Posted by: Ed Darrell | November 20, 2011

November 20, 1942 — the Alaska Highway opened

Widening the Alcan Highway, 1942 - Wikipedia image from Library of Congress

Widening the Alcan Highway, 1942 - Wikipedia image from Library of Congress

Thinking of Alaska today — a good day to ponder the Last Frontier.

Alaskan Frontier? It’s been 52 years since Alaska became a state. My students’ grandparents may remember the time, but they don’t. Alaska has not even been in the news much in the lifetimes of current high school students. Construction on the Alaska Pipeline finished in 1977; the Exxon-Valdez Disaster rocked us in March 1989. Juniors in a Texas U.S. history class were born circa 1994. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s nomination for vice president in 2008 prompted a bit of interest in people in Alaska, but not much more, for our students. The earlier “bridge to nowhere” issue was just one more Washington, D.C. scandal to them. Alaska holds no thrall over most U.S. high school students today.

In autumn, especially in Texas where winters mildly bluster most of the time, my thoughts turn to colder climes and earlier times. I think of Alaska “back then.”

Much to study, much to know. Alaska winds through American history in odd, mostly ignored ways — Alaska was the gateway to the Americas for those migrants who came in through Beringia in the Upper Paleolithic period, 12,000 years and longer ago; for nearly 150 years Alaska was the Russian Czar’s colonial presence in America, based partly on the exploration of the area by Vitus Bering, after whom both the Bering Sea and Bering Strait take their names (but just try to find that in the Texas text books); the U.S.-Russian treaty of 1824 rarely gets a mention anywhere, though it is the source of the line drawn at 54° 40′ North latitude which gave specificity to the jingo-ist slogan, “Fifty-four forty or fight!” The administration of President James K. Polk resolved that crisis — with Britain — at 49° North, but Polk’s popularity maintained. Alaska became Seward’s Folly in 1867 when Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, for about $7 million. This is one more indication of the power and genius in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, that such deals could occur even two years after Lincoln’s death (see the story in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book).

Then there were the gold rushes, the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99, and the Nome Gold Rush of 1899-1909.

In World War II Japan attacked and occupied two islands in the Aleutian chain; Alaska became a point of defense against Japanese attacks on the mainland. In partnership with Canada, the AlCan Highway took form to supply troops and troop supplies to Alaska — now called the Alaska Highway.

November 20, 1942, marked the formal opening of the road, the Alaska Highway. Even today, it’s not a paved road. Those who drive the road need to be prepared for hundreds of miles of graded, but unpaved road, with all the hazards such driving should imply but most Americans are wholly unfamiliar with.

The Alaskan Frontier

Mt. McKinley
Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range, Mt. McKinley National Park, Alaska, 1958.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Mt McKinley and the Alaska Range panoramic, LOC - 6a00286r

(click the thumbnail image for a larger version; even larger versions available at Library of Congress American Memory site)

On November 20, 1942, U.S. Army engineers, working closely with partners in U.S. civilian agencies and Canada officially opened the Alaska Highway. This overland military supply route, originally known as the Alcan Highway, passed through the Yukon, running from the prairies of British Columbia to the Territory of Alaska. The roadway was over 1,500-miles long and connected Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks, Alaska. It provided Americans and Canadians on the Pacific coast new avenues for the transportation of goods, and an increased sense of security after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and escalating hostility in the Pacific. This first phase of construction was completed in less than eight months.

In the 1780s, Russian fur traders became the first European settlers of the land across the Bering Strait from Siberia. Russian influence on native Alaskans is explored in the Library of Congress exhibition In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures. The Library’s collaborative digital project with Russian libraries, Meeting Of Frontiers: Siberia, Alaska, and the American West, explores the comparative history of the Russian expansion across Siberia to the Russian Far East and the Pacific, the American expansion westward, and the meeting of the Russian-America frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

The Russian-American Company administered Alaska from 1799 until 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska for the United States. Congress established The Territory of Alaska in 1912, prompted by the significant gold discoveries of the 1880s and 1890s.

Building near the base of a mountain.
Independence Mine, Palmer Vicinity, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska
Jet Lowe, photographer, May 1981.
Built in America: Historic Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present

There is a wealth of material on Alaska in American Memory collections.

More sources:

1895 Rand McNally map of Alaska - Wikipedia

1895 Rand McNally map of Alaska - Wikipedia image

Map of the Alaska Highway, from Milepost.com

Map of the Alaska Highway, from Milepost.com


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