History of the Alaska Highway
The Alaska Highway Corridor crosses provincial, territorial, international and cultural boundaries as it winds through northern British Columbia, southern Yukon and up into Alaska. Its geography, geology, flora and fauna encompass arable lands at its south end and sub-Arctic conditions in the north. The human footprint in the Corridor is most clearly evident in the highway itself, in its towns and in protected places, such as Kluane National Park. A closer look reveals that the Corridor has many stories to tell through less obvious human imprints on the landscape, such as places of importance to First Nations, former trading posts along the waterways, old trails and relics from the Second World War era.
The Corridor’s centrepiece is the Alaska Highway. Over a distance of almost 2,237 km, it crosses five summits ranging from 975 m to 1,280 m to serve residents, tourism, forestry, mining and the oil and gas industry. The highway is divided into three distinct sections. In British Columbia it is known as Highway 97; in the Yukon as Highway 1; and in Alaska as Highway 2. It runs through diverse natural eco-regions, from the Peace River Plains through boreal forests and mountain ranges.
The Highway itself was a significant feat of engineering and was recognized as an event of national historic significance in 1954, and as an International Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers and Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in 1996.
The British Columbia section of the Alaska Highway passes through three of British Columbia’s eco-regions: the Boreal Plains (Dawson Creek to south of Fort Nelson), the Taiga Plains (in the Fort Nelson area), and the Northern Boreal Mountains (west of Fort Nelson to the BC-Yukon border).
The Boreal Plains eco-region consists of plateaus and lowlands, mostly forested, with large patches of muskeg. It is crisscrossed by the Peace River tributaries. As the Highway approaches Fort Nelson, it dips into the Taiga Plains eco-region, a lowland plateau bisected by the Liard River watershed and its tributaries, including the Fort Nelson and Petitot rivers. The northern- and westernmost British Columbia section of the Alaska Highway is part of the Northern Boreal Mountain eco-region. This section touches several mountain ranges, as well as valleys and lowlands, including many of the Highway’s iconic vistas.
The Yukon section of the Alaska Highway is part of the Canadian cordilleran region, and the road passes through high plateaus, glacier-fed river valleys, rolling hills and mountainous terrain. Most of the territory is dominated by boreal forest.
The archaeological record shows that people have occupied northeastern British Columbia and southern Yukon for at least 11,000 years. Indigenous cultures flourished in the area, spread out and diversified. The Indigenous groups along the corridor from Dawson Creek to the Yukon-Alaska border in rough geographical order are the Beaver, Slavey, Kaska, Tagish, Tlingit, Tutchone and Tanana peoples. They lived through hunting and harvesting before and after contact with Euro-Canadians.
Indigenous people entered the fur trade beginning in the late 17th century, and many were firmly integrated into the trade by the late 18th century. Forts and trading posts, such as Fort St. John (1798), Fort Nelson (1805) and Fort Liard (c. 1807), were established on the heels of expeditions from explorers such as Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie. The trading posts in turn opened the way for missionaries, who filtered into the region through trade routes beginning in the early 19th century. Through access to metal tools and implements, rifles, horses, and foodstuffs like flour, tea and sugar, the daily life of Indigenous people changed. At the same time, however, they remained attached to the land and its resources.
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-99 also had a significant impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples in northern British Columbia and Yukon. The gold rush was started by the discoveries of a party of Tagish people and a White prospector. The region was inundated with tens of thousands of prospectors and hangers-on, most of them American. Although many miners travelled to the gold fields by boat, some chose an overland route via Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. Portions of the Alaska Highway follow gold rush trails, such as the the Kluane Wagon Road blazed by the Jacquot brothers of Burwash Landing.
As soon as the Gold Rush ended, the population declined, dramatically. For northeastern British Columbia, in particular, it was as difficult to get around the region as it was to get into and out of it. The Hudson’s Bay Company and British Yukon Navigation Company dominated river travel. While the White Pass and Yukon Railway connected Whitehorse with the pacific via Skagway, Alaska, and the Northern Alberta Railway (NAR) reached as far as Dawson Creek by 1931, there were few roads and wagon trails in the region and no reliable transportation connecting the two railroads.
Northwestern Canada did benefit from developments in air travel during the 1920s and 1930s. However, without proper radio communication facilities, regular weather reports, or in many cases proper landing fields during much of the interwar years, development was slow and air travel often unreliable. In 1935, the federal government began surveying possible airfield sites in an attempt to develop a ‘great circle’ aviation route that would stretch across North America to Asia. The studies proposed that the location of the airfields be based on the small landing fields already in use by the bush pilots. In 1939, Canada’s Department of Transport began investing in the proposed airway, and work went into improving the navigational aids and developing larger airfields at Fort Nelson and Watson Lake.
