Civil Engineering Almanac – Construction begins on the Alaska Highway

This week in civil engineering history: The first construction equipment and crews arrive to begin work on the Alaskan Highway, March 9, 1942, Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

Owing to military threats to the West Coast shortly after the United States entry into World War ll, construction of the Alaska Highway was hastened after two decades of planning and international cooperation between the United States and Canada. Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the construction in February 1942 and within a month the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began arriving to build the highway.

The first group of soldiers and equipment arrived in Dawson Creek on March 9, and six other regiments followed at strategic locations along the 1,500-mile route from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction, Alaska. Building in both directions from various locations, each regiment would work toward other groups until meeting. Scouts and surveyors stayed approximately 10 miles ahead of the construction teams. Surveyors were followed by teams of bulldozers who would clear the mapped route and then by a team of graders who would level the surface of the roadway.

By June, 10,000 soldiers had been deployed for the undertaking. Construction was completed in October, and the highway was opened to the military in November 1942. The road was originally built as a supply route, although the road ultimately served little of that purpose as most supplies to Alaska during the war were sent by sea. The road was opened to the public in 1948.

During the project, significant experiences were gained in Arctic engineering and construction, particularly in permafrost. The Alaska Highway was recognized by ASCE as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1995.

Reuben Hull, P.E., PMP, M.ASCE, is civil regional manager for LaBella Associates in Albany, New York, and a self-made historian who has penned numerous articles on civil engineering history. An active ASCE member, Hull is a corresponding member and former chair of the History and Heritage Committee, serves as vice president of the Mohawk-Hudson Section, served as president of the New Hampshire Section, 1999-2000, and was named New Hampshire Young Engineer of the Year in 1997.

Follow his daily Civil Engineering Almanac series on Twitter: @ThisDayInCEHist.

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  1. Probably not a lot of environmental impact statements or studies of endangered species to construct a 1500 mile roadway in 8 months through virgin territory crossing an international border. Amazing what you can do under emergency conditions that you can’t do under normal circumstances. Look at the construction of the Big Inch pipeline and all the petrochemical plants constructed along the Gulf Coast during WW2 in a 3 year span that would have taken 20+ years if they were ever completed at all under peacetime conditions.

  2. I drove the highway down from Valdez to San Diego in September of 1954. It still was gravel part of the way except most of the roads in Alaska were paved by then or being relocated and improved I was driving a 1951 Pontiac Catalina with a 15 foot house trailer behind. At one point in Alaska a dozer hauled us through a muddy cut that was under construction.

  3. In 1964 there was a bit of an earthquake in Alaska and, as a UWCE student, I worked for the State Highway Dept. for that summer. The last two months I spent on Kodiak Island (lowered 5.5′ and hit impacted by a tsunamie during the earthquake) doing the engineering, construction management and survey work to build road and bridges that were destroyed to regain land access to the Cape Chiniak Naval/Air Force site. The field work was done under emergency conditions, including fill material acquired by running scrapers on the beach at low tides. I told an inspector that the bridge he was inspecting was out of spec and he asked if I had doubled in the level: I hadn’t and found out he was right. A good boots-on lesson for a young engineer…and, with the long hours, I was able to finish up at the UW with no debt and a UWBSCE in 1965, paving the way for many more adventures in CE and a son with his own CE carreer. I have since been to 12 different locations in Alaska, including up to MP 422 on the Alcan (in BC). Great article….


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