By Paula Ussery, Army Heritage MuseumOctober 3, 2007
Sixty-five years ago this week, the Army Corps of Engineers celebrated the completion of one of the most ambitious tasks assigned them during World War II - the building of the Alaska Highway, also called the Alaska-Canadian Highway or Alcan Highway.
The global tensions in the late 1930Aca,!a,,cs between Japan and the United States focused the attention of AmericaAca,!a,,cs military on this area. The shortest route between Japan and the ports and factories on the west coast was via the Great Circle route over the Alaska Territory. In 1939 -1940 the U.S. government began improving AlaskaAca,!a,,cs defenses by building a series of naval bases, Army forts and air fields. By September 1941, AlaskaAca,!a,,cs military population stood at 35,000, a dramatic increase from only 1,000 in 1939.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the threat of additional attacks made Alaska a priority. And it was accessible only by air and sea. Connecting Alaska by road to Canada and the continental U. S. became a priority. The Corps of Engineers was assigned the task of building a rough bush trail and a Aca,!A"pioneer roadAca,!A? on February 14, 1942. The pioneer road was to be 32 feet wide with single lane bridges. More than 10,000 Army Soldiers, Canadian troops and civilians labored through the wilderness to complete the project in less than a year. The road traversed both Canada and the United States, beginning at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, with branches terminating at Fairbanks and Valdez, Alaska . The road also linked a string of airfields used to ferry combat aircraft to Russia as well as defend against Japan.
Seven engineer units were assigned to the project: the 18th, 35th 340th and 341st Engineers along with the African American 93rd, 95th and 97th Engineers, as well as a light pontoon company, two engineer topographic battalions and other support units. The project was divided into two sectors: the Northern Sector, with headquarters at Whitehorse, and the Southern Sector, with headquarters at Fort St. John. The first construction troops arrived on March 10, 1942 and by June all units were at work. Each unit was given approximately a 350 mile section of road to build.
Engineers faced a variety of challenges, including extreme temperatures, clouds of mosquitoes and flies, ice, snow and muskeg. Muskeg is swampy ground that is unable to support the weight of heavy vehicles. Engineers laid a corduroy road under the asphalt to provide structural support on such surfaces. A corduroy surface is created by laying down alternating layers of brush and logs. More than 100 miles of muskeg were corduroyed.
Despite the obstacles, construction continued seven days a week. By August a total of 611 miles had been completed. By September 837 miles of pioneer road were completed. On October 25, 1942 the leading bulldozers of the 18th and 97th Engineers met in the vicinity of Beaver Creek near the Alaska-Canada border. The official dedication of the Alaska Highway at Soldiers Summit was on November 20, 1942 in fifteen degree below zero weather!
The pioneer road totaled 1543 miles with more than 200 bridges and 8000 culverts.
The Alcan Highway served the American and Canadian military until the end of World War II when it was opened to civilian traffic. Alaska remained a vital military outpost through the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Alcan Highway continues to serve both the military and civilians today.