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Proposed shortcut highway to Alaska, 1955

    The two articles below have been copied in their entirety from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner of May 4, 1955. Spelling errors have corrected for clarity. These articles tied in well with the headline of that issue, about huge increases in the jobs available in Alaska, with almost 700 people employed on the DEW Line, 175 on the Haines-Fairbanks pipeline, and many more on 3 new military bases in the Alaska interior and other projects.

    Following the articles, we have added some explanatory notes about the new highway route and other issues being discussed.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 1955

Proposed shortcut highway to Alaska, 1955

    Only 550 miles of new highway, linking Fort St. James in British Columbia with Atlin in British Columbia, can provide a short economical route between the United States and Alaska, and can link coastal cities and industrial sites with the United States road system.

    The map produced on this page shows the route of this proposed new highway. This route has been examined carefully by engineers, and it has been found that it poses no difficult construction problems. Furthermore. there are no steep grades that would be a hindrance to trucking traffic.

    The benefits of the "middle A" route to Alaska are apparent. First of all, it would cut approximately 500 miles off the present highway between the Pacific Northwest and Alaska points. Secondly, this road provides a link that opens up the promising coastal area of British Columbia and Alaska where great industrial development is now in progress.

    Spur roads, extending westward from the proposed new road, could link points in Southeastern Alaska with the new Alaska highway. The proposed Frobisher development 1 on the Taku river could be linked with the highway system as well as the city of Juneau.

    This proposed road could open one of the most promising industrial areas on the American continent. The route could also bring Alaska's larger cities within three days driving time of Pacific Northwest trade centers.

    The new route would make valuable mineral deposits, potentially rich hydroelectric sites, and timber resources and industrial sites far more accessible than they are now. It would also serve to reduce freight rates in many parts of Alaska and British Columbia.

    The proposed new route would also give the Pacific Northwest of the United States a gateway to all the promising industrial development now taking place in the upper waters of the Yukon river, and along the coast of Alaska.

    The new route was proposed by the late Donald MacDonald II, the man who is known as the "father of the Alaska highway." While he proposed the Alaska highway, and urged its construction for many years, he was bitterly disappointed with its final route which he felt was needlessly long and poorly located from a maintenance standpoint.

    He proposed the "middle A" route to correct the errors committed when the present Alaska highway was located and built.

    This new route would he of tremendous value to Alaska, Canada and the United States.

    We urge that Canada and the U. S. jointly study this route, and examine the benefits that would accrue to both nations through its construction.

    We are certain that an impartial study will show that this road would produce new trade and industrial development that would far exceed the cost of the project.

Map of proposed shortcut highway to Alaska, 1955

Proposed shortcut highway to Alaska, 1955

By Kay J. Kennedy

    The ghost of a doughty Scot must be haunting the halls of congress these days. I think he must have been close lo Senator Bill Langer of North Dakota on Jan. 14 when the senator introduced a bill. It was Senate Bill 451 "to provide for the investigation of the practicability of constructing a new section at the Alaska highway."

    The bill authorizes and requests the president, through agencies to enter into consultation with Canada looking toward the negotiation of an agreement for the construction, through the joint efforts of both, of a section of the Alaska highway which would begin at Prince George, B.C. and run in a northwesterly direction generally along the course known as the "A" route as surveyed by the Alaska International Highway Commission and connecting with the existing highway at Whitehorse, Y.T.

MacDonald's Dream

    It was nearly 30 years ago that Donald MacDonald II, then a locating engineer for the Alaska Road commission, conceived the idea for a highway link from the United States through Canada to Alaska, essentially along this same route proposed by Senator Langer.

    Donald must be chuckling right now and I know his spirit will guide the survey teams when they are sent out. I can almost hear his sudden burst of laughter echoing. "And it could have been built back in 1929 for the price of one small battleship!"

    The old engineer never lost faith that his route would be built someday . . . "because it's logical" he'd say flatly, as if that would settle it. Those of us who knew this man of far vision shared his faith.

    Donald and I were sitting in the late summer sunshine in front of Jack Allman's tent that housed the Matanuska Valley Pioneer, Palmer's first newspaper. It was in 1936. Jack had told me that Mac was the Father of the International Highway idea.

    "Tell me about it," I suggested.

    "No, I don't want to ever talk about it again. I've been batted around so much so much on it," he replied. I persisted. Soon he was drawing lines with a stick in the dirt at our feet, outlining the route.

