HISTORY

The history of the Alaska Highway actually began with the gold strikes, bringing people from many different walks of life into the North. Prior to this, the Yukon and Alaska were largely inhabited by First Nations and a few Russian traders along the coast of Alaska. Gold strikes in Juneau (1880's), the Klondike (1896-1898), Nome (1899) and Fairbanks (early 1900's) brought people flocking to the North.

As people came into the North they had different opinions about how the North should be used. People began to see the Yukon and Alaska as a strategic area. Ideas for an overland route began to take shape. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was the first to think of the northern part of Canada in these terms. His idea was that the shortest route from continental U.S. to the Far East was through Alaska and the Yukon. Another man, F.H. Harrimen, also had plans for the North. He planned a Canada-Alaska railroad linked with a Russian railroad by building a bridge across the Bering Straits. Others, like Major Constantine of the NWMP, felt that building a railroad to the Klondike gold fields was the way to go. However, none of these projects were ever finished.

People began to share these different views of northern transportation. In 1933, President Roosevelt set up a joint commission with Canada to explore development options for the North. This wasn't successful at first. In 1938, nothing had been done by the commision except choosing their members. Eventually a North West Staging Route was built, the brain child of Stefansson.

The start of World War II galvanised people, forcing them to act. After the Pearl Harbour attack, the American government was looking for a "danger free" airway to Alaska. The Canadian airfields from Fort St. John to Whitehorse seemed a logical choice. New air bases were built in Grande Prairie, Alberta; Fort Nelson, BC; Watson Lake and Whitehorse, Yukon. The Ladd Field, Fairbanks base was extended. The two main military reasons for building the airway route were:

  1. It was a factor in locating the Alaska Highway, and would be useful during the construction.
  2. The airfields were used by U.S. pilots ferrying planes for lend - lease to Russia.

Following the Pearl Harbour bombing, along with the implementation of an airway to Alaska, the US and Canadian governments planned to build a joint road to Alaska. This would be the first road from the Lower Forty Eight to Alaska. The purpose of this road would be to defend the West Coast from the Japanese threat in the Pacific. The lend- lease program, which was crucial to the British air effort, lent more than 8,000 warplanes to the Russians, which enabled them to fight in the war and occupy German forces that may have otherwise fought on the Western Front.

It fell to the US Army to choose a route for the proposed highway. Two routes were considered before the present route was chosen. Route A would run from Vancouver, BC to Whitehorse, Yukon. This route would be approximately 1275 miles when completed. Route B would run from Prince George to Whitehorse. This route would be approximately 1250 miles. Eventually, Route C was chosen. Today's highway is a close replica of this original route. (The highway underwent reconstruction to make it more serviceable.) The Mile Post 0 marker was erected in 1946 on the mainstreet of Dawson Creek, BC. This town was officially recognised as the starting point of the Alaska Highway. (Whitehorse is Mile 917 of the Highway, and Haines Junction is Mile 1016.) Although many people believe that the Alaska Highway was originally known as the Alcan Highway, there is much controversy over this issue. The official name was the Alaska Military Highway, but the workers called it the Alcan. It's name was changed to the Alaska Highway on July 19, 1943.

Although the Alaska Highway was built to ensure the protection of American soil, the completion of the route had little influence on the outcome of the war. The highway was conseptionalized to bring bombs to the North but now it brings an important source of income to the Yukon, through the multitudes of tourists who travel the historic Alaska Highway.

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