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Looking at a permanent Alaska Highway, 1944

A Guide to the Alaska Highway ("Alcan")

History of the Alaska Highway

'Only One Route For The Real Alaska Highway', 1944
By Barney Mulvany, New Hazelton

    So much has been said and written, and so little done, about the permanent Alaska Highway that the original and important idea has been lost track of. For this general oversight there are several good reasons, and some that are not so good.

    Every road running north of the Canadian National Railway has been referred to as the "Alcan Road," or some other such discordant and inappropriate term; but a casual glance at any fairly accurate map of north-western British Columbia and Alaska would show that the route of a true Alaska highway must run more westerly than northerly.

    All these roads have been, and will continue to be, of material value during the war. Censorship is necessarily strict in regard to western development. However, if the war should terminate tomorrow, all the existing roads would revert within six months to their former status of trails and traplines. For on these roads the cost of maintenance would be forty percent of the original cost of construction, and the fabulous sum would have to be expended annually. The cost of each one of these roads has been astronomical, and all of them are littered with the wrecks of trucks abandoned because of soft bottom and poor road material.

    In this regard there is, of course, much that may not be said. Any information about Western construction is rightfully muzzled by the censor, and not so rightly throttled by the Eastern press and Eastern interests.

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    Much has been said about the great engineering feats accomplished by the locating engineers; but it is to the construction men and their engineers that all credit is due. One may look at every trail and road that runs north and west of the Canadian Naional right-of-way through the mountainous country which prevails, and to the close observer one thing is obvious: The vast herds of caribou, now sadly depleted, followed the path of least resistance as they paddled their migratory trails along the trackless miles. They found the best fords, crossed the summits by the easiest passes, and avoided carefully the mud and muskeg of all the eastern routes. In turn the Indians followed the caribou, and the trapper and prospector followed the Indians. The big pack trains followed, and sometimes led, the prospectors. The Northwest Mounted Police improved the trails.

    When the reconnaissance engineers finally arrived at a location, they found themselves in almost every case, within a few hundred yards of the trail of the Mounties. In the passes they found, sometimes as many as twenty trails abreast, cut indelibly in soil and softer rocks by centuries of travel.

    Even the Mounties, however, finally abandoned the northern route, and came down the east fork of the Skeena, and followed the Telegraph Trail to the Yukon. For many years it has been conceded that the eastern route was impassible for horses and cattle, but a fine country for dog teams during the seven months of the year in which the frost is on the ground. During the remaining five months, as Charlie Barrett says, and George Biernes corroborates, many of the muskeg flats would "mire a saddle blanket."

*    *    *

    Of the thousands of outfits which left Edmonton for the Yukon in 1898, '99 and 1900, the only horse outfits that made the trip in a single year were those that left Liard and followed the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek or Glenora. A few outfits which had dogs shot their horses and succeeded in getting through that way, destitute and barely alive!

A Northwest Service Command bus on the Sikanni Chief Bridge, 1944
A Northwest Service Command bus rolling across the bridge spanning the Sikanni Chief river on the Alaska Highway, 1944

    Even the trip from Hazelton was at that time fraught with difficulties, as the Indians went to a lot of trouble to mis-guide all outfits in order to take them away from the beaver country of the Nass and Stikine. Then, when the Yukon Telegraph line was built from Hazelton to Telegraph Creek, the notorious outlaw, Simon Gun-a-noot and his partner, Peter Hi-ma-dam, "guided" the right-of-way crews away from the best and shortest route. The location running northwesterly from Hazelton, and that running south-easterly from Telegraph Creek, overlapped but were eighty miles apart. Charlie Barrett was sent from Telegraph Creek to Hazelton in the winter to tie in the two ends.

    However, Hazelton, being the most westerly and northerly point on the Canadian National, is undoubtedly the best point of departure. By following the Kispiox Valley, as one of the greatest pioneers and pathfinders of the North had finally done in the location of the old Collins Telegraph Line, which was finally abandoned when the "Great Eastern" successfully laid the Atlantic Cable, Naas water may be reached over a low summit with easy construction.

*    *    *

    Colonel Bulkley, in charge of the location of that historic telegraph line, had tried all the eastern routes and left his blazes everywhere. He abandoned the route north from Fort St. James, although he built the Bulkley House, which still stands at the head of Takla Lake. Parties under him cruised the routes north of Takla Lake and abandoned them, as their report showed there were miles of terrain so soft that a telegraph pole would not stand up after being set.

    He withdrew from Takla, went to Hazelton, and made a good location from Hazelton to Teslin Lake via Telegraph Creek, getting his supplies by canoe up the Skeena and Stikine Rivers. His location went up the Kispiox River to the Naas; over the Naas Summit to Stikine water; across the Stikine and to Teslin Lake; thence to the Hootalinqua; and down the Hootalinqua to the Yukon.

    Work was stopped when the Atlantic Cable was a proved success, but it is interesting to know that some of the parties out on location were still out a year after all work had been ordered to stop, as they were scattered from Telegraph Creek to the Lower Yukon. At the same time, the Russians were building a telegraph line across Siberia, with the intention of spanning the sixty-mile Bering Straits by cable, and connecting with the parties working in Alaska.

*    *    *

    It is evident, therefore, that considerable investigation was made before Colonel Bulkley chose the Hazelton route and undertook his extensive project, and in 1899 a railroad survey was made from Telegraph Creek to the Yukon over the same route described.

    So let the East have all the roads that are necessary for the government of the vast territory east of the McKenzie River; but an Alaska Highway is a distinctly western road, a continuation of Road 109 from Mexico, through California, Oregon and Washington. It must go through British Columbia by the shortest route to Alaska, on solid bottom and as close as possible to the navigable rivers and salt water inlets which penetrate far into the interior from the deeply indented coastline of British Columbia and Alaska, The Alaska Highway must be a western road.

    Geological and forestry reports testify to the wealth of natural resources along this route. Timber, oil, coal and all minerals abound; and the agricultural land along the route is adequate to supply a large part of the demand for food that would arise. This is the route originally chosen by Representative Warren G. Magnusson of Washington, and by many prominent Alaskans, who, it would appear, should be entitled to some voice in the matter of location.

*    *    *

    The fact is that this route offers the only PERMANENT road to Alaska. It would lead to the development of the vast resources of British Columbia; the big rivers would be crossed at their sources by permanent structures which would be unaffected by the spring run-off of snow water. Truly a Roman Road it would be, built for all time, with no adverse conditions that do not also exist on all other suggested or attempted routes, and with many advantages which the other routes do not offer.

    This road should never leave British Columbia, from the time it enters the province at Bellingham until it crosses the Alaska Boundary.