    "Where'd you get the idea for it?" I asked.

    It really isn't original with me," Donald told me. "All I did was to take E. H. Harriman's idea for a railroad 2 and convert it into a highway."

    He then related how he'd been sent into the Nabesna country to locate a road that started at a mine and went to a small airfield. "That bit of road started nowhere and went nowhere really." Donald shrugged in disgust. "It don't connect with any other roads. As I was scouting out a location I kept thinking it would make more sense if someday that bit of road could be a link in a highway system - say from the United States to Fairbanks.

    "That was it! Why not a road over Harriman's projected rail route? Times had changed. This was the age of autos and airplanes. A road. A land link to Alaska. When you're out like that you do a lot of thinking. There's nothing 'Scotch' about me," he laughed loudly at his own joke, "so I started thinking that there could be a highway from Nome to Cape Horn! That's how it started."

A Great Man

Donald MacDonald, Father of the Alaska Highway     Here was a great man, I recognized. Not the most tactful man in the world, but a dedicated one who could see into the future. Rivers were not just rivers to MacDonald - they were horsepower. To him wilderness was nothing to shun - it was something to build roads through, for homes to be built in, mines to be developed, timber to be utilized, and recreational facilities to be enjoyed.

    The first serious consideration of the project began in 1928 and 1929. The International Highway association was formed. In 1931 preliminary air flights were made over the route with the Canadians favoring a location east of the coastal range where precipitation is lightest.

    An international U.S.-Canada commission was appointed and its report released in 1933. At that same time it was estimated that the Alaska section of the road would cost $2 million and the Canadian section, $12 million.

    Studies were made by MacDonald, Maj. Malcolm Elliott of the Alaska Road commission, Col. J. J. Rolston and J. H. Gray.

    In 1932 one American official flew over the general area close to the coast range and made the announcement that construction of a road would be impossible. In a verbal tangle with Slim Williams 3, an old Copper river trapper and dogmusher, the official repeated the statement. Slim declared that he would take a motorcycle over the route - which he and John Logan did the following year.

Many Old Trails

    For more than 100 years Indians, traders and prospectors had traveled the relatively easy drainage trails north and south between the coast range and the main cordillera.

    In 1865 the route had been surveyed for a telegraph line by Western Union Overland Telegraph 4 and some line strung. The plan had been to connect the U.S. and Canadian telegraph lines with Europe through that part of Canada, Alaska and cable on the floor of the Bering sea and across Siberia.

    After $3 million had been spent the project was abandoned in 1866 when the trans-Atlantic cable was successfully laid.

    It is significant that the telegraph location chosen was essentially what is now known as the "A" route. This may have had something to do with Harriman's choice of a location for his proposed railroad.

Might Have Changed History

    MacDonald used to speculate how the course of history was changed by two factors - the Treaty at Portsmouth and Harriman's death.

    "As far back as 1893 Alexander III of Russia considered the possibility of the Trans-Siberian railroad eventually being connected with the North American rail system." Mac told me. "He didn't realize that dream. Czar Nichols, his successor, continued work on it and hired a French engineer to make a study for a tunnel under the Bering sea to connect the roads.

    Work might have started but for the Russian-Japanese war."

    The proposed railroad got another setback at the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905 following the war when the victorious Japanese insisted that the project be abandoned. They termed it a "vicious encircling movement."

    Harriman vowed he'd build the road anyway and Mac believed the American railroad tycoon would have - had he lived. Again the dream died with a man.

    The great railroad-building era drew to a close. Automobiles caused a road-building era to replace it. Then came aircraft with need for landing fields and roads for supply. Having been a railroad locating engineer MacDonald turned to highway location and it was natural that he should think of a highway over the old basic route.

Convince Many

    Once Mac adopted the idea, he continued to spread it. He even went on an American Magazine-sponsored lecture tour to tell the people in the states about it but his words fell on deaf official ears.

    Many fell under the spell of this man of vision. I was one. Ed Borders, a young engineering student at the University of Alaska was another who believed in MacDonald and his dream.

    During the winter of 1940 Ed volunteered to travel alone over the proposed highway route to take snow depths and make other observations. Williams and Logan had taken the motorcycle over the route during the summer months.

    Ed had two reasons to make the trip. First was to get additional information for MacDonald. The second reason was more personal. As a youngster Ed had been crushed in a gravel pit slide. Doctors said that he wouldn't be able to walk again - but they reckoned without his gravel determination and his mother's faith.

