.
In reviewing the considerable amount of material that had been written about the Northwest Highway System, one fact stood out above all others. Over the 18 years, the highway had been kept at peak efficiency by the loyalty of thousands of civilians and soldiers who worked tirelessly — at times under fearful conditions — at their multitude of jobs on “the road.” All this on a tightly controlled annual budget.
The Northwest Highway System was called by one of its commanders “the finest gravel road in the world,” and snaked for 1,221 tortuous miles from Dawson Creek (Mile Zero), north and west to the Yukon-Alaska boundary (Mile 1221). In doing so, it passed through five mountain ranges, over 185 bridges of varying sizes, and over some 6,000 culverts. The perverse personality of the highway meant that each bridge and culvert could and did act up in a different way — not just each year, but a different way every year.
Additional secondary tasks for the system were the maintenance of a total of 134 miles of road between the highway and airfields at Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Snag, Aisihik, and Smith River; 117 miles of the road between Haines Junction and Haines, Alaska; access roads to 25 microwave sites operated by the Northwest Communication System and maintenance of seven emergency airstrips along the highway.
By 1961, the first 83 miles of the highway had been paved and turned over for maintenance to the B.C. government.
Nature’s attack on man’s intrusion into the wilderness usually came in early June. The then-peculiar alluvial nature of the rivers and streams, fed by mountain glaciers, created flash floods that simply appeared out of the forest, sweeping trees and boulders ahead of them and washing out sections of the road in minutes.
These rivers did not behave like ordinary rivers. They were wild, tricky, and highly uncertain. They sometimes looked like trickling currents through mile-wide boulder strewn valleys, but they could boom into bank-full torrents within a few hours as the glaciers melted or rain fell on the mountains nearby.
The effect of this on culverts and bridges can be easily imagined. A story was told of a touring couple from San Francisco whose car became stuck in a soft shoulder over a culvert. The man and his wife left to get help from a nearby tourist lodge. When they returned, some 15 feet of road had disappeared and their car was two miles downstream. Nature’s added insult: the man was a ship’s captain.
Along with the washout curse was the landslide when whole sections of a hill decided to change location, taking parts of the road along with it.
These “Acts of God” kept maintenance crews and crash crews on their toes year in and year out over the 18 years that the Canadian Army ran “the road.”
The North country attacked the Northwest Highway System in many ways. In the July 1956 edition of the Canadian Army Journal, an article noting the 10th anniversary of the Canadian takeover showed a photograph of a 2,130-foot suspension bridge over the Peace River at Mile 35.3, 10 miles south of Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia.
It was the proudest on the highway, built by U.S. Army engineers in 1942. Just a year and two months later, on Oct. 15, 1957, it was a crumpled span — the victim of a landslide that wrenched out of position a 25,000-ton cable anchor.
This unprecedented highway shutdown resulted in what was probably the most famous end run in the history of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers. A seven-mile diversionary route was quickly constructed using the Pacific Great Eastern Railway bridge three miles upstream. The diversion involved building a 400-foot trestle bridge over the tributary Pine River, which was later converted to a 500-foot high level Bailey Bridge.
Extreme conditions of snow and cold were the most remembered features of life on the highway to any soldier who had been posted here. A recorded low of 83.6F degrees below zero existed for Snag on the northern stretch. Temperatures of 35 to 55F degrees below zero were not uncommon and could continue for days at a time.
Snowfall varied at different parts of the highway but presented a constant winter problem, especially during heavy blizzards. In many sections, the plague of the northland, permafrost, added to the complexities of highway construction and maintenance. In spring came the corollary of the bitter cold when ice blocks, some had been know to weigh up to 100 tons, came surging down the rivers to slam against piers of bridges with terrific force.
With summer came another much cursed hazard: the dust. Although local residents learned to live with it, the dust had caused more than a few accidents. Amazingly, “highway dust” was on sale in Whitehorse stores for 98 cents a can, for tourists who wished to carry a “down to earth” souvenir back home.
But was there a pleasant side at all to this stern northern personality? Very much so, said veterans of the highway.
The scenery is some of the finest on the continent, in places rivalling Banff and Jasper National Parks. Hunting and fishing buffs were delirious in describing the opportunities for these pastimes. Many dens in more southern climates sported a stuffed head of the Dahl mountain sheep, courtesy of highway personnel. As one engineer put it, “there’s an urgency about that country that gets in your blood that a year of 50 below couldn’t chill.”
In the early 1960s, highway traffic increased as the many tourists had heard that here was a place for a holiday that’s really different, if a bit rugged.
There was no doubt that under the Canadian Army’s 18-year tenure, the Northwest Highway System had opened up the north to completely unexpected activity. It’s contribution to the wealth of the land could not be counted in dollars, but the facts remain that due to the highway there were mines built where there were none a decade previously; there were gas and oil wells flowing where there was wilderness; and there are thriving communities bursting at the seams where once lonely trappers’ cabins were the only signs of civilization.
In 1964, as Major General L.G.C. Lilley pointed out in the 15th anniversary issue of The Counsellor, a mimeographed newspaper published at headquarters of the Northwest Highway System, “the Alaska Highway was conceived in time of war as a means of strengthening the defences of the North American continent. It served that purpose well. Today the Alaska Highway serves an equally worthwhile purpose, as a major means of transportation for the development of an important section of Canada’s northland. Transportation is the key to opening up new areas, and the major developments which had occurred in northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory since the Second World War are indicative of the value of the highway.”
Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.
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