Progress was slow and the survey parties were still in the field when war broke out in 1939. Consideration was given to ending the program, but it was decided that, should the United States enter the war, the airfields would prove to have strategic value.
A joint Canadian-American Commission had been formed in 1930 to assess various route proposals for a highway through Canada to Alaska, but the Depression and a general lack of interest in what was perceived to be a road to nowhere put a stop to the effort. Near the beginning of Second World War, before the US entered the war but while it had begun supplying aircraft to allies via Siberia, the US and Canada’s Permanent Joint Board on Defence called for the construction of a series of airfields stretching from Edmonton, Alberta, through northern British Columbia and the Yukon, to Alaska and on to Siberia. Work upgrading existing airfields and building new ones commenced in early 1941 through Canadian funding and contracts under the formal title of the Northwest Staging Route.
Initially, the American military saw no necessity for a highway along the route; the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December 1941 changed that position. The Americans became increasingly insistent on the development of a safe overland route from the southern states to Alaska. An agreement was made: the US would pay for the construction, with the sections on Canadian soil to be turned over to Canada six months after the end of the war. Canada, in turn, would provide the right-of-way, waive import duties and other taxes, offer special arrangements for incoming American workers and permit the free use of timber and gravel where required. After decades of discussion, the construction of the Alaska Highway had begun and the spotlight was shining on the Canadian Northwest.
The US Army began construction of the Alaska Highway in March 1942. In a matter of weeks, seven regiments of American engineers (approximately 11,000 men), and 16,000 civilians from Canada and the US, as well as thousands of pieces of equipment, arrived in Canada’s northwest to undertake one of the most tremendous engineering achievements in the world. By October 1942, a 2451-km rough ‘pioneer’ road, beginning at the railhead in Dawson Creek and ending in Fairbanks, Alaska, was passable and in use for supply purposes. It was officially opened 20 November 1942, with a ceremony at Mile 1061 known as ‘Soldiers Summit’. Responsibility for the construction of the final road fell to the US Public Roads Administration (PRA) and was undertaken by five main contractors who were responsible for an additional seventy-nine Canadian and American companies. Initially, the project was referred to as the Alcan Highway, but on 19 July 1943, Canada and the US exchanged diplomatic notes formally naming it the Alaska Highway.
The PRA’s work lasted into November 1943, and improvement works shortened the Highway by approximately 95 miles (153 km). Maintenance of the Alaska Highway fell to the US Army for the duration of the war. The completed Alaska Highway included 133 bridges, five summits between 975 m to 1,280 m and permitted speeds from 65 to 80 km an hour.
When the US Army departed in 1946, it left a rough, winding road that connected a few small communities, but the era of traders and bush pilots controlling transportation routes was over. In addition, the Alaska Highway brought with it a modern telephone system.
Canada took over its sections of the Alaska Highway six months after the end of the war on 1 April 1946. Responsibility for maintaining the Highway now fell to the Canadian Army, and in turn the Northwest Highway System (NWHS) wing of the Royal Canadian Engineers. With the transfer of the Highway to the military rather than the local governments, strict restrictions on travel were put in place over the following years. Travellers needed to obtain permits to use the highway and were required to take a long list of supplies and equipment with them, given the still rough conditions. By 1964, when the Alaska Highway was transferred to the Canadian Department of Public Works (DPW), the NWHS had built more than 100 new bridges. DPW made further improvements, including paving all sections and further straightening the road.
Each of these layers of history on the road and its surrounding region have made the Alaska Highway the destination route it is today.
The Alaska Highway, in a complicated but not atypical manner, led to both resource development and protection of areas through the creation of large parks. Taylor, Fort Nelson and Fort St. John were given a major boost during construction, but it was the highway’s importance in providing access to natural gas, oil, mining and timber that has led to strong communities. The success of the highway also justified the setting aside of many areas for recreation and conservation. The Liard River Reserve evolved into three provincial parks – Liard River Hotsprings, Muncho Lake and Stone Mountain – and Kluane National Park Reserve was established in 1972.
The Alaska Highway also affected settlement patterns in the region. Prior to its construction, northern British Columbia and the Yukon were sparsely populated and the majority of the Alaskan population lived in coastal communities. In northern British Columbia and the Yukon, communities sprang up in response to the road and the services and opportunities it offered. For many, the Alaska Highway would become their ‘main street’. As the headway for the Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek is a prime example of a community transformed from a small prairie town to a regional centre.
The pattern of life in the Yukon was also altered by the highway’s construction. Socially, the Yukon reoriented itself to the road, and new communities developed in order to service the highway and can be said to owe their existence to the highway. Dawson City lost its status as the capital of Yukon in favour of Whitehorse, which played an important role as the Northwest Service Command Headquarters during the war.
