Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands and Alaskans feared what was next. The decision was made to defend Alaska from the land not just the sea by opening a road to Fairbanks. The Canadian Railroad came as far northwest as Dawson Creek, so the military decided to build a 1,500 mile road post haste through the vast untamed wilderness. This road would provide a secure land transportation link to transfer military goods, men and materials from the lower 48 to Alaska. Watson Creek, a community of about 600 people, was suddenly invaded by 10,000 troops and the materials needed to support them.
The military men sent here had no idea what they were in for. Many were from the southern US unused to extreme cold and had no training in how to operate heavy machinery. The land had not been surveyed and the best route through the Rockies had not been determined as the men started working. A sizable group of African American soldiers impressed every one with their can-do attitude and desire to learn and achieve. Of course, at that time these men suffered from low expectations. As the bulldozers advanced they encountered muskeg, a watery clay mixture that was firm when frozen, but created watery holes sometimes thirty feet deep when wet. The men had to cut down trees by hand and lay them side by side over the musket to insulate it from thawing and provide a floating platform if it did. Their living conditions war deplorable. In early spring and late fall temperatures can fall to 70º below and in the summer mosquito infestations were insidious. The men ate Spam and canned rations, some of them left over from World War I. They tried to trade their rations with local Indians for fish. The Indians didn't like the military rations any better than the road builders did.
In a little over eight months of intense construction the Alaska Highway was complete. At mile 1061 the men building the road from Watson Creek west met the men building road east from Fairbanks. The road included 133 major bridges and 3000 culverts. Although the road was never used for the military purposes it was built for, it opened up northern Canada and Alaska for settlement and commerce. For the last sixty years road crews work every summer, straightening and improving the road. We will be thinking about the ordeal the original road builders endured as we start along their highway tomorrow.