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Alaska Highway

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Projects > Roads and Railways
Mile 1422 - End of the Alaska Highway
The Alaska Highway, also known as the Alcan (Alaska-Canadian) Highway, is the only land route to the State of Alaska. The highway begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and extends to Delta Junction, Alaska. Originally, the highway spanned 1,422 miles (2,288 km), but improvement projects have shortened it considerably. Today, the highway is 1,390 miles (2,237 km) long.[1]

Since its unrestricted opening in February 1948, this road has become an indispensable fixture to thousands of vehicles every year, traveling both for business and pleasure. Its construction in 1942, however, was originally intended completely for military purposes.[2]

Contents

[edit] Construction History

[edit] A Defense Strategy

The idea of the Alaska Highway was conceived as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After the bombing, army officials realized that a defense strategy was needed to protect Alaska in the midst of World War II. As its Aleutian Islands were situated a mere 750 miles (1,207 km) away from a Japanese base, the U.S. Army felt that Alaska was particularly vulnerable. At the time, air travel to Alaska was not preferable, as planes were exposed to bad weather, untrained pilots, and a lack of navigation aids. As a result, many planes never made it to the northern state. In addition, travel by water was not feasible, as ocean routes were under attack. A decision was made to construct a highway that could be used as a military supply line.

[edit] Beginning Construction

At the beginning of 1942, 11,000 men from the U.S. Army were hired by the U.S. Public Roads Administration to carry out the task of building the road through uncharted wilderness in less than a year.[3]

To speed up the process, construction of the highway was divided into sections with the intention of connecting them later. Work was begun in several different areas at once: Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Whitehorse, Carcross, and Big Delta.

Although the troops didn’t know a viable route could be built through the area, construction officially began on April 11, 1942—the temperature was 30 to 40 degrees below zero.[4] Frequently, workers would have to clear trees by hand, as the arrival of their equipment was often delayed. When the equipment became available, inexperienced soldiers and engineers would use crawler tractors and cranes to clear the dense forest area in preparation for the highway.

[edit] The Issue of Muskeg

With the arrival of spring rains and thawing, miles of mud were created. By June, only 95 miles (153 km) of road were completed.[5] In addition, crews soon realized that long stretches of the proposed construction route were covered in swamps and bogs of decayed vegetation known as muskeg. Troops attempted to clear shallow areas of muskeg using crawler tractors and dynamite. As deeper muskeg could sink machinery, a new plan was agreed upon: the troops would build around the muskeg. This method resulted in a winding, chaotic-looking route.

Certain expanses of muskeg couldn’t be avoided, so troops had to be more creative. They felled trees and laid them along the roadway, laying logs across them. They then dispersed road fill on top of the logs. This process was known as “corduroying.” Avoiding the muskeg and employing the corduroying process slowed the progress of the troops, and less than 400 miles (644 km) of road were completed by the end of June,[6] leaving the crew with about four months before winter to build 1,100 miles (1,770 km) of road.

[edit] Further Progress

Around this time, the troops situation began to change, as an air survey team was able to find a buildable route through the Rockies. In addition, the temperature started to rise, drying the ground and enabling the workers to increase the speed of construction. Significant progress was made in July. As the summer months brought 24-hour daylight, crews worked non-stop in 12-hour shifts. By the end of this month, more than 400 miles (644 km) of road were built.[7]

The troops’ strategy for building was to have a lead crawler tractor, followed by two others, to remove trees and create a 60- to 90-foot (18- to 27.4-m) clearing. Behind the dozers, the rest of the regiment widened, straightened, and graded the road. Logs were used to build bridges along the highway. Troops cleared vegetation from the middle of the path, moved it to the sides, and pushed dirt into the middle to create ditches on either side of the road, which was the approximate width of two trucks.

[edit] Building on Permafrost

As troops began to encounter permafrost, construction of the Alaska Highway was stalled with only 460 miles (740 km) to go. When the vegetation was removed from the terrain, permafrost quickly warmed up and thawed, changing from a hard substance to mud. Trucks began to get stuck in the mud, and construction of the northern portion of the road was halted.

Within six weeks, engineers had devised a plan to deal with the melting permafrost. Workers began cutting down surrounding trees by hand to immediately cover the cleared land and insulate the ground with “corduroy.” More insulation, such as logs and branches, was added. This layer was flattened by crawler tractors before being covered with truckloads of dirt and grave. Other dozers, graders, and rollers flattened the road. Although the plan worked, construction was reduced to only one mile per day.[8]

[edit] Closing the Gap

Temperatures in October 1942 were some of the coldest on record. With only 166 miles (267 km) left, equipment started to break, and trucks froze. Nevertheless, on October 25 at 4 p.m., the last gap of the highway was closed.[9] With that, the first overland route from the continental United States to Alaska was complete.

[edit] Equipment Used

[edit] Refurbishment/Recent Projects/Renovations

[edit] The Shakwak Project

As late as 1957, the Alaska Highway was still a treacherous route, with Chevrolet utilizing it to test and promote the durability of its trucks.[10] Today, the highway remains less-than-perfect, with poor shoulders, flying debris, frost, dust, and mud.[11]

Many improvement projects have been carried out over the years to ameliorate the condition of the Alaska Highway, primarily in the southern regions. One significant northern reconstruction endeavor was the Shakwak Project, agreed upon by the United States and Canada in 1977.[12] The project’s intention was to focus on the reparation of 311 miles (500 km) of the highway, including the Haines Road portion. The goal is to rebuild the highway into a modern two-lane road with a standard speed of 62 miles (100 km) per hour.[13]

A challenging factor during this lengthy project has been permafrost. To avoid the liquefaction of the soil on which the road is being reconstructed, much of the project has been carried out in the winter months while the ground is frozen. Introducing a system to deal with permafrost has been a major motivating issue during the project, and many methods have been put in place to cope with this construction challenge.

[edit] References

  1. Official Milepost website: Driving facts. The Milepost, 2008-09-25.
  2. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  3. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  4. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  5. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  6. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  7. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  8. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  9. Building the Alaska Highway DVD (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2005).
  10. Robinson, Jon G. The Big Book of Car Culture: The Armchair Guide to Automotive Americana. MBI Publishing Company: 2005.
  11. Robinson, Jon G. The Big Book of Car Culture: The Armchair Guide to Automotive Americana. MBI Publishing Company: 2005.
  12. Shakwak Highway Reconstruction Project. Yukon, 2008-09-25.
  13. Shakwak Highway Reconstruction Project. Yukon, 2008-09-25.

[edit] External Links