Building the DEW Line was like moving 2,000 Statues of Liberty to the Arctic

It sounds like something from an old movie. During the Cold War era North America was looking for a way to defend against the threat of an attack from the USSR.

It sounds like something from an old movie.

During the Cold War era North America was looking for a way to defend against the threat of an attack from the USSR.

The Russians had established bases in the far north and were thought to have the capacity to fly bombers from the Arctic into the heart of America, and so the Distant Early Warning Line, or DEW Line, was born.

The DEW Line was a network of radar and communications stations that were sprinkled along the 69th parallel from Alaska to Greenland.

The stations took nearly three years, 25,000 people and more than 460,000 tonnes of supplies to build at remote locations across the frozen northern coast of North America.

At the time the project, which was completed in co-operation between the US and Canadian governments, was heralded as a triumph of engineering and logistics.

“The extra time it gives us to rally our defenses could mean the difference between successful defence and national disaster,” wrote the Western Electric Corporation, the company responsible for managing the design and construction of the line, in 1960.

Building the series of towers outfitted with the proper equipment through the Arctic landscape was no small feat.

In December 1954, thousands of people were moved to the north to construct roads, towers, hangars and airfields in some of the most remote spots in North America.

“These hardy men lived and worked under the most primitive conditions,” wrote the Western Electric Corporation. “They covered vast distances by plane, ‘snowmobile’ and dog sled, working in blinding snowstorms with temperatures so low that ordinary thermometers could not measure them.”

Over the next two years and eight months more than 25,000 people would have a hand in building the line, and more than 460,000 tons of materials, including enough gravel to build two copies of the Great Pyramid at Giza, would be moved to the Arctic by air, land and water.

“In transportation and construction effort, building the DEW Line was roughly equivalent to the job of taking 2,000 Statues of Liberty dismantled into reasonable sized units, moving them from New York Harbour to dozens of spots inside the Arctic Circle, and putting them together again in darkness, blizzards and sub-zero cold,” wrote the Western Electric Corporation.

There were four DEW Line stations in the Yukon all along the Arctic Coast: One at Stokes Point, one at Shingle Point, one at Tununuk Camp and one at Komakuk Beach.

The MacBride Museum of Yukon History has a collection of artifacts that were used at the Komakuk Beach site including radar screen consoles, rubber stamps, a decorative metal sword, a dartboard and three fake potted plants.

Soon after its completion, the line lost much of its purpose. It was useless against a variety of other attacks.

A number of stations were decommissioned, but many were kept active to monitor potential Soviet air activities and to assert Canada’s

sovereignty in the Arctic.

In

1985, the more capable of the DEW Line stations were upgraded and merged with newly-built stations into the North Warning System.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, DEW Line stations across the world were dismantled in 1993.

The sites in the Yukon were reclaimed and incorporated into Ivvavik National Park in 2000.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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