On the Road Again
Travel & Tourism on the Alaska Highway
Even before the outbreak of the Second World War and the American military decision to build a highway to Alaska for defense purposes, the idea that a road north should be built was not a new one. There had been various schemes developed in British Columbia in the 1930s, for example, to open up northern areas of the province and build links with the Yukon and Alaska both for the purposes of industry and tourism.
The continuing development and expansion of the Alaska Highway since it became a Canadian responsibility after the war, has been driven by these dual concerns. What was once a rugged, often precarious journey, is now almost no different than any trip along one of North America’s major highways, although "surviving" the journey is still promoted with an air of romance and great accomplishment more appropriate to the highway pre-1980.
This section of The Road brings together a sampling of souvenir and tourist items with examples of individual records of highway experiences and the "roadside attractions" that evolved along the route of the modern highway. Often these materials, sites, and events represent a direct extension of the military experience, particularly in the case of "The Signpost Forest" at Watson Lake where tourists continue the soldier’s practice of posting distance and hometown signage, as can be seen in one of William E. Griggs’ photographs. In many places along the highway, one can still find former army buildings converted into gas stations, motels, roadside churches and stores.
The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum (represented here by a series of large format images) is both a significant repository of highway history and an artifact in its own right. An extensive collection of objects, buildings, and vehicles, the site is exemplary for the scope of its holdings, the enthusiasm, and density of its presentation and the obvious community commitment to telling its own story in its own way. The collection has been primarily assembled by museum curator Marl Brown, an ex-army mechanic who once ran a café/gas station/motel on the highway.
Joan Watson de Bustin’s series of pencil and watercolour illustrations (now in the collection of the National Archives of Canada) record a very early tourist experience travelling the highway. Produced in 1947, these works record a bus trip along the entire route, documenting a number of sites that no longer exist or, in many cases, are no longer on the highway due to the regular reconstruction and rerouting of the road. As well Fran Boyce Olynyk and Mary Zabolotny McCulloch’s 1947 and 1948 sketching trips recall the impulse of earlier artists to capture the essence of the Canadian north. These works are a unique record of a very personal engagement with the highway and stand as a fascinating counterpoint to the "official" works of the painters H.G. Glyde and A.Y. Jackson and the wartime photo album of Winnifred "Babe" Partington Crawford.