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The Alaska Highway (also known as the Alaskan Highway, Alaska-Canadian Highway, or ALCAN Highway) was constructed during World War II and connects the contiguous U.S. to Alaska through Canada. It runs from Dawson Creekmarker, British Columbiamarker to Delta Junction, Alaskamarker, via Whitehorsemarker, Yukonmarker. Completed in 1943, it was long, but is becoming shorter due to rerouting. The historic end of the highway is near milepost 1422, where it meets the Richardson Highway in Delta Junction, Alaskamarker, about southeast of Fairbanks. Mileposts on the Richardson Highway are numbered from Valdez, Alaskamarker. The Alaska Highway is popularly (but unofficially) considered part of the Pan-American Highway, which extends south to Argentinamarker.

Construction

Proposals for a highway to Alaska originated in the 1920s. Donald MacDonald dreamed of an international highway spanning the United States, Canada and Russia. In order to promote the highway, Slim Williams originally traveled the proposed route by dog sled. Since much of the route would pass through Canada, support from the Canadian government was crucial. However, the Canadian government perceived no value in putting up the required funds to build the road, since the only part of Canada that would benefit was not more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

However, some route consideration was given. The preferred route would pass through the Rocky Mountain Trenchmarker from Prince George, British Columbiamarker to Dawson Citymarker before turning west to Fairbanks, Alaskamarker.

The attack on Pearl Harbormarker and beginning of the Pacific Theatre in World War II, coupled with Japanese threats to the west coast of North America and the Aleutian Islandsmarker, changed the priorities for both nations. On February 6, 1942 the construction of the Alaska Highway was approved by the United States Army and the project received the authorization from the U.S. Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proceed five days later. Canada agreed to allow construction as long as the United States bore the full cost, and that the road and other facilities in Canada be turned over to Canadian authority after the war ended.

A caterpillar tractor with grader widens the roadway of the Alaska Highway, 1942.


The official start of construction took place on March 8, 1942 after hundreds of pieces of construction equipment were moved on priority trains by the Northern Alberta Railways to the northeastern part of British Columbia near Mile 0 at Dawson Creek. Construction accelerated through the spring as the winter weather faded away and crews were able to work from both the northern and southern ends; they were spurred on after reports of the Japanese invasion of Kiska Islandmarker and Attu Islandmarker in the Aleutians. On September 24, 1942 crews from both directions met at Mile 588 at what became named Contact Creek, at the British Columbia-Yukon border at the 60th Parallel; the entire route was completed October 28, 1942 with the northern linkup at Mile 1202, Beaver Creek, and the highway was dedicated on November 20, 1942 at Soldiers Summit.

The needs of war dictated the final route, intended to link the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route that conveyed lend-lease aircraft from the United States to the Soviet Unionmarker. Thus, the rather impractical, long route over extremely difficult terrain was chosen.

The road was originally built mostly by the US Army as a supply route during World War II. There were four main thrusts in building the route: southeast from Delta Junction, Alaskamarker toward a linkup at Beaver Creek, Yukonmarker; north then west from Dawson Creek (an advance group started from Fort Nelson, British Columbiamarker after traveling on winter roads on frozen marshland from railway stations on the Northern Alberta Railways); both east and west from Whitehorsemarker after being ferried in via the White Pass and Yukon Route railway. The U.S. Army commandeered equipment of all kinds, including local riverboats, railway locomotives, and housing originally meant for use in southern Californiamarker.

Although it was completed on October 28, 1942 and its completion was celebrated at Soldier's Summit on November 21 (and broadcast by radio, the exact outdoor temperature censored due to wartime concerns), the "highway" was not usable by general vehicles until 1943. Even then, there were many steep grades, a poor surface, switchbacks to gain and descend hills, and few or no guardrails. Bridges, which progressed during 1942 from pontoon bridges to temporary log bridges, were replaced with steel bridges where necessary only. One old log bridge can still be seen at the Aishihik rivermarker crossing. The easing of the Japanese invasion threat resulted in no more contracts being given to private contractors for upgrading of specific sections.

In particular, some of route between Burwash Landingmarker and Koidern, Yukon, became virtually impassable in May and June of 1943, as the permafrost melted, no longer protected by a layer of delicate vegetation. A corduroy road was built to restore the route, and corduroy still underlays old sections of highway in the area. Modern construction methods do not allow the permafrost to melt, either by building a gravel berm on top or replacing the vegetation and soil immediately with gravel. However, the Burwash-Koidern section is still a problem, as the new highway built there in the late 1990s continues to experience frost heave.

