Critics of the project, including some of the workers involved at the time, saw the “opening” celebrations as a shameless propaganda exercise. Although a convoy did following the pioneer road through to Fairbanks, the route was not close to being a functioning highway, and remained subject to regular washouts and other closures. Drivers seeking to move vehicles along the frontier road encountered steep grades, slick and deep mud after rains, blinding dust in the summer heat, and poorly sited switchbacks. Wooden bridges—many of them lost in a summer storm in 1943—were gradually replaced with permanent steel bridges, but even these were few in number. Road maintenance was minimal at best during the war, and such basic protections as guardrails were rarely seen.
The “invasion” of the Canadian Northwest was on a scale not experienced since the Klondike Gold Rush. Between April 1942 and May 1943, the United States sent over 11,000 troops to work on highway construction; they were followed by an even larger and more diverse group of civilian contractors. The US Army brought over 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment with them, swamping the region with an awe-inspiring display of American wealth and industrial might. Several Black units, including the 93rd Engineers and the 97th Engineers, worked on the northern half of the highway. Black troops, following discriminatory rules which governed their participation in the war in general, operated under markedly different conditions than their White counterparts. They were not permitted Black officers and were kept away from towns and villages in the region. Many of the troops complained that they got fewer and poorer supplies than White units did. The civilians who followed were even more numerous, with large numbers of Canadians joining American workers in the region. The Public Roads Administration had over 1,800 of their own employees, who managed the civilian contractors assigned to various sections of the highway. The civilian contractors brought in over 14,000 workers, many of whom tolerated the mosquitoes, dirt, and perpetual summer sun for only a few weeks before heading back south, exercising an option that the soldier-workers never had during the construction period.
The Canadian Northwest and Alaska were transformed by the construction activity. The arrival of tens of thousands of construction workers into an area with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants was, to say the least, dramatic (traumatic is not “the least”). Whitehorse, a sleepy, seasonal transportation centre of a few hundred, saw its population soar to over 10,000, most living in tent camps on the escarpment over the town. Dawson Creek, the railhead in the Peace River County in northeastern British Columbia, was swamped by military and civilian construction personnel. The community suffered serious damage when an explosion in 1943 destroyed several blocks of the downtown, but the commercial district was quickly rebuilt and on a more impressive scale. Fort St. John had trouble coping with all of the construction activity, drawing unflattering portraits from visitors; a writer with National Geographic described the town in 1943:
Fort St. John was the most dismal little settlement I had ever seen. The one street, lined by dilapidated and unpainted frame buildings, was a slough of mud which had the consistency of axle grease. There were no sidewalks, and the floors of all public buildings were nearly as deep in mud as the street.1
Knox McCusker was a little kinder, saying of the town:
At Fort St. John, in our absence, everything had changed—from a one-restaurant town where the proprietor was his own best customer—the place supported seven eating places unable to handle the business. Sleeping places were almost impossible to get with parking spaces in the feed barn loft selling at $1.00 a night. The neighbour’s field was an army camp. His hogs wore a bilious look presumably from imbibing too freely of army swill.2
Edmonton, Alberta prospered during the construction boom. Although not along the highway, the city was the supply and management centre for much of the construction activity in the northwest, including the CANOL pipeline project. Hundreds of construction workers and soldiers passed through the city each week. As one journalist wrote, “The whole picture is BIG. In unpretentious offices, the requirements of thousands of men are learned. And from these offices, the orders go out and deliveries are arranged. Almost every day, huge convoys, involving hundreds of trucks, roll out from Edmonton headed north…It’s a hectic, mushroom-growing city, but an optimistic, happy one.”3 Dawson City, capital of the Yukon, in contrast, had been missed by the construction activity and suffered a slow and painful decline, as businesses and workers relocated to Whitehorse.