    Just being able to walk was not enough. He went in for sports, especially boxing but deep within him an inferiority feeling persisted. If he could make that trek alone it would prove to himself for once and all that his once-crushed body was as good as the best. A letter from his mother convinced him to go ahead.

Covers 1700 Miles

    In the middle of February, 1940, Borders left Fairbanks on skis with one dog, a sled, and a minimum of equipment. He lived off the country while covering 1700 miles. He measured river crossings, took snow depths and kept records. Spring break-up caught him 200 miles north of Hazelton, B. C. He discarded his skis.

    Upon reaching Hazelton he got his first mail. There was a letter from his mother telling him that she was ill and did not expect to live much longer. In her continuing faith she congratulated him upon his successful trip and urged that in the event of her death not to come home but to go on with his project. "It isn't necessary," she wrote, because I'm always with you, Son."

    Then there was the telegram of a later date saying that she had died.

    Borders' important records were valuable and proved the feasibility of a year-around route that could he kept open in winter. 5

    (Later Capt. Ed Borders of Commandos was killed in sharp fighting in Africa during World War II.)

    Still nothing was done about building a road to Alaska until the war emergency pointed up the vulnerability of the sea lanes to Alaska and the need of a land supply line as vital to the defense of the Territory and Canada. Hurriedly the "Alcan" road was pushed through far to the east of the original location.

    From time to time interest in the original "A" route comes up, conferences are held but nothing concrete takes place. Meanwhile the Canadians have pushed through the Hart highway which considerably shortens the distance between Alaska and Seattle.

Mac Holds Faith

    In the autumn of 1949 I again talked with MacDonald about the road. Mac was then nearly 70 years old. His body was weary - yet, faith that his route was the right one, held fast.

    "Of course it'll be built some day because it's logical," he repeated, "I will not live to see it but I hope you will."

    We got out a map and he traced in an engineer's dash-line the projected road over what he called the "middle A" route. It takes off from Fort St. James northward along the Stuart, Trembleur and Takla lakes to Bear Lake, hits the upper Skeena river, crosses a 3200-foot divide (highest elevation), goes down the Kaplan river, crosses the Stikine above Telegraph creek, on to Sheslay, to Inklin, Pike and Atlin where a road to the Alaska highway already exists.

    "This route requires 550 miles of construction." he said. "It would cost $22 million for a 26-foot gravel road. The location follows the drainages and crosses only one major river - the Stikine which would require one 525-foot cantilever span.

    "Because the line follows drainages, the grades will not exceed 3 per cent as against 12 per cent on the Alcan. There is only one major river crossing as against 78 on the Alcan. The total rise on the "A" route is 6,000 feet as compared with 30,000 feet on the Alcan.

    "Much of the Alcan is in an economic vacuum of dreary terrain. The "A" route penetrates one of the richest, most beautifully romantic areas in North America," he declared.

What Would It Have Meant?

    Mac was impatient with the slow-moving machinery of negotiations and diplomatic relations that never happened.

    "Look," he smiled wisely, "what the road would have meant at the beginning of the war - and built at the cost of one small battleship. It would have changed the hlstury of British Columbia, The Yukon and Alaska. By now, it would have been paved and the whole country would be many years ahead in economic development.

Need is Apparent

    As the years have rolled along more thinking on this logical road link crops up. The need for it nudges those who would develop that vast roadless area.

    Two years ago a forceful speaker at a Pacific Northwest Trade association conference held in Tacoma, Wash. pointed this project up as the "highway of the future." He was Frank E. Landsburg, district director, bureau of motor carriers, Interstate Commerce commission, Portland. Ore.

    He regarded it as the "master key" to unlock the ultimate development of the North Country. Declaring that this highway would be justified from a military defense standpoint alone, Landsburg went on to cite it as a doorway to vast resources also.

    This "A" route would be 1000 miles shorter from the Northwest to Alaska than the present Alcan, a factor important in motor transport. Development of resources could provide a back-haul to reduce freight rates. Being through a truly scenic terrain, a lucrative tourist industry would naturally follow.

    Since Landsburg's speech, during the past two years, a number of committees from various organizations have been quietly working for the project. Senator Langer has introduced the bill to get the official wheels turning if and when it is passed. The Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and the All Alaska Chamber of Commerce have passed resolutions endorsing the bill. A resolution favoring the construction of this road is to be presented at the forthcoming meeting of the PNTA conference in Vancouver, B.C. May 9 and 10.

