The Alaska Highway

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The Alaska Highway

Transcript Of The Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway: Background to Decision

Economic feasibility has long been a major deterrent to road development in the North. The cost involved is usually too great to attract private investment and also too great to be deemed popular for federal investment during times of economic stress, when construction costs could be considerably lower. It has not been a case of can a particular road be built or what is the cost, but can the road pay?
The consideration of roads into the Canadian Northwest is not of recent origin. Although the Alaska Highway has only recently celebrated its twenty-fifth year of existence, its planning roots are much older. Many laymen have the impression that the Alaska Highwaywasconceivedonly by the necessity of having an emergency road to protect the northwestern corridor of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands; they further believe that the engineers rushed forth, blind, into the unknown wilderness.
The basis of this thinking has probably been established by the misinterpretation of the following directive to Chief of Engineers, The War Department, 14 February 1942 (U.S. 79th Congress 1946, p. 13):

. . . It is desired that you undertake the construction, with the Engineer troops, of

a pioneer-typeroadfrom Fort St.John,Canada, to Big Delta,Alaska, via Fort

Nelson, Canada, Watson Lake, Canada, Whitehorse, Canada, and Boundary, Alaska.

It is further desired that youarrangewiththePublicRoadsAdministration


fborildlogwestahnedEcnuglvineeretsr,traonodpps,rovtoidecofrorer ctthaelicgonmmpelnettaionnd gorfatdhee, r.manent

Nine months and six days after the above directive was issued a federal ceremony marked the opening of the Alaska Highway. Although original publicity credited Engineer troops with the building of the entire pioneer road, the record shows that the Public Roads contractors made a substantial contribution to this tremendous effort. Considering the time involved and the circumstances of war, the feat is remarkable. However, many historians have disregarded a group of contributors who made the entire project possible: the planners.
The construction of the Alaska Highway was seriously considered as early as 1929, although there was some vague interest in such a project during the previous decade. In 1929, however, the movement took a stride forward, when two International Highway Associations were formed, the first in Fairbanks and the second in DawsonCity. The purpose of these organizations was to stimulate public interest in the project and then to advocate the necessary legislation and to make the other essential arrangements for its implementation. Withinweeks of the formation of these groups, and almost coincidentally, the Government of British

1Geography Department, Bay de Noc Community College, Escanaba, Michigan.



Columbia began to make inquiries, and initiated informal exchanges of information on the subjectwith Alaskan officials.Immediately thereafter many groups became interested (U.S. Department of State 1933, p. 6).

Theproject wasconsideredandendorsedbymanyassociationsandcommercial bodies in Alaska and the United States. Those in Alaska that took such action include:TheChambers ofCommerceof Fairbanks,Anchorage,Juneau,Wrangell, Ketchikan, Seward, Sitka, and Nome. The following local associations in the United States took similar action: Seattle Chamber of Commerce; Western Motor Clubs Conference, 1929; Automobile Club of Washington; Seattle Mining Club; and the WashingtonGoodRoadsAssociation.Thefollowingnationalorganizationsalso considered and endorsed the proposal for further study of the project: American Road Builders’ Association; and the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Owing to theresponse and support from all over the United States and Canada, the Legislature of Alaska adopted a memorial, 17 April 1929, which petitioned the U.S. Congress to takesteps to arrange for conferences between representatives of the United States and Canada. On 1 May 1929, that same body passed an Act which provided for the “advertising of the advantages of the project and appropriating funds to be used for that purpose.”
On 3 October 1929, Mr. McNary introduced the followingBillbefore the
Senate of the UnitedStates (U.S. 71st Congress 1 9 3 0 ~ ) :

Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States

of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby created a commission


threememberstocooperatewhentheGovernment of Canadashallhaveagreed

through the usual international channels, with representatives of the Dominion of

Canada in a study regarding the construction of a highway to connect the north-

westernpart of theUnitedStateswithBritishColumbia,YukonTerritory,and

Alaska,withaview to ascertainingwhethersuchahighwayisfeasibleandeco-

nomically practicable. Oneof the commissioners shall be an official of the Depart-

menttobedesignatedbytheSecretaryoAf griculturea,ndtheremaining

commissioners shall be reportedto Congress.

