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A highway to Alaska begins, March 1942

Alaska Highway History

An Explorer's Guide to the Alaska Highway ("Alcan")

Edmonton Journal, Friday, March 20, 1942

By Don Menzies
(Edmonton Journal Staff Keporter)

    DAWSON CREEK, B.C., March 20. - When the saga of the Alaska highway is written, four brothers, all trappers, traders and ranchers, will figure prominently.

    The brothers will take U.S. engineer units by dog team into the uncharted areas between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, and Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, to blaze the trail which eventually will become the North American continent's most vital road.

    They are Elisha, John, Dennis and Lynch Collison, who operate a ranch north of Fort St. John and trading posts in the north, including Fort Nelson.

    These brothers have traveled over vast areas in the north by dog team and pack horse and have an excellent knowledge of Indian trails. They even have blazed trails themselves.

    The brothers will take American survey parties into areas which will be selected from reconnaissance planes as logical routes for the highway. The survey parties will study ground conditions, return and make their findings known, then start out to blaze the Alaska highway.

    Ten surveyors of the federal works agency, public roads administration, at Denver, arrived late Thursday by truck. They are charged with plotting the exact course the highway will follow.

    The surveyors, all civilians, drove here in light panel trucks and intend to go through to Fort Nelson before starting their task. Few passenger cars have negotiated the difficult road from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson and truck drivers here say the men will have a tough time getting through.

    The surveyors will travel by dog team and pack horse both north and south of Fort Nelson in making surveys over the terrain to be followed by the road.

    They stopped over in Edmonton for a "break" in the long drive from Denver. The men will be under the direction of C. F. Capes, civilian engineer from Washington.

    Mr. Capes was in Fort St. John Thursday conferring with army officers. He and other high army officers recently traveled with H. P. Keith, district airways engineer for the department of transport, over the winter road from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson.

Ready For Defence

    US. engineer forces working on the highway are to be equipped with some defence arms as a precaution against attack from the air. Truck drivers and others have been schooled in plans for dispersal should an attack ever come, and each has been assigned a specific duty. Practical training in this phase of defence was taught the soldiers during manoeuvres in the U.S. last fall.

    Because the U.S. sees fit to arm its forces against possible attack, observers here point out that the Canadian government should "take the tip" and station forces of soldiers at the vital airports stretching from Edmonton to the Yukon.

    "Canadian soldiers should be ready to protect this chain of bases in their own country," one citizen said.

    Just how well-equipped these U.S. forces will be, of course, is a military secret.

    American officers in charge of construction work have established headquarters in a building in "downtown" Fort St. John.

    Headquarters for the quartermasters units has been established in Dawson Creek and until the recent arrival of more engineer troops preliminary work was done there by engineer officers.

Have Medical Units

    Completely self-contained, the engineer troops, which are under canvas at Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, have their own medical units and skilled technical staff. Quartermasters troops are to be stationed with the engineers ensuring delivery of supplies from railhead to camp.

    Caterpillar tractors pulling heavy road-building equipment continued the rest of the way from Dawson Creek to Fort St. John on Thursday. The tractor train started from railhead Wednesday but encountered difficulty crossing the Cutbank river where the bridge was found to be too weak to carry some of the heavy pieces.

    The tractors crossed the wide Peace river on planks, placed there last week by advance engineer units, to help prevent melting and chuck holes. All of the roadbuilding equipment and necessary supplies for the troops must cross that river before the spring break-up. Soldiers worked on the ice ail day, testing its strength and depth with long picks.

    When the thaw comes, it will not be possible to cross the turbulent river by ferry for at least two weeks, a long time for an army of men charged with completing a task in a hurry.

Ruts in Roads

    Heavy army vehicles are working day and night transporting tons of supplies across the Peace from Dawson Creek to Fort St. John. The six-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with lugged tires and chains have chewed the slushy road into deep ruts.

    American army scrapers are busy on the road, filling in the ruts as quickly as possible so as to keep the highway in shape until the last vehicle completes its trip.

    Road equipment will start north for Fort Nelson as soon as it has been assembled and made ready at the Fort St. John camp, which is a beehive of activity.

    Dozens of tents have been pitched and the lanes between them covered with sawdust and straw. In the wide lane between two sections of the camp, trucks are lined up in perfect order. They are getting ready to make the 250-mile journey to Fort Nelson. Many trucks loaded with supplies already have arrived at the far north camp.

    Pussy willows are a common sight, but not a too happy one for officers in charge. They are a sure sign, northerners say, of an early spring. These trucks and tractors must cross nearly 100 miles of muskeg to reach Fort Nelson. As soon as the thaw comes muskeg and rivers will be impassable.