    It may be that some announcement on progress will be made at the meeting.

    With the developments that have been sprouting up in British Columbia and the Yukon during the past several years, there seems a be an increasing interest in the building of the "A" route.

    The hitch is that the location is through a thinly populated stretch of British Columbia which has limited funds for roads in areas scarce on voters. However some development is going forward despite the lack of roads.

    A firm is opening up a promising copper prospect at Granduc in Canada near the head of the Unuk river northeast of Ketchikan. A survey party investigated the possibility of building a narrow-gauge railroad along the river to get the ore to deepwater for shipment. When the "A" route becomes a reality, a connection to it from the mine could be built.

    Farther north is the Stikine with lakes and tributary rivers holding tremendous hydro water power potential. Northeast is McDame creek its its rapidly expanding development of high grade asbestos deposits. Another short road connection to the proposed highway would greatly shorten the haul north.

    In addition there are other minerals to be mined and vast timber resources untouched. A feeder road could be built from the gold and base metal mines at Tulsequah.

    With the completion of the "A" route it would be but a matter of time until Panhandle Alaska would be getting outlet roads from Skagway to Whitehorse; up the Taku river from Juneau; up the Stlkine from Wrangell and Petersburg, up the Unuk from Ketchikan with ferry service from these last three cities as all are built on islands.

    Meanwhile the Canadians are blacktopping a highway from Vancouver to Prince George. B. C. for a permanent highway. The road from Prince George to Prince Rupert is scheduled for paving. Further aluminum and pulp mill projects are in the offing for this area according to information received here.

    The Hart highway of 265 miles from Prince George northeastward has been opened and is proving a popular route for Alaskans traveling to and from the states. The road penetrates and serves a rich resource area that is fast becoming important for oil and mineral production in addition to tourists.

    The northern section of the "A" route could be as vital to the economic development of another section of British Columbia, Yukon Territory and not least in importance, a land supply line for defense of both Alaska and Canada.

    Main roads beget feeder roads. Homesteaders and settlers follow the roads. Access to mines and timber bring industries. The pattern of settlement in the Pacific northwestern wilderness could be repeated on a grand scale.

    The dream of Donald MacDonald II will come true . . . some day. He's not around any more to repeat "Of course a highway will be built over my route because its logical." There are those of us who will keep saying it for him and keep pushing for its construction.

    I wish that engineer Ed Borders could be around to be on the project when it's built.

    There are many who Mac inspired with his vision of the future would like it to be called the "Donald MacDonald highway" when it is dedicated.

    It will be built some day . . . .


The History of the Alaska Highway (Alcan)

  • Born on April 18, 1880, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Donald W. MacDonald II died in laremont, California, on November 3, 1952, at the age of 72.

  • The "A" route never did see a highway, but the route was closely followed by the BC Rail Northern Extension (the Dease Lake Extension). Due to massive cost overruns, that 663-km-long project was cancelled in 1977 after $168 million had been spent. Many sections of the rail line can still be walked or biked. The next possible route to the west of the "A" route now carries the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.

  • 1. The Frobisher development was a $750 million hydroelectric project proposed by Northwest Power Industries Ltd. It would have raised the level of Atlin Lake by 20 feet - it was accepted by Atlin residents in August 1955 but ultimately was cancelled.

  • 2. There have been many railroads planned to connect Alaska to the rest of North America, but we haven't yet found one attributed to E. H. Harriman.

  • 3. Clyde "Slim" Williams (born January 14, 1881, died October 9, 1974) arrived in Alaska in 1900 at the age of 18, and spent the next 30 years or so trapping, hunting, and breeding wolf hybrid dogs. In 1932 he went from Copper Center to Washington, D.C. by dogsled, then in 1939, he and John Logan took specially-modified motorcycles from Fairbanks to Seattle.

  • 4. The Western Union Overland Telegraph, also known as the Russian–American Telegraph, is most commonly known now as the Collins Overland Telegraph. With a plan conceived by Perry Collins to run a telegraph line from San Francisco to Moscow, it was begun in 1864. The completion of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in July 1866 made the Collins project unnecessary, but it took a year to contact all the remote work crews - in July 1867, all sections the project had been cancelled.

  • 5. The records from Ed (Elden) Borders' survey trip down "route A" are now in the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.