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Locating the New Highway

Locating the New Highway

The New Highway and Resources Map Series No. 10 No one knew precisely where to locate the new highway. The North West Mounted Police had tried to chart a route from Edmonton to the Klondike in the late 1890s, only to find that the project was unrealistic. In the 1930s, “Duff” Pattullo, Premier of British Columbia, promoted the idea of a highway to Alaska as a project for men on relief and as a means of tapping the potential of the far North. Although the Canadian government was not overly enthusiastic, they did participate in the Alaska International Highway Commission, established to review options for the construction of a highway to Alaska. During the preparations for that project—which received support from President Roosevelt and which was eventually vetoed by Canada’s ever-cautious Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King—Whitehorse, Yukon, was identified as the focal point for this plan. The community provided access to rail, river, and air transportation and would clearly be key to construction activity in the region. Further north, the residents of Dawson City, centre of the Klondike Gold Rush, worried that these plans would cut them off from the highway, but a strong consensus emerged around using Whitehorse as the construction centre. The US Military was opposed to the pre-war project, however, with Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, declaring in 1940 that “It is the opinion of the War Department that the value of the proposed highway as a defense measure is negligible.”1

Two routes were identified for the proposed highway. Route A, recommended by the Alaska International Highway Commission, headed north from Hazelton in the British Columbia interior and ran near the coast, through beautiful but rugged mountain passes; this route had the advantage of running fairly close to Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Route B, deemed the more practicable and economically useful and supported by the Canadian report on the highway plan, connected Prince George, British Columbia and Dawson City in the Yukon, providing a manageable highway route through the mineral-rich Tintina Trench.  Most observers believed that the previously surveyed Route B would carry the day, for it had the support of the governments of British Columbia and Washington State and appeared to be the most logical and cost-effective means of proceeding.

Proponents of the British Columbia route to Alaska had not figured on a strange convergence of interests on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. Also commencing in the 1930s, municipal politicians from North Dakota to Alberta organized in support of a prairie highway option.  The promoters eventually organized themselves as the United States-Canada-Alaska Prairie Highway Association. They believed that a highway connection from the American Midwest to Alaska would prove to be a profitable business corridor and lobbied hard, though unsuccessfully, for American and Canadian support for their project. When the US government began planning in earnest for the highway to Alaska after the attack on Pearl Harbor, defenders of the prairie highway route, led by Halvor Halvorson, President of the USCAPHA, headed to Washington, putting pressure on American authorities to build the road northward from Edmonton, Alberta. As they stated in 1941, their route “will be found shorter, cheaper, easily constructed, easily maintained, and of a great commercial value during and after the war in a territory least accessible to enemy attack, and accessible to the greatest number of jurisdictions with the highway connection to all the neighboring states and provinces.”2 They pointed to the existing road grid in the American Midwest and the Canadian prairies, omitting the fact that these roads were mostly in bad shape. Promoters of the prairie route had one huge advantage, however. The newly constructed portions of this route would run along the path of the Northwest Staging Route, which Route B in British Columbia intersected only once, thus doubling the military justification for the highway: serving as a supply route to Alaska and supporting the vital airfields through the northwest. Having the airfields nearby would also make the highway easier to build.

Supporters of the Prairie Highway route carried the day, despite vigorous attacks by boosters from Washington State. The recommendations of the earlier investigative committees were overruled, and the US government decided to construct the highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the railhead in the Peace River district, to Delta Junction, just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Very little was known of this route, for it traversed an area that had attracted scant attention from miners and settlers over the previous half century. Small portions of the road—from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson and Whitehorse to Kluane Lake—had been developed as rough supply trails. Much of the rest passed through poorly mapped mountain ranges and rugged terrain that would test the mettle of the men and equipment dispatched to build the road. Proponents of the British Columbia routes to Alaska were shocked by the decision to build to the northwest from Alberta, but war-time patriotism made it unpatriotic to protest. They knew that the location of the highway represented a missed opportunity for the Pacific Northwest, but also knew that there was nothing to be done about it.

1 Coates and Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II, p. 26.

2 Ibid., pp. 28-29.

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