How can we make sense of the Alaska Highway in its 80th year?
“It was the greatest infrastructure project Canada’s North has ever seen, built in record time. The Alaska Highway, starting at Dawson Creek, B.C. and ending in Fairbanks, was planned and paid for by a foreign government to aid in a war that had engulfed the entire world but hadn’t touched the wilderness north of 60.
While the highway has put the Yukon far ahead of its neighbours in accessibility and industrial opportunity today, such towering achievements always cast shadows. The inhabitants of the land saw their world disappear without warning in moments, and the new one bore a heavy cost.”
Excerpted from Paths of Glory, by Tim Edwards.
The Alaska Highway Corridor crosses provincial, territorial, international and cultural boundaries as it winds through northern British Columbia, southern Yukon and into Alaska. Its geography, geology, flora and fauna encompass arable lands at its south end and sub-Arctic conditions in the north. The human footprint in the Corridor is most clearly evident in the highway itself, in its towns and in protected places, such as Kluane National Park and Reserve. A closer look reveals that the Corridor has many stories to tell through less obvious human imprints on the landscape, such as places of importance to First Nations, former trading posts along the waterways, old trails and migratory routes, and relics from the Second World War era.
The Corridor’s centrepiece is the Alaska Highway. Over a distance of almost 2,237 km, it serves residents, tourists, foresters, miners, oil and gas companies and adventure seekers of all stripes. The highway winds its way up five summits, ranging from 975 to 1,280 metres, and crosses many waterways, including the Teslin, Peace, Liard and Yukon rivers. The road is divided into three distinct sections: in British Columbia, it is known as Highway 97; in the Yukon as Highway 1; and in Alaska as Highway 2. It runs through diverse natural eco-regions, from the Peace River Plains through boreal forests and mountain ranges further north.
The Highway itself was a significant feat of engineering and was recognized as an event of national historic significance in 1954, and as an International Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers and Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in 1996.
In May 2022, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE) held its annual conference in Whistler, British Columbia. As part of the conference’s theme of ‘Engineering, Community, Connections’, the CSCE National History Committee took a closer look at some fascinating technical aspects of the construction and history of this highway.
Some of those presentations can be found below, including the keynote address from Dr. Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.