Photo by Chris Shervey.
With the entirety of the Alaska Highway now paved, it may no longer prove necessary to traverse it in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but a group of Jeep owners plans to do just that anyway later this year to celebrate the highway’s 75th anniversary.
First proposed around 1930 as a means of spurring economic development in the territory of Alaska, the concept of a highway connecting the continental United States with Alaska got sidelined over the next decade or so due largely to the Depression and to Canadian officials’ dismissal of the idea. Only after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and the realization among American officials that Japan had a military base just 750 miles from the Aleutian islands did American and Canadian officials come to an agreement on building a highway to Alaska across Canada.
With the aim of getting military resources – including lend-lease aircraft destined ultimately for the Soviet Union’s fight against Germany – to Alaska quickly, the route of the Alaska Highway moved inland from the previously proposed coastal road to one that linked the airstrips of the Northwest Staging Route. Thus, it would begin in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the northern terminus of of the Northern Alberta Railways, and travel northwest through Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory to Delta Junction, Alaska.
Approved in February 1942, construction of the Alaska Highway began March 8 using seven regiments of the Army Corps of Engineers, three of which were made up of black engineers under the then-segregated armed forces. Rather than work from one end to the other, the engineers worked on multiple segments at once, battling mud, muskeg, permafrost, extreme temperatures, and mosquitoes along the way.
Aided in no small part by thousands of GM CCKW and Studebaker US6 trucks, the Army engineers built 1,500 miles of highway – rudimentary, but passable – by that October, completing a task some described as second in monumental effort to the construction of the Panama Canal. In part, the construction of the Alaska Highway led the Japanese to abandon the Aleutians in July 1943; also in part, the effort of the black regiments of engineers on the highway’s construction led to the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948.
While civil road engineers, trusted with maintaining the highway since the end of World War II, have since modernized the highway and straightened much of the route – in the process eliminating hundreds of miles of the highway – some portions of the highway, which was opened to the public in 1948, remained unpaved until the 1980s. Even today, with the route passable pretty much year-round, kicked-up gravel and dirt-covered cars remain a reality for travelers on the highway.
Image courtesy Alaska or Rust.
The participants of this year’s Alaska or Rust 75th anniversary Jeep convoy on the Alaska Highway, however, are betting on rough conditions. “If you are concerned about nicks in your paint or windshield, then you might want to reconsider the trip,” the organizers write on their site. “We also recommend eye-wear and/or full motorcycle helmets for those driving in open jeeps.”
Initiated by eWillys founder David Eilers, the Alaska or Rust convoy will consist of three different convoys from different parts of the United States converging on Dawson Creek, then proceeding along the highway to Fairbanks, Alaska. As Eilers writes:
It will not be a full-fledged, high-speed, air-conditioned affair often seen along the thousand-plus mile corridor these days. Instead, we’ll be driving old jeeps, our beloved vintage jeeps, some made in the 1940s, some in the 1950s, and a few from the 1960s. Our speeds may be slow (limited to 50 mph), but our hearts are big and our intents pure.
The Alaska or Rust convoy will take place in July. For more information, visit AlaskaorRust.com.