History Hunter: A new book focuses on the Alaska Highway

The new book is titled Signposts and Promises: Canada and the Alaska Highway.

A few years ago, I was invited to join a group that proposed, among other things, to have historic features along the Alaska Highway included in a nomination for national recognition. The way we saw it, these features scattered along the Alaska Highway collectively spoke to the historical and cultural importance of the corridor created by the construction of the wartime road.

Information gathered by Julie Harris, the prime consultant on the project, revealed many significant natural and historical features along the route that wound its way through the mountains, along valleys and over rivers through British Columbia and the Yukon. But the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada turned down the nomination.

Using the information gathered in preparing the nomination, Harris has collaborated with author, editor and multimedia publisher Frank B. Edwards to produce a new book about the Alaska Highway titled Signposts and Promises: Canada and the Alaska Highway.

The book, published last year by the Fort St. John North Peace Museum, explains in the preface: “Over several years, community members from various towns, cities, and Indigenous groups, met in B.C. and the Yukon to discuss what heritage meant to them and how they could work together to strengthen tourism and heritage programming in the region … the communities agreed that no single story could explain the landscape or its people in a meaningful way and that residents and visitors deserved to see a truer picture” This book aims “… to bring the broader story of the Alaska Highway corridor’s landscape to life.”

Within its 192 pages, Signposts and Promises is broken into four main sections: Land, People, Places and Road. Each contains a number of short chapters detailing 53 different topics linked to the highway. Although the authors vowed that they would leave the discussion of indigenous landscapes to indigenous voices, they did not neglect the topic completely. In addition to a discussion of original peoples, residential schools and Treaty Number 8, they featured George Johnson of Teslin, the MacDonald family of Toad River, and the Jacquot brothers of Burwash Landing.

In the section dedicated to the land in the vicinity of the Alaska Highway, the authors touch on paleontology, wildlife (including a chapter dedicated to iconic species), as well as chapters on the aurora borealis, and Liard hot springs. Other chapters are devoted to permafrost, and the development of natural resources, including oil and gas, coal, and hydro power.

Additional individuals profiled include explorer Alexander Mackenzie, Inspector John D. Moodie of the North West Mounted Police, anthropologist John J. Honigmann, and several wartime artists, including Group of Seven member A. Y. Jackson. The section devoted to places features human works on the landscape, including an archaeological site near Fort St. John, the Northern Alberta Railway Station at Dawson Creek, a World War II Highway administration building in Whitehorse, the signpost forest at Watson Lake, and the ubiquitous Quonset hut. My favorite from this section dealt with notable bridges along the highway.

The longest section in the book (“Road”) is united by the common strand of the building of the Alaska Highway. Starting with the negotiations between two nations over its construction, it describes the string of airports spread across the British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska, (known as the North West Staging Route), and the black soldiers who helped build the pioneer road.

Other chapters include a potpourri of topics: highway construction camps, the role of women in highway construction, pay disparity between Canada and the United States, and the administration of justice between two remarkably different jurisdictions. The administration of justice is shown to have its dark side, one in which first nation families were torn apart and children taken away to residential school, or prosecuted for pursuing their traditional lifestyle.

This book is not strictly a history of the highway, but more of a sampler. It reveals diverse aspects of the land through which the highway was cut, both natural and human, that should stimulate the readers’ interest in a wide variety of topics. If the reader is interested, any of these could be explored further by referring to the three page bibliography at the end of the volume.

The selection of nearly 150 contemporary and historical photographs make this account more compelling. The paper upon which the book was printed seemed purposely selected to enhance the quality of the images. Rendered both in colour and black and white, the pictures were full of detail and human interest. The wildlife photos were crisp and well composed. The natural scenery is sharp and full of colour, bringing the scenes alive.

If I had any criticism, it is that the smaller images lose the impact they should otherwise have had. Is it just my fading eyes that must squint at the smaller images? I would have argued with the designer to use only larger images. Perhaps some of the smaller images could have been omitted to allow for the remainder to be increased in size (and impact). Meanwhile, the text is presented in a pleasing font and point size to make it easily readable. Some of the chapter headings were cut off at the top of the page; I wondered if this was purposeful.

In addition to the photographs, there were six maps, half of which were historical reproductions that help to place the places and events both in place and in time. Again, the historical maps would have benefitted from being enlarged.

This book achieves what it set out to do: to demonstrate that the story of this unique historic corridor consists of many different facets. Scholars well versed in highway history may not find anything new in Signposts and Promises, but I don’t think they were the intended audience. The vast majority who might buy this book will find it interesting. Those driving the Alaska Highway will find it to be a good travel companion. It will inform the reader with a sense of the richness and diversity of this landscape. I would recommend it to travelers visiting the north or those navigating the Alaska Highway for the first time, and anyone interested in learning about the Alaska Highway.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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