    Two master mechanics from a U.S. firm manufacturing caterpillar tractors are going along with the troops. These mechanics will help to iron-out wrinkles encountered by the soldiers who drive the "land battleships."

    Sixteen army radio operators will establish stations from Fort Nelson to Fairbanks. Their job will be to keep the forces informed of weather conditions and other necessary information.

By Don Menzies
(Edmonton Journal Staff Keporter)

    DAWSON CREEK, B.C., March 20 - Indians who have spent all their lives in northern British Columbia think the white man must be crazy. All they can say is a disgusted "ugh ugh," added to the usual "ugh."

    The white men are racing against time to take supplies for building the Alaska highway into Fort Nelson from this end-of-steel town. In army transports and trucks, the white men are moving along the winter trail night and day, bouncing over frozen muskegs, racing across rivers and sliding down slopes in an attempt to get all supplies to the northern point before the spring break-up.

    Slavey and Beaver Indians who never before saw a truck are amazed.

    One of the chiefs in the Fort Nelson district came upon a caterpillar tractor bulldozing its way through rough terrain. Later, telling the story of meeting that monstrous machine, the chief said: "I thought it was the old devil himself, knocking down trees and digging in the earth."

    Even-tempered and philosophical, the Indians can't quite grasp what it's all about. They understand a road must be built but they can't understand why everybody is in such a hurry.

    When told about the war and Hitler's plans for conquest, one said: "What's he want all that land for? Won't do him no good. He sure die some day."

By Robert Elson
(Special Correspondent of the Edmonton Journal
and Associated Southam Newspapers)

    WASHINGTON, March 20. - A policy of silence on all details of construction will make the Alaska highway very much of a "hush-hush" project so far as the U.S. public roads administration is concerned.

    By terms of the exchange of notes, under which the road will be built, this agency will supervise construction of the permanent 24-foot gravel surfaced road that will link Alaska and Canada.

    Information Officials of the administration say they cannot discuss construction plans or policies because "of its strategic importance." They add Canadian authorities have been asked to adopt a similar policy.

    Indications are, however, the road will be built directly under the supervision of the administration's engineers. The U.S. army engineer corps already announced civilian construction of permanent right-of-way is expected to follow immediately on heels of development of the nine-foot pioneer survey road.

    In the continental U.S. the public road administration does not build the so-called "federal highways," in which the federal government grant-in-aid matches dollar-for-dollar state highway votes and appropriations. But the administration's engineers carefully supervise the letting of contracts and all details are carefully scrutinized. In the national parks, however, the administration builds highways directly under the supervision of its engineers and lets contracts on its own account.

    Its engineers have built the wonderful roads in the Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, which are models of good highway engineering.

    Men who handled these projects are available for the Alaska highway. The US. public roads administration has often been characterized here as one of the most efficient agencies of the federal government and the federal highway system here is the envy of the world.

    Meanwhile in congress the Washington state delegation has been receiving representations from the Seattle chamber of commerce and other public bodies on the west coast asking them to press for the construction of the link between Dawson Creek and Prince George to provide an outlet to the coast.

    Delegate Anthony F. Dimond, Alaska, and Congressman Henry Martin Jackson, Everett, Wash., have already said they were "definitely in favor" of such a connection. Dimond was originally very critical of the choice of route but acknowledges military considerations much dominate. He says: "In Alaska we are not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth."

    Officially the proposal to connect Dawson Creek and Prince George has not yet been brought to the attention of the war department.

Coast Congressman Protests Route Chosen - Alaska Highway, March 1942

    WASHINGTON, March 30. - Representative Coffee (D-Wash) said Thursday night he had protested to the state department against the joint Canadian-American plan to construct an international highway to Alaska along what is known as the easterly route through Edmonton.

    "I regard it as a grave error and it has the appearance of the U.S. financing construction of a highway system for Canada under pressure of war emergency." Coffee said.

    "So far as can be ascertained no ground survey of the route has been made and the terrain is immeasurably difficult for road construction. The high altitude will cause delays and the frozen tundra of the northern sectior of the route will cause road collapses."

    Coffee declared the recommendations of the Alaska international highway commission, headed by Representative Magnuson (D-Wash) now a lieutenant commander in the navy, had been disregarded by the joint Canada-U.S. defence board headed by Mayor La Guardia of New York.

    "The treatment accorded this commission has been shabby," Coffee said. "The proposed road will take longer to build than the western route favored by the commission, cost more and have no post war value to the U.S.

    "The western route advocated by the people of Washington state and B.C. would have cost less to con- struct and could have been put in use in much quicker time. It was favored by all who knew the actual conditions and it is a grave blunder to choose the eastern route."