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1942: Opening day for the Alcan Highway

The Story

Canada's Yukon Territory could hardly be further from the battle zones of the Second World War. Yet it's the site of a triumph for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. On Nov. 20, 1942, they cut the ribbon on the Alcan Highway - a new route that will link the lower 48 states to the northern territory of Alaska. A CBC Radio crew records a ceremony celebrating the road, which snakes all the way from Dawson Creek, B.C., through the Yukon and on to Fairbanks, Alaska. With the Japanese waging war in the Pacific and, perhaps, threatening Alaska, the Americans wanted a new overland supply route for military bases in their northernmost territory. In March 1942, after striking a deal to build through Canadian territory, the U.S. Army broke ground. Just eight months later, the project was complete. On a frozen November morning, alongside the Yukon's Lake Kluane, U.S. and Canadian officials praise the highway and the men who built it.

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News Special
Broadcast Date: Nov. 20, 1942
Guest: James O'Connor
Reporter: Peter Stursberg
Duration: 9:45

Did You know?

• The highway was open October 28, and the opening ceremony took place at a spot called Soldiers Summit on November 20.

• In his book The Sound of War, CBC Radio's Peter Stursberg remembered that the temperature that day was about -35 F, or -37 C.

• "I was amazed and dismayed by the fact that [the dignitaries] spoke at length, for a full 20 minutes each, despite the near -40 F weather. It was truly a chilling performance," Stursberg wrote.

• After the Japanese attacked the American territory of Hawaii at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Americans feared another attack on the U.S. west coast. Alaska became a strategic defence point, and politicians proposed a new highway that would carry men and equipment there.

• Though the army and navy thought existing shipping methods were adequate, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted. The Canadians also doubted the road's necessity, but signed a deal with Roosevelt on March 5, 1942.

• About 11,000 men - a third of them African-American - were sent north for the job.

• The engineers and workers had to build to road across about 2,000 kilometres of mountains, rivers, muskeg and permafrost. Clouds of mosquitoes plagued them in the summer months.

• The highway was built by seven teams working on different sections of road. On Oct. 25, 1942, all the sections were joined.

• Though the ceremony heard in this clip celebrates the opening of the highway, it was not yet truly finished. Most of it was unpaved, and many sections consisted of measures like temporary bridges, dangerously steep grades, tight curves and corduroy roads.

• A corduroy road is a series of logs placed parallel to one another across a low-lying or swampy area. Sand or gravel is laid overtop, but nevertheless it makes for a very bumpy ride.

• In a 2003 book about Alaska and oil, U.S. journalist and author Joe LaRocca wrote that contrary to popular myth, the Alcan Highway was "not vital to national defence nor security for either the U.S. or Canada in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor."

• Rather, contends LaRocca, "it was mainly a covert pretext for opening up northwestern Canada's and Alaska's rich natural resources such as oil and gas, minerals and timber on behalf of special entrepreneurial interests."

• Tourist traffic began on the highway almost immediately after the war, even though travellers had to apply for special permits to drive it. In 1947 more than 6,000 people gained permission to drive on it.

• Canada gained control of its section of the highway on April 1, 1946. It paid the United States $120 million for the highway and the airfields, buildings, telephone system and other assets along the route.

• Improvements to the road have been made steadily over the decades since. Rerouting in the Yukon shortened the Canadian section by about 55 kilometres, and the entire highway is now paved.

• As of 2004, about 360,000 people a year travelled on the road, which is now known as the Alaska Highway. It is open year-round.


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