The Road Since 1946
Work on the highway continued after 1946. The Canadian Department of National Defense did little more than maintain the road, improving only short sections, in the 18 years that it held responsibility for the Alaska Highway. In 1964, the Government of Canada transferred the Alaska Highway to the Department of Public Works (later Public Works Canada), a move taken in the Northwest as a sign that the road was due for major reconstruction. Political considerations interfered. Although highways are a provincial responsibility, the Government of British Columbia refused to assume responsibility for the provincial portions of the Alaska Highway. And travel north and west of Whitehorse was largely American, reducing the national imperative to upgrade the road.The Americans rebuilt the section from the Alaska-Yukon boundary to Fairbanks, resulting in the odd situation of the last portion of the road being significant better than the first 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometres). The Department of Public Works launched a substantial but piecemeal improvement plan, rebuilding the poorest sections of the highway each year, constructing new bridges, and experimenting with various dust-reducing treatments. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and the United States government agreed to pay most of the cost associated with upgrading the last 200 miles (322 kilometres) of the Canadian section (and the connecting road to Haines, Alaska) in recognition of the fact that this segment served primarily American travellers. By the end of the 1980s, most of the Alaska Highway had been relocated, improved, and paved, ending the dusty, difficult, and uncertain journeys along the “rough road North.”1
The Alaska Highway has never lost its iconic status, for it is one of the most truly remarkable highways in the world. It owes its romance to the circumstances surrounding the original construction, when war-time fears produced a hell-bent-for-leather military project that reached the Alaskan interior in record time. But the highway owes its lasting significance to the majesty of the road and the beauty of the countryside through which it passes. The 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometres) of road passes through some of the most beautiful country in the world, crisscrossed by powerful rivers, dotted with pristine lakes, and framed by some of the highest mountains on the continent. Each year, tens of thousands of travellers still head north, though many more Americans than Canadians, drawn by the remarkable scenery and by recollections of the continent’s most memorable Second World War construction project.
1 The story of Public Works Canada’s involvement is recounted in Ken Coates, “The Civilian Highway,” in Ken Coates, The Alaska Highway.