Route

Alaska Highway between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake
The pioneer road completed in 1942 was approximately from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction. The army then turned the road over to the Public Roads Administration of Washington, which then began putting out section contracts to private road contractors to upgrade selected sections of the road. These sections were upgraded, with removal of excess bends and steep grades; often, a traveler could identify upgraded sections by seeing the telephone line along the PRA-approved route alignment. When the Japanese invasion threat eased, the PRA stopped putting out new contracts. Upon hand-off to Canada in 1946, the route was from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction.

The route follows a northwest then northward course from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson. On October 16, 1957, a suspension bridge crossing the Peace River just south of Fort St. John collapsed. A new bridge was built a few years later. At Fort Nelson, the road turns west and crosses the Rocky Mountains, before resuming a westward course at Coal River. The highway crossed the Yukon-BC border nine times from Mile 590 to Mile 773, six of those crossings were from Mile 590 to Mile 596. After passing the south end of Kluane Lake, the highway follows a north-northwest course to the Alaska border, then northwest to the terminus at Delta Junction.

Postwar rebuilding has not shifted the highway more than from the original alignment, and in most cases, by less than . It is not clear if it still crosses the Yukon-BC border six times from Mile 590 to Mile 596.

Post war

The original agreement between Canada and the United States regarding construction of the highway stipulated that its Canadian portion be turned over to Canada six months after the end of the war. This took place on April 1, 1946 when the US Army transferred control of the road through the Yukon and British Columbia to the Canadian Army, Northwest Highway System. The Alaskan section was completely paved during the 1960s; largely gravel even in 1981, the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway is now completely paved, mostly with bituminous surface treatment.

The Milepost, an extensive guide book to the Alaska Highway and other highways in Alaskamarker and Northwest Canadamarker, was first published in 1949 and continues to be published annually as the foremost guide to travelling the highway.

The British Columbiamarker government owns the first of the highway, the only portion paved during the late 1960s and 1970s. Public Works Canada manages the highway from Mile 82.6 (km 133) to Historic Mile 630. The Yukon government owns the highway from Historic Mile 630 to Historic Mile 1016 (from near Watson Lakemarker to Haines Junctionmarker), and manages the remainder to the U.S. border at Historic Mile 1221. The State of Alaska owns the highway within that state (Mile 1221 to Mile 1422).

Extensive rerouting in Canada has shortened the highway by approximately since 1947, mostly by eliminating winding sections and sometimes by bypassing residential areas. Therefore, the historic milepost markings are no longer accurate but are still important locally as location references. Some old sections of the highway are still in use as local roads, while others are left to deteriorate and still others are ploughed up. Four sections form local residential streets in Whitehorse (3... see map) and Fort Nelson (1), and others form country residential roadways outside of Whitehorse. Although Champagne, Yukonmarker was bypassed in 2002, the old highway is still completely in service for that community until a new direct access road is built.

Rerouting continues, expected to continue in the Yukon through 2009, with the Haines Junction-Beaver Creekmarker section covered by the Canada-U.S. Shakwak Agreement. The new Donjek River bridge was opened 26 September 2007, replacing a 1952 bridge. Under Shakwak, U.S. federal highway money is spent for work done by Canadian contractors who win tenders issued by the Yukon government. The Shakwak Project completed the Haines Highway upgrades in the 1980s between Haines Junction and the Alaska Panhandlemarker, then funding was stalled by Congress for several years.

The Milepost shows the Canadian section of the highway now to be approximately , but the first milepost inside Alaska is 1222. The actual length of the highway inside Alaska is no longer clear because rerouting, as in Canada, has shortened the route, but unlike Canada, mileposts in Alaska are not recalibrated. The B.C. and Yukon governments and Public Works Canada have recalibrated kilometreposts only as far as a point just at the southeast shore of Kluane Lake, with the latest BC recalibration in 1990 and the only Yukon recalibrations in 2002 and 2005 (based on the distance value where the BC calibration of 1990 left off).

There are historical mileposts along the B.C. and Yukon sections of the highway, installed in 1992, that note specific locations, although the posts no longer represent accurate driving distance. There are 80 mileposts in B.C., 70 in the Yukon and 16 in Alaska with a simple number marker of the original mile distance. There are 31 "historic signs" in B.C., 22 in the Yukon and 5 in Alaska, identifying the significance of the location. There are 18 interpretive panels in B.C., 14 in the Yukon and 5 in Alaska which give detailed text information at a turn-off parking area.

