The Alaska Highway is one of the most important and famous highways in northern North America. Built during World War II, it was the first road connecting the lower 48 U.S. states with Alaska, allowing for faster travel between some of the most remote regions of North America. To this day, the Alaska Highway forms a significant plank in the economies of Alaska and Yukon, and it has also become a leading tourist destination, with many visitors driving it in order to take in its scenic views.
The construction of the Alaska Highway was expensive and riddled with danger, but it has become considerably safer to travel in recent years due to infrastructure upgrades. Read on to learn about the Alaska Highway and its significance to Yukon.
The Alaska Highway and Yukon
The Alaska Highway runs just shy of 1,400 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, just south of Fairbanks, the second-largest city in Alaska and the economic hub of the Alaskan Interior. While originally 1,700 miles in length, it has been shortened over the years due to rerouting and straightening on the part of Canadian road crews, making it faster and safer to drive.
The Alaska Highway was first conceived in the 1920’s in order to improve transportation between the continental U.S. and Alaska. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, transportation improvements were slow in Alaska due to a lack of interest. Alaska was perceived as worthless and lacking in economic resources, which meant that few people wanted to migrate there. The Klondike Gold Rush and subsequent gold booms in Alaska caused the population to increase dramatically, causing logistical problems with shipping material in and out of the territory, heightened by Alaska’s lack of a physical connection to the U.S.
The Alaska Highway was conceived by Thomas MacDonald, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, as a solution to the difficulty of transporting goods in and out of Alaska. To garner support for the project, Alaskan fur trader Slim Williams made a dog sled journey across the proposed route, which made him a celebrity due to the fact that the route was considered impassable.
Because the Alaska Highway would have to be built across western Canada, support from the Canadian government was necessary in order to build it. However, Canada rebuffed attempts from the U.S. to construct the highway due to the fact that it perceived little economic benefit. At the time, the region the road would traverse was sparsely populated due to Yukon’s population having collapsed following the end of the Klondike Gold Rush.
In 1929, the British Columbia government proposed building a road between Alaska and the continental U.S. in order to increase tourism and economic activity. To explore the idea, President Herbert Hoover convened a panel of American and Canadian experts. While the board’s report in 1931 endorsed the highway for economic purposes, it also concluded that the highway would empower the U.S. military, something that the Canadian government did not want. In 1933, the commissioned advised that the bulk of highway construction be funded by the Canadian and B.C. governments, with only a small amount coming from the U.S. However, the Great Depression and continued Canadian resistance to the highway prevented any plans from being agreed upon.
Alaska Highway negotiations resumed in 1936, with President Franklin Roosevelt promoting it as a boost for the economy and military. Roosevelt was concerned about Japanese expansion in the Pacific and saw the Alaska Highway as a means to bolster military preparedness on the West Coast. However, Canada continued to refuse to endorse the project due to the fact that it would primarily benefit the U.S. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King also believed that if the U.S. and Japan went to war, the U.S. would use the highway to infringe upon Canadian neutrality.
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. entered World War II on the side of the Allies, which included Canada, and the priorities for both nations shifted. Alaska’s position meant that it had a new importance as a staging ground for attacks against the Japanese navy; Japan would also occupy several parts of southwestern Alaska during the war. In order to shore up military positions in Alaska, the U.S. needed a road connecting the territory to the contiguous U.S.
In 1942, the U.S. and Canada finally reached an agreement to build the Alaska Highway. Canada agreed to allow the Highway on the conditions that the U.S. pay for its construction in full and the Canadian portions of the road be ceded to Canadian control following the war’s end. The Alaska Highway’s construction began in Dawson Creek on March 8, 1942, routed along what was known as “Route C” due to the belief that it would be the most secure from Japanese bombardment.
The Alaska Highway was completed rapidly due to workers constructing it from both ends. On September 24, 1942, southern and northern construction crews met at Contact Creek. The Highway’s construction was dominated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using resources from both surrounding areas and from the continental U.S. The Alaska Highway was formally completed on October 28 of that year and the first vehicles to travel it did so in 1943.
The Alaska Highway was extremely unsafe to travel in its early years because its rapid construction led to numerous corners being cut. The road featured a dizzying away of tight switchbacks, it was poorly surfaced due to a lack of concrete, it featured steep grades in numerous areas, and it also lacked guardrails along mountainous portions. Due to a lack of time to construct actual bridges, many early river crossings were accomplished with pontoon bridges, which were replaced with log and steel bridges in the following years. A section of highway in Yukon was blocked off in 1943 due to permafrost thawing and tearing up the road.
In 1946, control over the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Canadian Army, per the original agreement between both nations. The Canadian Army subsequently transferred control over much of the highway to the British Columbia and Yukon governments, though Public Works Canada still controls part of the highway’s length in British Columbia. The U.S. Army subsequently ceded control of its remaining portion to the Alaskan territorial government.
During the latter half of the 20th century, road maintenance along the Alaska Highway was extremely uneven due to the varying resources available to the governments charged with maintaining it. The Alaskan portion of the highway was completely paved during the 1960’s, while the Canadian portion was paved in stages, ending in the 1980’s. The British Columbia and Yukon governments also changed the routing of the highway in several places to make it shorter as well as safer for motorists.
In the decades since its construction, the Alaska Highway has become an important link in the North American road network, as it is the only direct land route between the continental U.S. and Alaska. The Alaska Highway also significantly changed the landscape of Yukon; the decision to route the Highway through Whitehorse instead of Dawson City led to the former eclipsing the latter in terms of population and power, which was cemented when the territorial capital was moved from Dawson City to Whitehorse in 1953. The Alaska Highway is commonly used by truckers to transport goods between Alaska and the continental U.S., and assumed new importance in the 1970’s following the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The Alaska Highway is also a major tourist attraction, drawing many visitors each year for its gorgeous views, and many towns along the route specifically cater to these tourists. A number of settlements, such as Destruction Bay, were built specifically to support the road’s construction.
The Alaska Highway remains one of the most important roads in Yukon and North America, directly linking Alaska and Yukon with the continental U.S. and western Canada. While still known as a difficult road to travel, numerous reroutings and infrastructure upgrades have made it considerably safer for motorists and tourists. The Alaska Highway’s economic importance combined with its tourist appeal ensure that it will remain an important highway for the foreseeable future.