Section 2. The commission is authorized to employ such clerical, engineering, and other employees and to purchase such supplies as may be deemed necessary to carry out the provisions of this Act. The commissioners shall receive no additional compensation for their services under this Act.

Section 3. For the purposes of the Act, there is hereby authorized to be appropriated the sumof $25,000. In addition to this amount, the commission is authorizetdo receive and expend for such purposes such sums as may be contributed from any source.

After consideration and amendment, the billwaspassed by act of Congress and approved 15 May 1930. The Act read as follows (U.S. 71st Congress 1930b):

Beit enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the President of the United States is hereby authorized to designate three special commissioners to cooperate with representatives of the Dominion of Canada in a study regarding the construction of a highway to connect the northwestern part of the United States with British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska with a view to ascertaining whether such a highway is feasible and economically practicable. Upon completion of such study the results shall be reported to Congress.



Section 2. The sum of $10,000 isherebyauthorized to be appropriated, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated forthe purposes of carrying out the provisions of this Act.
As provided in the Act, President Hoover appointed three special commissioners: Herbert H. Rice, Ernest W. Sawyer, and Major Malcolm Elliot (CE-USA). A similar Canadian Delegationwas appointed to study the matter with their American counterparts: Hon. GeorgeBlack (former Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons), J. M. Wardle (Canadian Departmentof Public Works), and G . P. Napier (B.C. Department of Pubiic Works). The Americans met with the Canadian representatives for the firsttimein Victoria, British Columbia, on 9 October 1931.
The collected data were thoroughly considered and discussed. The project was determined to befeasible froman engineeringand construction standpoint. It was furthermore agreed that although substantial benefits would accrue from the project, more information wasneededbefore it could bedefinitely determined that the undertaking wouldbeeconomically sound (US. 76th Congress 1940, pp. 4-5).
A second meeting was to be held in Washington, D.C. early in 1932, but due toinsufficienttime to collect data, the U.S. Department of State recommended that the memberswait until 1933 for further meetings.
During the interim collecting-stage there was much activity. In 1930 the Honorable Simon Fraser Tolmie, Premier of British Columbia, organized and conducted an international automobile caravan from Vancouverto Hazelton for the purpose of “exploring the northern roads and advocating the extension of the system,” to be called the Pacific-Yukon Highway. During the same year, airplane and ground reconnaissances were made by the British Columbia Government in the northern part of the Provincefor the purpose of locating the most favourable route. The American group also took preliminary flights over the area extending from DawsonCity to Fairbanks in 1931 to determine the best possible route between those two points (U.S. Department of State 1933, p. 7).
In addition to the increased interest shown by both federal governments, there was a steady and substantial growth of the highway system in British Columbia, which included a good gravelled-surfaced road from Vancouver to Hazelton (a distance of some 815 miles).
A report dated 1 May 1933 was submitted by the American Commissioners to President Roosevelt, who submitted it to Congress. In this report the Commissioners made the following recommendations(U.S.Department of State 1933, p. 3):

1. Thatnegotiation beconductedwiththeGovernment of Canada,throughreg-

ular channels, with a view to ascertaining the attitude of Canada with respect to



would undertake to survey and locate the best

and mostpracticableroutefor a

highwaywhich would connect the northwesternpart of the UnitedStateswith

British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska; prepare specifications and reliable

estimates ofcostandresultingbenefitsofsaid

project;andinvestigateplans for


be authorized to com-

municate directly with each other for the purpose of coordination.



2. That if suchagreemenbt ereacheds,uitableallotments shouldbemadeavailabletotheAlaskaRoadCommission purposes of theagreement.

or appropriations for carryingoutthe

3. ThatthreespectivGe overnmentisnformulatingtheirroadconstruction programs conform so far as practicable in their own interests to the general route proposed for this highway so that as many as possible of the local projects will be available for and form a part of the main project.

