This Week in History


Alaska Highway: A Major Achievement

For the week of Monday November 17, 2003

On November 20, 1942, the Alaska Highway was officially opened on Soldier’s Summit at Kluane Lake in the Yukon. This great accomplishment is the result of a joint Canada‑U.S. project for the economic development and defence of North America.

RCMP line up for the opening ceremony of the Alaska Highway at Soldier's Summit, Kluane Lake on November 20, 1942
© Library and Archives Canada / C-080775

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, which led the United States into the Second World War. Following this attack, North Americans feared a Japanese invasion through Alaska. An urgent need arose for ground access between British Columbia and Alaska in order to transport supplies and equipment to American bases in the north to counter this threat. The Americans asked the Government of Canada for permission to build a supply route on its territory. The Canadian government agreed immediately because of the obligations created by the war.

In March 1942, many Canadian and American servicemen and civilians worked together to build the highway. The men ran into a number of obstacles during this large-scale operation through  forests, over mountains and across rivers. While the engineers developed strategies to overcome these problems, the servicemen and civilians cleared the land and erected bridges. But it was thanks to the Aboriginal people of the region, who served as guides, that the project could be completed after only eight months of work. A large section of the highway actually follows the trails used by Aboriginal people. This ground route, named the Alaska Highway, extends 2,451 km from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Construction of the Alaska Highway
© Glenbow Archives Photographs / NA-2819-1

Until the end of the war, the highway, funded by the United States, was used to provide weapons and ammunition to American soldiers posted in Alaska in case of a Japanese attack. Fortunately this never occurred. The section of highway located on Canadian soil was transferred to Canada in April 1946. The following year, the highway was opened to the public and became a major tourist attraction. This event stimulated the development of a regional transportation network that has fostered industrial and economic growth. The North emerged from its isolation with this link to British Columbia and Yukon.

The Alaska Highway has been designated a national historic event and a plaque was erected on Soldiers Summit in Yukon in 1992.

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