Watson Lake Air Terminal Building

The Watson Lake Air Terminal Building is associated with one historic theme of relevance to the Alaska Highway Corridor nomination:

♦  Engineering achievement and North American strategic cooperation

Description of the Site

Constructed in 1941, the Watson Lake Air Terminal Building is located at the Watson Lake Airport, and within the traditional territory of the Liard First Nation. The air terminal represents a key link in both the Northwest Staging Route and the building of the Alaska Highway. The building, with the exception of the control tower, is currently occupied by the Yukon Government, Aviation Branch. In 2004, a pictorial display on the history of aviation in Watson Lake and the southern Yukon was designed and installed in the building.


The Watson Lake airstrip was built as a private facility in 1935 to service a route linking Edmonton, Alberta to Whitehorse, Yukon. The Watson Lake airfield was taken over by Canadian Pacific Airlines before becoming part of a civilian project planned by the Canadian Department of Transportation in 1939 to create the Northwest Airway System, a good-weather route with airfields located at Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse, and intermediate airfields at approximately 140-km intervals. Civilian surveyors were already working on the route when Canada entered the war in September 1939. While the Department of Transport initially considered abandoning the Northwest Airway to concentrate on airfields required for training and logistics in the south, they determined that the US was likely to enter the war, and that there would be a need to move people and supplies by air through Canada to Alaska. Therefor, surveying of the air route continued, with the surveys completed in January 1940.

In August 1940, the Canada-US Permanent Joint Board of Defence was appointed to address mutual interests, including the defence of Alaska. The Board met in Vancouver in November 1940 where it agreed on the need to improve the Northwest Airway – now known as the Northwest Staging Route – from Edmonton, Alberta to Fairbanks, Alaska for night-flying, longer runways, better weather reporting, and more reliable navigation systems. Canada agreed to pay for all improvements to airfields and air systems within the Canadian portions of the route.

The improvement or construction of airfields at Grande Prairie, Fort St. John and Whitehorse had few logistical challenges. Fort Nelson, BC and Watson Lake, Yukon, however, were located far distances from all-weather roads, good waterways, or railways. Construction of the improved landing field at Watson lake by the Department of Transport required supplies and materials to be assembled in Vancouver for trans-shipment by water, including by river boat on the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek, essentially following a route that the Tlingit used to access the interior. From Telegraph Creek, a road was built to Dease River, where the material was freighted to Lower Post. The last part of the journey was a tote road (which also became part of the Alaska Highway) of 40 km in length to reach Watson Lake. The first truck-load of material reached Watson Lake in July 1941; the air terminal building was constructed soon thereafter.

Watson Lake Airport, 3 August 1951Watson Lake Airport, 3 August 1951

Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada. PA-067427.

While improvements to the Watson Lake Airport were underway as part of the US-Canada agreement, Great Britain committed its allies to the Lend-Lease program that included, among many other items and financing arrangements, support for the shipment of aircraft through Canada to Russia. After the US entered the war in 1941, Watson Lake Airport became a military facility under US control, serving as an important refuelling stop for American fighter aircraft bound for Alaska. Further improvements were made to the airport, including the construction of the control tower on the side of the Air Terminal Building, and a military hangar. Barracks, staff housing, mess halls, apartments and storage facilities were constructed nearby, but have since been demolished.

In June 1944, under the terms of its agreement with the US, the RCAF took over control of the airport. In 1957, control was transferred to the Canadian Department of Transport, and in October 1996, responsibility for the Watson Lake Airport was transferred to the Yukon Government.

The Alaska Highway was routed to link these airports and smaller landing strips of the Northwest Staging Route, providing logistical support for the operations and crews at the airports. The airports, in turn, supplied the highway construction crews with personnel and supplies. Post war, the Watson Lake Airport served the mining industry. Since 1988, however, the airport has almost exclusively been used for private and charter flights.

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Watson Lake Air Terminal Building Watson Lake Yukon