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Surveying the Route

Surveying the Route

Edmonton Journal, 1942 Once the decision had been made, the US Army Corps of Engineers moved instantly into action. The task of leading the highway project fell to Brigadier General William Hoge. He faced a mammoth undertaking: moving men and supplies into the area, surveying the little known route, organizing the construction effort, and doing all of the work on the pioneer road in a single year. Those who met him were impressed with his professionalism. As one said, “My impression was that he had no great personal belief in the usefulness of the project, but he had been given a job to do and he was going to work hard at it until he could get an assignment to active duty overseas.”1

One of Hoge’s first tasks was deciding precisely where the highway would go. Hoge drew heavily on Les Cook, an accomplished northern bush pilot, who helped him and his colleagues identify a route through the largely unmapped mountain ranges of northeastern British Columbia. Cook subsequently died in a fiery plane crash in Whitehorse, but not before leaving a vital legacy in terms of the identification of the construction route. As Hoge said of Cook, “Les Cook was the great one. Les took me every place. He went between mountains… We got lost, but I got to know the country pretty well, and the streams, by this flying back and forth.”2 Hoge established two headquarters: Whitehorse for the northern section of the highway and Fort St. John, British Columbia for the southern portion. He retained command of the northern section and assigned Colonel James O’Connor to take charge of the southern section. Hoge eventually ran into conflict with his superiors, including Lieutenant General Brehon Sommervell, Army Services Forces Commander and a strong advocate for the highway, and Brigadier General Clarence Sturdevant, Assistant Chief of Engineers, over the management of the project and the relationship with the Public Roads Administration. Hoge was relieved of his command in August 1942; Colonel O’Connor took over responsibility for the expanded Northwest Service Command, which managed all of the major Northwest Defense Projects. Hoge went on to a distinguished World War II career as a tank commander, serving during the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

Richardson Highway, 1942 In the late winter of 1942, the Americans sent survey crews into the area to lay out the preliminary road. The plan was simple: a project of this magnitude could not be built from a single construction point; instead, the route was divided into portions. Work started almost immediately from Dawson Creek, pushing north toward Fort Nelson. The Corps of Engineers capitalized on the winter season to send the 35th Engineers regiment directly to Fort Nelson as well, crossing rivers and lakes before spring, and directed them to work northward. They were greeted at Fort Nelson by temperatures in the -30s Fahrenheit (-34°C), and had to wait for two months before conditions permitted full construction activity. Health Twichell described the situation:

The bitter cold and bitter wind combined with the difficulty of the ‘road’ [winter trail to Fort Nelson] to work painful hardships on many men. There were many cases of badly frozen feet since the shoe pac is not a satisfactory piece of footgear when temperatures reach 35 degrees below. Tractor operators were found along the road sitting beside their parked equipment and crying violently so great was the cold3
Camp, Alaska Highway, 1943

Crews sent to Whitehorse started construction in both directions, and Engineers based in Alaska began construction to the south. Additional teams were sent to work out of Teslin, on the British Columbia-Yukon border, and Tok Junction, in Alaska. By dividing the highway project into sections, the Corps multiplied the logistical challenge of equipping and supplying the construction teams but divided the time needed to build the road.

1 The comment was made by A.C. McEachern, a professional engineer. See Ken Coates, North to Alaska, p. 34.

2 Ibid., p. 36.

3 Coates, North to Alaska, p. 83.

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