The Alaska Highway also impacted the layout and future development of some communities. Since its original founding in 1805, Fort Nelson has grown and developed in various locations. However, with the influx of workers and soldiers associated with the NWSR and Alaska Highway between 1941 and 1945, Fort Nelson was moved from its historic riverside site to its fifth and current location.
The construction of the Alaska Highway had a major, although geographically varied, impact on the lives of Indigenous people in the region. Men from First Nations communities were only marginally involved in the construction itself. They generally worked as guides or labourers. They knew the country, its climate and its people. Indigenous women were also hired to do laundry, make and repair clothing, work in restaurants and assist in office work.
It is difficult to assess the impact of the Alaska Highway on Indigenous life because it occurred in a period of great economic, political and social change. It is recognized, however, that people moved away from small river-based communities, such as Upper and Lower Laberge, Big Salmon, Little Salmon and Fort Selkirk, to Highway-based settlements, such as the new Fort Nelson settlement, because river-transport disappeared.
It was often difficult for people from First Nation communities to take full advantage of opportunities, however, because they were busy in the summers preparing for trapping and sustenance in the winter. They understood that highway construction provided temporary employment, not a way of life. For many families, the end of construction led to a sudden loss of income at a time when they were now dependent on fuel for cars and trucks to move from place to place.
The Alaska Highway also had an impact on the environment. Soldiers were known to use wildlife for target practice, and an increased demand for meat for construction crews and cities, depleted much big game. Other animal patterns were disrupted by the construction itself.
The Alaska Highway also increased the exposure of Indigenous people to infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis, measles, influenza, dysentery, whooping cough, mumps and meningitis. Infant and child mortality rates rose dramatically during the construction years.
Culturally, the Alaska Highway increased the use of English as the primary language in the corridor; prior to construction, Indigenous languages were commonly spoken and French was still heard in communities that had been the site of Roman Catholic missions. While other events, including residential schools, radio, television and increased wage employment, affected language use, the Highway was likely an important factor.
Today, Indigenous people are part of the cultural, social and economic fabric of the corridor, while also retaining close connections to the land and its bounties. They are involved in construction, resource development, tourism, business development and cultural production.
The Alaska Highway served to connect communities and provide an essential transportation link across northwestern Canada. It opened the region for tourism, development and resource extraction and is a destination in its own right. The impacts of the Highway, both positive and negative, have had a lasting effect on Canada’s northwest.
Learning More about the History of the Alaska Highway Corridor
The Alaska Highway: Background to Decision, by Richard G. Bucksar
History is Where you Stand: A History of the Peace, by Dorthea Horton Calverley [History of the Peace River area]
Brebner, Phyllis Lee. The Alaska Highway: a personal and historical account of the building of the Alaska Highway. Erin, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1985.
Brown, Earl L. Alcan trail blazers: Alaska Highway’s forgotten heroes. Fort Nelson, BC: Autumn Images, 2005.
Christy, Jim. Rough road to the north: travels along the Alaska Highway. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1980.
Coates, Ken. North to Alaska! Fifty years on the world’s most remarkable highway. Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 1991.
Coates, Ken Ed. The Alaska Highway: Papers of the 40th anniversary symposium. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985.
Coates, Ken, Andrew Hunter and Catherine Crowston. The Road: constructing the Alaska Highway. Canada: The Art Gallery of Alberta, 2007.
Coates, K. S. and W. R. Morrison. The Alaska Highway in World War Two: The U. S. Army of Occupation in Canada’s Northwest. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Couper, Jim. The long and winding road: discovering the pleasures and treasures of Highway 97. Vancouver, BC: Heritage House, 2006.
Griggs, William E. The World War Two Black regiment that built the Alaska military highway: a photographic history. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Haigh, Jane G. The Alaska Highway: a historic photographic journey. Whitehorse, YK: Wolf Creek Books, 2001.
The Milepost: Alaska travel planner. 63rd Edition. USA: Morris Communications Company LLC, 2011.
Morgan, Lael. “Writing Minorities Out of History: Black Builders of the Alcan Highway.” Alaska History Vol. 7 (No. 2) Fall 1992.
Morritt, Hope. Land of the Fireweed: a young woman’s story of Alaska Highway construction days. Edmonds: Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, 1985.
Nickel, Dawn Dorothy. Realities and Reflections: women and the Yukon frontier during the Alaska Highway period. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1998.
Remley, David. Crooked road: the story of the Alaska Highway. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska, 2008.
Russell, Chester L. Tales of a Catskinner: a personal account of building the Alcan Highway, the Winter Trail, and the Canol Pipeline in 1942-1943. 2nd ed. Fort Nelson, BC: Autumn Images, 2003.
Stone, Ted. Alaska and Yukon: history along the highway. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1997.
Twichell, Heath. Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Wonders, William C. Alaska Highway explorer: place names along the adventure road. Victoria, BC: Horsdal & Schubart Publishers, 1994.