The Alaska Highway (aka the Alcan, aka the Alaskan-Canadian Highway)

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Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, BC. Duane is enthusiastic!

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The Alaska Highway, as it is officially called today, has been called “the Alcan” by many. It is a roadway built by the US Army in 1942 to provide Alaska with access to the lower 48 states for the first time. Apparently, people had noted the need to connect with Alaska since the 1890′s during the gold rush, which was a busy time in Alaska. However, the money and manpower didn’t get prioritized by the government until December 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. President FDR then decided that Alaska, with its proximity to Japan, needed to be protected and controlled.

Construction of the Alaska Highway started on March 8, 1942 and was completed on October 28 of the same year. This daunting task was completed by 16,000 soldiers and civilians, who laid down 1,422 miles of roadway between British Columbia and Big Delta, Alaska (a distance which has since been reduced by route improvements).

From a recruitment notice in 1942:

‘Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, do not apply.’

You can read a lot of fascinating information about the Alcan here:

The Biggest and Hardest Job Since the Panama Canal

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Another account from that article:

“Alaskan mosquitoes — ‘bush bombers,’ as the soldiers nicknamed them — proved far more troublesome to the men than the Japanese Zeros they’d been warned might breech the Pacific coastline at any moment. ‘You had to eat with your head net on,’ General William Hoge recalled. ‘You would raise the head net, and by the time you got food on the spoon up to your mouth it would be covered with mosquitoes.’”

And from historian Ken Rust:

‘After driving through water it was absolutely necessary to keep the vehicle moving, as ice would lock the wheels of a truck that stood still for a few seconds (not minutes, seconds), and any attempt to move forward would snap an axle.’

As for us, we got to enjoy the fruits of the labor of the many people involved in building, updating, and maintaining the Alcan. Alex once asked me what time period I would choose to live in, if I could go back to any time in history. I always say I would live today. I mean, I get to enjoy modern infrastructure that people of the past dreamed of and suffered for. I’m also a pretty big fan of women’s lib, the internet, antibiotics, vaccines, electricity, and drinking coffee from exotic far away places every day. Life today is pretty dang easy!

We’ll see if I feel the same way when we drive back down in December…

 

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