Alaska Highway Is Completed

Responding to fears that Alaska could be cut off if the Japanese took control of the North Pacific, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Public Roads Administration built the Alaska Highway. The 1,621-mile road through subarctic wilderness formed a land-based link between Alaska and the rest of North America.

Summary of Event

During the first months after the United States’ entry into World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Alaska Highway , the need for a reliable land route between the United States and its Alaskan territory became urgent. In early 1942, Japanese forces rapidly advanced across the Pacific Ocean. Two islands in the Western Aleutians, Attu and Kiska, were invaded soon afterward. American military planners feared Japanese attacks would endanger the sea passage and coastal flight paths from West Coast ports to Alaska. They decided to build a long-discussed highway to Alaska as insurance against this threat. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the project and plan on February 11, 1942. With the further assent of Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the highway was begun with the speed and concentration of resources made possible by wartime priorities. Alaska Highway
[kw]Alaska Highway Is Completed (Oct., 1943)
[kw]Highway Is Completed, Alaska (Oct., 1943)
Alaska Highway
[g]North America;Oct., 1943: Alaska Highway Is Completed[00960]
[g]United States;Oct., 1943: Alaska Highway Is Completed[00960]
[g]Canada;Oct., 1943: Alaska Highway Is Completed[00960]
[c]Engineering;Oct., 1943: Alaska Highway Is Completed[00960]
[c]Transportation;Oct., 1943: Alaska Highway Is Completed[00960]
[c]Travel and recreation;Oct., 1943: Alaska Highway Is Completed[00960]
Hoge, William M.
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II domestic policy
King, William Lyon Mackenzie

Troops immediately went north to start construction along the proposed route. The biggest detachment arrived at Dawson Creek, British Columbia (chosen because this town marked the end of existing rail connections) in March, 1942. Their first task was to turn a rough trail to Fort Nelson, some 250 miles away, into an all-weather road. Meanwhile, other regiments started working at the other end, at Big Delta and at Tok in Alaska. Another group undertook construction at Whitehorse, an approximate midpoint of the highway, located in the Yukon.

The usual practice was for surveyors to mark out a route first. Bulldozer operators then cleared the route, eliminating trees and other obstacles, and crews operating power shovels and graders to set the contours of the road followed. In the last stage, the road surface was packed down and graded. If gravel was available nearby, it was sometimes added for topping, but most of the road was left with only a dirt surface.

There were additional obstacles. Rivers had to be bridged with wooden bridges, and clearances had to be blasted out of cliffsides. There were constant equipment breakdowns caused by extreme temperatures, and other, unanticipated problems resulted from subarctic soil conditions. Engineers had to learn how to build on muskeg—ground that turned into jellylike mud in the summer months—and on permafrost—permanently frozen ground on which the surface becomes mucky when stripped of plant cover. Some rivers froze from the bottom up, wrecking bridges and flooding surrounding roadways.

Brigadier General William M. Hoge, the commanding officer of the project in early 1942, flew across the Rocky Mountains in a small plane piloted by a bush pilot, seeking a viable way across the Continental Divide. He discovered the pass that was ultimately used to cross the divide, near Watson Lake, at an elevation of only about three thousand feet. The work continued, until by the end of November, 1942, a rough single-lane road stretched approximately 1,620 miles, from Fort Saint John, British Columbia, to Big Delta, Alaska.

This achievement marked the end of the highway as a high-priority military mission. Civilian contractors, who had been working alongside army engineers from the beginning, took over, and the entire project was placed under the supervision of the Public Roads Administration. For the next year, the contractors and a skeleton force of service personnel concentrated on upgrading the road, widening it to two lanes, rerouting it to find more direct paths where possible, and replacing washed-out bridges with new, sturdier ones. The deadline for this work was the end of October, 1943. This schedule was essentially met, and most highway workers left for home by November, leaving only a small maintenance force to make essential repairs during the winter months.

Although the Alaska Highway’s completion in 1943 was a major milestone in the region’s development, work on the highway was far from over. The road was not opened to general civilian travel until the end of World War II. At that time, the Canadian section of the road was turned over to the government of Canada.

A stretch of the Alaskan Highway connecting Edmonton, Canada, with Fairbanks, Alaska.

(Library of Congress)

In the next half century, there was seldom a time when upgrading and rebuilding were not in progress somewhere along the highway. One result of this labor was the shortening of the road: A journey estimated as 1,621 miles in 1942 eventually became approximately 1,500 miles as more direct routes were found. The vast majority of the highway was paved with asphalt, and gentler grades replaced some of the steep slopes of the original road. Traveling the Alaska Highway nevertheless remained one of the adventures in North American tourism, as the severe winter weather required constant maintenance and repair to the easily damaged surface.

Even in the short term, the effects of the extensive Alaska Hightway project far exceeded its military uses. The highway opened a hitherto isolated region, making it accessible to the world. That region’s Native American inhabitants soon found their way of life changed. Telegraph and telephone lines were put up between major installations along the road, bringing modern communications to the area for the first time. The scope and daring of the project was widely publicized in the United States, arousing an interest in Alaska that continued in the postwar era.

