The bombing of Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941 heralded the formal entry of the United States into the Second World War. That and the subsequent invasion of the Aleutian Islands by the Japanese are viewed as the reasons for the building of the Alaska Highway. But the inspiration for a road link with Alaska and the Yukon reaches back to the beginning of the 20th century.
On August 27, 1897, Commissioner L.W. Herchmer of the North West Mounted Police, instructed Inspector J.D. Moodie to undertake an overland trek from Edmonton, Alberta, to the headwaters of the Pelly River; the purpose of the trip was to gather information about the conditions of the trail en route.
In 1905, in an attempt to justify the existence of the Mounted Police, Commissioner A.B. Perry tasked Inspector Charles Constantine with the job of opening a pack trail from Fort St. John, British Columbia, to Teslin Lake in the Yukon.
This work continued for three years, but petered out when the premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, refused financial support to continue the project. It was later revealed that the British government balked, fearing “any international complications that might ensue from giving the Americans a military road through the province.”
The growth of the automobile spurred renewed thinking about a road that would run up the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska. As early as March of 1911, A.E. Todd, in a letter, brought to the attention of readers of the Dawson Daily News the Pacific Highway Association of Seattle, whose purpose was to “…work for the construction of a continuous first class highway from as far south as possible to as far north as possible along the west of North America.”
The following year, the Association put up a trophy for the “…first automobile to make the journey from the outside to Dawson.”
By 1912, George Black, commissioner of the Yukon, was elected vice-president of the Canadian Highways Association. Among their objectives: to extend the Pacific Highway through British Columbia connecting with Washington state to the south, and Hazelton and the Yukon to the north.
Starting in 1912, the territorial government began investing large sums of money on road improvement throughout the territory. This included $50,000 to improve the Whitehorse-Dawson road, which would “…form a section of the Pacific Highways, which is being boosted enthusiastically north and south,” eventually linking Mexico with the Arctic Ocean.
“Some day,” the Dawson Daily News rhapsodized, “the route will be open from Yuma to Yukon, and then it will be the most popular run in the world.”
Commissioner Black went further in boosting this idea in 1912 by becoming a member of the first party to complete the trip from Dawson to Whitehorse on the overland trail. In May of 1914, the territorial council resolved to petition the federal government for the funds to complete a road from Whitehorse to the British Columbia border, with the intention of linking with a road from Skagway. The First World War intervened, and this dream did not become reality for another 65 years.
The onset of the First World War stifled any thought of spending money on construction of a highway to Alaska, but it didn’t slow the growing number of automobiles in the territory. The Dawson Daily News lauded as progressive the formation of an automobile club in 1917; by 1923, it could boast a membership of 75 of the leading citizens of the territory.
Interest in a highway linking Alaska to the south simmered during the 1920s, then was renewed in June of 1929, when the International Highway Association of Yukon was constituted. Included among its membership was George Black, now the Yukon’s Member of Parliament. A similar group was formed in Fairbanks. Roads already built in Alaska would link with Dawson City and Whitehorse. A connection would have to be built to the British Columbia Highway system in Hazelton.
A bill was enacted in Congress in 1930 for a commission to study with Canada the feasibility of a highway link with Alaska. It wasn’t until October of 1931 that a meeting was convened to study the proposal. Chaired by George Black, this commission determined that the construction of a highway, called the “Golden Twilight Highway,” was feasible, but that there wasn’t sufficient information to determine if the benefits would outweigh the costs.
A major obstacle to proceeding was the economic depression that engulfed the continent at the time, but the proposal continued to be brought forward each year in Congress. In 1935, Tony Dimond, Alaska Territory Delegate in the United States House of Representatives, stated that of the $14 million cost for the project, Canada would have to carry the burden for $12 million. Aside from the notion that Canada should carry the majority of cost for a project that would benefit the United States (it was already being touted for its strategic military importance), the money simply was not available.
But the two nations kept trying. By act of Congress in 1938, President Roosevelt was empowered to appoint an Alaska International Highway Commission, but there was little money to do anything. The following year, the Canadian commission identified three possible routes for consideration.
Meanwhile, in 1940, the two countries resolved to build a chain of airfields across the north, including landing strips at Fort Nelson and Watson Lake. Later, when the US Chief of Staff approved it, linking with the airfields already under way was a major factor in deciding the route that the highway should follow.
The future of the Alaska, or Alcan Highway, as it was called, was assured with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The project was approved by President Roosevelt on February 11, 1942, and a directive was issued to the Chief of Engineers three days later. From that moment, the clock started ticking. After 40 years of dreaming and talking about such a project, it took only nine months and six days to officially declare the Alaska Highway open. It ran not through Dawson City, as once proposed, but through Whitehorse and the southwest corner of the Yukon. That project decision had consequences that changed the face of the Yukon forever and thrust sleepy little Whitehorse into a growth trajectory that couldn’t have been imagined.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, is due out in April. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.