4. That consideration be givenby the road-building agenciesof Alaska and Yukon Territory to the construction of the Fairbanks-Dawson Road without waiting for the adoption of the entire project, in order to develop the immediate territory and provide an early connection between these two communities, as well as complete a vital link in the proposed through highway.

With the submission of this report, the life of the special commission expired. The project was on the verge of construction, when it was lost in the uncertainties of the Depression. Although the 1933 report of the Commission played a major part in later decisions, it was for the moment lost.
The project was revived again on 18 April 1934 (U.S. 73nd Congress 1934). In a report on that bill, the Secretary of War advised that the proposed highway was feasible from an engineering viewpoint and could be constructed at a reasonable cost,but expressed no opinion of the economic or military valueof the project.
In the following year the topic was again introduced and an appropriation for construction wassuggested. The report summarized the benefits to the United States as follows (U.S. 74th Congress 1935):

(a)DevelopmentofAlaskathroughmakingtheterritoryaccessiblebyhighway, resultinginanincrease of populationandconsequentincreaseinrevenuefrom taxes, tending to decrease the present necessity for federal appropriations for the support of theterritory.

(b) The road would be a great contribution to the welfare

of Americancitizens


with the vast continental road system.

(c)Openingofnewcountrythatisnowpracticallyinaccessible,givingopportunity for settlement, investment of capital and employment.

(d) The new roadwouldmakeaccessibletothecontinentalhighwaysystemthe existing road net in central Alaska comprising ab9o0u0t miles, providing a new and valuable area for exploration, for recreation, or business purposes.

(e) The highway would foster air commerce with Alaska by furnishing a guiding landmark and providing service to aviators along the most practicable flying route to the interior of the territory and to Asia.

(f) Promotion of friendlyrelationsbetweencitizens Canada.

of theUnitedStatesand

The 1933 Report of the American Commissioners was reviewed with regard to possible routes which might be used for the projected highway. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, wrote the following [abstract] to the Chairman of the Committee on Roads of the House of Representatives, Wilburn Cartwright (U.S. 74th Congress 1935):
. .. In theReconnaissancestudytherouteproposedforthehighwayfollowsthe
existing road up to the Fraser River Valley in British Columbiato Hazelton; thence north to the headwaterosf the Yukon River; thence down the Yukon Valley through WhitehorseandDawsontoFairbanks,Alaska. It isestimated thattheproposed




to Fairbanks; of this1,073

miles are now completed. The cost of the highway is estimated to be $2,000,000

for the Alaska section and $12,000,000for the Canadian Section. A table showing

the approximate mileage completed and to construct as follows.


Seattle to Hazelton, British Columbia Vancouver to Hazelton, B.C. Hazelton to Yukon boundary Yukon boundary53t0o Alaska boundary480 Alaska Boundary to Fairbanks 183

Seattle to Fairbanks 2,256


Vancouver to Fairbanks


Completed Road
882 830
50 50 91
1,073 1,021

New Construction
0 0 520

882 830 570 214

The major objection of the Secretarywas the appropriation of $14,000,000 plus the negotiation appropriation. Others shared hisfeeling on the matter (U.S. 74th Congress 1935, p. 3):

TheWhiteHouse Washington,June20,1935 Hon.Anthony J. Dimond Delegate from Alaska, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.

My DearMr.Dimond: Answeringyourtelegram of June12,addressed to me at HydePark, I amin
complete sympathy with the objectives sought in H.R. #160 which authorizes the President to negotiate and enter into agreements between the Government of the United States and the Dominion of Canada for the survey, locations and construction of the Alaska-Yukon highway.
As originally written, the bill authorized an appropriation, and I suggested that this be stricken out. As the bill stands, it has my hearty approval and I hope it will beenactedbyCongress.

Sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In order to secure action on the bill, Representative Dimond yielded to the desires of the Administration. In later discussion on the matter of appropriation of funds, Mr. Dimond madethe following statement (U.S. 74th Congress 1935, p. 7):
The part in Alaska would cost about $2,000,000. The part in Canada would cost about$12,000,000. Of course, we arenotappropriatingforthat(theCanadian portion), would not at any time. The utmost amount that the United States will have to spend on this road is $2,000,000 to build this part in the TerriotofryAlaska.
In support of the Bill and the appropriation, Senator Lewis B. Schwellenbach submitted the following letter (U.S. 74th Congress 1935, p. 9):



UnitedStatesSenate CommitteeonMilitaryAffairs
July 2, 1935

Statement of SenatorLewis B. Schwellenbach, of Washington,insupport of the enactment of the Bill, known as the “Alaska Highway Bill”:

1. The United States has a vast undeveloped frontier in the Territory which needs untold development.

of Alaska

2. Thepassage of thisbillwouldgreatlybenefiteverytypeofbusinessand stimulate employment as well.

3. Also,alongthelines of development,theUnitedStatesneedsbetteraccess

to Alaska, so that itscitizensmayhavereasonableaccess

to thisundeveloped


4. Alaskais a naturaldefenseareaagainstanyenemywhichmightattackfrom the west either the United Statesor Canada. It is, therefore, almost a necessity that theUnitedStatesGovernmenthavean adequate trunklineconnecting this outlying possession with the United States proper.

5. The benefit of this road to the northwest section of the United States would be immeasurable, both from an economic standpoint and also from the standpoint of nationaldefense.

6. Therearelargemineraldepositswhichhaveneverbeendeveloped, same will be opened up by the construction of the highway.

and the

Although the idea was viewed sympathetically by the President of the United States and Congress, it remained only an idea because of the Depression. Nearly three years passed before any subsequent action was taken.
By act of Congress, approved 31 May 1938, the President was empowered to appoint a new commission to study the issue again. This commission was to be knownas the Alaska International HighwayCommission. On 16 August, the President appointed the followingmembers to that Commission: Warren G. Magnuson, Ernest Gruening, Thomas Riggs, James W. Carey, and Donald McDonald. The work to which the Commissionwasimmediatelyassignedwas to cooperate withasimilarfive man commission appointed by the Dominion of Canada, in a study for the survey, location and construction of the proposed Alaska Highway.
No funds of any sort were provided for the necessary expense of the Commission during its first year of existence, thus their activities were greatly curtailed and handicapped. Some eleven months after its appointment, a fund of $6,200 was appropriated (US. 76th Congress 1940, pp. 6-7).
Late in December 1938, Canada appointed the followingfive man Commission: Honorable Charles Stewart,Brig. General Tremblay, Mr. J. M. Wardle, Mr. Arthur Dixon, and Mr. J. W. Spencer. The major concern of the commission memberswas to plot routes whichwould be favourable in the construction of the Alaska Highway. On the basis of aerialreconnaissance and groundstudies taken in 1939, three routes were suggested for consideration.
On 24-25 January 1940, a joint meeting of the U.S. and Canadian Commissioners was held in Ottawa. The general purpose of the meeting was to discuss
possible routes. On this subject there wasa lack of agreement. The Canadian Commissioners agreed that additional survey work was needed and agreed to do this work (U.S. 76th Congress 1940, p. 14).
On 18 August 1940, a Permanent Joint Board on Defense was established by