The direct ecological effects of the road were significant but not severe. Aside from a few moose shot to provide food, the region’s wildlife was not endangered. Most wildlife simply stayed well away from the noisy machines, and at its worst, the land-clearing did not cut wide enough swaths to disturb habitats significantly. Even so, an estimated two million trees were felled in the building of the road. Huge amounts of trash were left along the way, including large vehicles that were simply abandoned when the difficulties or cost of repairing them became too large. The land’s appearance along the road itself changed because of minor earthmoving and the growth of settlements. Many of these scars faded into the vastness of the northern landscape as the years passed.

The long-range effects of the highway were diffuse but enormous. Land access made it possible for some 200,000 service personnel to be stationed in Alaska during World War II. A fair number stayed on or returned after they left the service, as did some of the soldiers and civilians who worked on the road. Between 1940 and 1950, Alaska’s population increased from 72,524 to 128,643, a startling rate that brought most of the usual problems of rapid development to the hitherto remote territory.

With the highway opened to the public after the war, Americans could travel to Alaska in their own cars for the first time. Some went as tourists, but the adventurous or the desperate migrated to find work at military construction sites, in the newly discovered oilfields, or in other parts of the expanding Alaskan economy. They contributed to Alaska’s continuous population growth in the post-World War II years. Alaskan statehood, attained in 1959, was hastened by these events.


In some ways, the Alaska Highway was to the 1940’s what the moon landings were to the 1960’s—a major technological achievement, conducted as a quasimilitary venture with ultimately peaceful purposes. Aided by favorable publicity, the highway project caught Americans’ imagination much as the moon landings later did. One result was an increased interest in all things Alaskan, which continued in subsequent years. The highway reinforced the image of Alaska as the last terrestrial frontier, the last pristine wilderness.

The impact of the highway on Alaska, and on the people who live in the subarctic Northwest, went far beyond mere population growth. The road connected a region where the only previous means of travel had been by dog sled or in small, shaky aircraft. This isolation had imposed a way of life very different from that in the rest of North America. Few consumer items or commercial foodstuffs were available, and communication with the outside world was slow and uncertain at best. Like all frontiers, Alaska had offered freedom from some of the strictures of civilization, but at a high price in endurance and loneliness. With the coming of the highway, this loneliness was alleviated for many.

Highway engineers devised innovations for building on muskeg and on permafrost that were later applied to new highways linking the cities of Fairbanks, Valdez, and Anchorage and to access roads to the Alaska Highway itself. The same discoveries and techniques were also important in the construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. A mostly unsuccessful sidelight of the Alaska Highway, the Canol pipeline operation, which was designed to bring oil from newly discovered fields near Great Bear Lake, served as a trial project for the later Trans-Alaska pipeline.

The Alaska Highway now forms an integral part of North America’s infrastructure. Responsibility for its maintenance is borne by three different governments: the state of Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and the Canadian federal government (for the parts of the highway that pass through British Columbia). The split of responsibilities has been effective, and the long-term cooperation has set an example for work between the United States and Canada on other environmental and economic matters, such as the joint U.S.-Canadian report on acid rain.

The building of the Alaska Highway was one of the great engineering achievements of the twentieth century. It was a saga of adventure and danger, of waste and miscalculation, and of discoveries about the effects of subarctic terrain and weather on people, materials, and machinery. It set the stage for further development of Alaska and led other Americans to greater awareness of the far north’s unique features. Alaska Highway

Further Reading

  • Coates, Ken. North to Alaska: Fifty Years on the World’s Most Remarkable Highway. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1991. A history that gives equal attention to the technical, logistical and human factors of working in an isolated locale. Also evaluates the road’s impact on the postwar far Northwest.
  • Haigh, Jane. Alaska Highway: A Historic Photographic Journey. Whitehorse, Y.T.: Wolf Creek Books, 2001. Alongside many photographs of the highway, provides a history of its construction, use, and cultural effects.
  • Krakauer, Jon. “Ice, Mosquitoes, and Muskeg—Building the Road to Alaska.” Smithsonian 23 (July, 1992): 102-111. Although not as detailed as full-length histories, this article contains human interest angles on the building of the highway. Glimpses of travelers, tourist attractions, and the day-to-day life in the region are also included.
  • Morrison, William R. True North: The Yukon and Northwest Territories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. History of the roads through the Yukon Territory, particularly the Alaska Highway. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Olsenius, Richard. “Alaska Highway: Wilderness Escape Route.” National Geographic 180 (November, 1991): 68-99. A combination travelogue and treasure of lore and history about the highway, presented in the magazine’s positive and vivid style. Contains spectacular color photographs and an excellent bound-in map of the road.
  • Twichell, Heath. Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A definitive account, covering actual field work and living conditions, political background, the major players, and the related Canol and Northwest Staging Route operations. The author is a winner of the Allen Nevins Prize in American history and the son of Colonel Heath Twichell, who commanded several engineering regiments during the project.

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