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The Road at War’s End

The Road at War’s End

Main Street, 1942 The Alaska Highway at war’s end was a rough, unfinished and difficult road. The Canadian government seriously considered abandoning it, but realized that the American protests about such an action would be hard to ignore. Until the late 1940s, traffic operated in convoys along the highway and checkpoints kept track of individual car and truck movements along the route.  Paul Seddicum, US Consul in Edmonton, said of the highway in 1947, “I may be prejudiced but I feel strongly that there is no attraction connected with the Highway great enough to make the discomfort and possible danger worth the effort.”1 Improvements came slowly, as few business people saw much promise along the little used highway. A writer observed in 1947, “The Alaska Highway is the most publicized and the least used road in the entire world.”2 The challenge of maintaining the Alaska Highway fell to the Canadian Department of National Defense, ostensibly as a training exercise but more accurately as a means of maintaining and improving as cheaply as possible a dusty gravel road that passed through hundreds of miles of thinly populated sub-Arctic terrain.

The passage of time has put the Alaska Highway project in a different light. The Truman Commission in the United States cast a skeptical eye on the Northwest Defense Projects and found ample evidence of hasty planning, financial waste, and shoddy building, particularly on the CANOL pipeline. Canadians in the region remembered the antics of some of the Americans and recalled that most in the region were happy to see them go. And as residents in the region lived with the highway, unfinished, often poorly located, and difficult to maintain, they often silently cursed the forces that imposed the road on the Canadian Northwest. They remembered, too, the destruction of highway-related property that attended the end of the war, as the Army realized that it was cheaper to throw out or destroy surplus goods than to move them to the Lower 48 states, a legacy which lingered long in regional memory.

But hindsight often provides blinkers along with 20:20 vision. The uncertainty and fear of 1941–1942 has now largely been forgotten. The fact that no road construction project of this magnitude had ever been undertaken in a sub-Arctic setting slipped away. Charles Camsell, a highly regarded northerner writing in 1943, reminded Canadians that the project represented the very best in continental cooperation: “Herein the United States and Canada have been carrying out a great experiment. Let us all hope it will meet with a success which will recommend it to the policy-makers of the world.” The enormous continent-wide relief that greeted the news that the Americans had breached the Northwest wilderness to protect against invasion has faded into the mists of time. As the years passed, there has been recognition of the profound dislocations caused to Aboriginal peoples and communities and of the significant environmental damage caused by the construction activity. And northerners, forgetting a pre-World War II world of riverboats and seasonal travel, remained frustrated by the poor condition of the highway, made famous for its summer dust, frequent washouts, and rough conditions, though it is now almost entirely paved and substantially relocated and improved.

1 Ken Coates, North to Alaska, p. 191.

2 Coates and Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II, p. 223.The comment appeared in the Toronto Star Weekly.

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