22 1

the United States and Canada. The Board was composed of six members from each country. Some forty days later, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the tripartite alliance. Due to this obvious omen, the Joint Board gave serious consideration to the defence of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
On 14 November 1940, asits tenth recommendation, the Boardadopted a resolution to construct an airway across Canada to Alaska. The recommendation was approved by both governments and inthe winter of 1940-1 construction along the air route began.
In the meantime, there had been further proposals in the United States for the construction of a similar highway. Dr. Vilhjalmur Steffanson wrote letters to General G. C. Marshall recommending that the project follow the old overland
Northwest Passage. Marshall replied (US.79th Congress 1946, p. 7):
While such a roadwouldcertainly be of value,theWarDepartmentdoesnot considerit of sufficientimportance to justify its construction at thistimeonthe basis of militarynecessity.
On 5 February1941, the resolution to construct a highway to Alaska was proposed again by Mr. Dimond. While the bill was being considered, Germany invaded Russia and concern mountedas to a possible Japanese invasion from the west. On6October of that year, Secretary of War Stimson wrote in a letter (U.S. 79th Congress 1946, p. 8):
Fromanevaluation of thetrend in internationalaffairs,theconstruction of this highway nowappearsdesirable as a longrangedefensemeasure.
Before action could be taken, however, the Japanese became the temporary masters of the Pacific. Great concern was then given for the safety of Alaska and the men stationed there. Mr. Dimond again made the appeal for the construction of the highway. On 16 January 1942, the President appointed a cabinet committee to consider the necessity of such a highway. By 2 February the committee was ready to act. They metwith the War Plans Division of the General Staff and concluded that thehighway was a necessity, and furthermore thatit should satisfy two vital requirements (U.S. 79th Congress 1946, pp. 9-10):
1. Furnish a routetolinkuptheestablishedairfieldsandthuspermitheir expansionand: 2. Provide an overlandauxiliarysupplyroute to Alaska.
The project was approved by the Chief of Staff. A major problemat this time wasthat construction costs had risen and previous calculations could not be considered. At the last request in 1940 for appropria-
tions, $25,000,000 had been requested. With regard to this matter, Mr. Dimond
made the following statement on 2 February (US. 77th Congress 1942, p. 3):
At the outset it may be well to observe that although the amount of $25,000,000 sought to be authorized by the bill for the construction of the proposed hlghway seemed to be adequate at the time the bill was introduced, and although as recently as 1933, a commissionappointedbythePresident to study theHighwayproject



made another estimate that a suitable road could be built for $14,000,000.In view of changedconditions,particularlysinceDecember 7, 1941, andin viewof the pressingneed for the construction and completion of the highway at the earliest possible moment, it now appears that $25,000,000 will not be sufficient and, therefore, before consideration of the bill is concluded, I ask that the authorization be increased from $25,000,000to $50,000,000.
The project and the appropriation was approved by the President on 11 February; and a directive was issued to the Chief of Engineers on 14 February. On 3 March, the President authorized an initial sum of $10,000,000 to be used for travel and transportation of the military personnel involved in the project. This initial sum wasfivetimesgreater than the amount requested for the Alaskan portion some ten years earlier.
Fourteen years after the f i s t serious proposal was made in the Alaska Legislature, the Highwaywascompleted. To be sure there were nine months and six days between the issuance of the directive and the completion of the road; but what of the years of planning and of the thousands of man-hours expended by the real pioneers, the planners? They should not be forgotten.
On 20 November 1942, after fourteen years of planning and subsequent legislation, the Highway became a reality -at a cost of $139,794,567.
Us. 7 1 s ~CONGRESS1. 930a. Committee on Agriculture and Forestry: Alaska Highway Commission. Report to accompany S. 1811. Senate Report No. 157.2 pp.
U.S. 7 1 s ~CONGRESS 1930b. Committee on Agriculture and Forestry: Commission to Study an International Highway with British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska. Report to accompany H.R. 8368. Senate Report No. 466.1 p.
US. 73RDCONGRESS. 1934. H.R. 6538,4 pp.
U.S. 7 4 m CONGRESS.1935A. uthorizing the survey, location and construction of a highway to connect the northwestern part of continental United States with BritishColumbia, Yukon Territory,and the Territory of Alaska. H.R. 160.9 pp.
us. 7 6 m CONGRESS. 1940. Message from the President of the United States, transmitting the Report of the Alaskan International Highway Commission. House Document NO.711.
33 PP.
U.S.77TH CONGRESS. 1942. Committeeon Roads. H.R. 3095.131 pp.
U.S. 79TH CONGRESS.1946.Committee on Roads. The Alaska Highway. H.R. 255. House Report No. 1705.323 pp.
us. DEPARTMENT OF STATE. 1933. Report of the Commission to Study the Proposed Highway to Alaska. Conference SeriesNO.14, 116pp.