The portion of the Alaska Highway in Alaska is Alaska Route 2. In the Yukonmarker, it is Highway 1 and in British Columbiamarker, Highway 97.

For people interested in learning more about the history of the Alaska Highway there are several books on its construction.

Route markings

A monument at the southern terminus of the Alaska Highway (Dawson Creek)


The Canadian section of the road was delineated with mileposts, based on the road as it was in 1947, until 1978, and over the years, reconstruction steadily shortened the distance between some of those mileposts. That year, metric signs were placed on the highway, and the mileposts were replaced with kilometre posts at the approximate locations of a historic mileage of equal value, e.g. Kmpost 1000 was posted approximately where historical Mile 621 would have been posted.

Reconstruction continues to shorten the highway, but the kilometre posts, at two-km intervals, were recalibrated along the B.C. section of road in 1990 to reflect then-current driving distance. The section of highway covered by the 1990 recalibration has since been rendered shorter by further realignments, such as near Summit Pass and between Muncho Lake and Iron Creek.

Based on where those values left off, new Yukon kilometre posts were erected in fall 2002 between the B.C. border and the west end of the new bypass around Champagne, Yukonmarker; in 2005, additional recalibrated posts continued from there to the east shore of Kluane Lake near Silver City. Old kilometre posts, based on the historic miles, remain on the highway from that point around Kluane Lake to the Alaska border. The B.C. and Yukon sections also have a small number of historic mileposts, printed on oval-shaped signs, at locations of historic significance; these special signs were erected in 1992 on the occasion of the highway's 50th anniversary.

The Alaska portion of the highway is still marked by mileposts at one-mile (1.6 km) intervals, although they no longer represent accurate driving distance, due to reconstruction.

A monument at the northern terminus of the Alaska Highway (Delta Junction).
The historic mileposts are still used by residents and businesses along the highway to refer to their location, and in some cases are also used as postal addresses.

Residents and travellers, and the government of the Yukon, do not use "east" and "west" to refer to direction of travel on the Yukon section, even though this is the predominant bearing of the Yukon portion of the highway; "north" and "south" are used, referring to the south (Dawson Creek) and north (Delta Junction) termini of the highway. This is an important consideration for travellers who may otherwise be confused, particularly when a westbound travel routes southwestward or even due south to circumvent a natural obstacle such as Kluane Lake.

Some B.C. sections west of Fort Nelson also route more east-to-west, with southwest bearings in some section; again, "north" is used in preference to "west".

Adjoining roads

Other roads that join the Alaska Highway include, from South to North: (the Cassiar highway is mostly within B.C., joining the Alaska Hwy one mile inside the Yukon)





Bypassed road segments still in use

View of the highway at Mile 1,337 (Looking Eastbound).
Fort Nelson - Mile 301 to 308, now local residential feeder roads Wildflower Drive, Highland Road, Valleyview Drive

Whitehorse
  • Mile 898, now local residential road just west of Yukon River Bridge
  • Mile 920.3 to 922.5, now the southern and northern portions of Centennial Street; middle portion is Birch Street
  • Mile 922.5 to 922.7, now a portion of Azure Road
  • Mile 924, now a portion of Cousins Airfield Road
  • Mile 925.5 to 926.9, now Parent Road (east end overlooks Alaska Highway/Klondike Highway junction)
  • Mile 927.2 to 927.7, now Echo Valley Road
  • Mile 928 to 928.3, now Jackson Road
  • Mile 929 to 934, now Old Alaska Highway
  • Mile 968, now entrance road to Mendenhall River Subdivision


Champagne-Aishihik traditional territory
  • Mile 969 to 981, Champagne loop (bypassed in fall 2002 by revision)
  • Mile 1016, Hume Street in Haines Junction including access to First Nation subdivision


Other former segments have deteriorated and are no longer usable. More recent construction projects have deliberately ploughed up roadway to close it.

See also



References

  1. The U.S. Army Center of Military History Book UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II - The Western Hemisphere - THE FRAMEWORK OF HEMISPHERE DEFENSE by Stetson Conn and Byron Fairchild - Chapter XIV. THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA: COPARTNERS IN DEFENSE


External links




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