FAIRBANKS – Some people think the Alaska Highway ends in Fairbanks.
However, most residents of Delta Junction will tell you their hometown is the northern terminus of the highway.
A monument on the Chena River bank used to proclaim Fairbanks as the end of the Alaska Highway, but that signpost was moved to Delta Junction in about 1991.
Constructed in 1942 as the Alaska Military Highway, the road quickly became known as the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) Highway. According to “Building the Alcan Highway: America’s Glory Road,” some road crews nicknamed it the “Oilcan Highway” because of all the empty 55-gallon fuel drums scattered along its length. Now, it is officially called the Alaska Highway.
A road linking Alaska with Canada and rest of the U.S. had been discussed for many years.
In 1933, an Alaska musher, Clyde “Slim” Williams drove his sled and dog team from Alaska to Chicago to help promote such a route. When the snow ran out in Washington state, he put wheels on his sled.
The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the perceived Japanese threat in the North Pacific and Alaska spurred development.
President Roosevelt approved the project on Feb. 11, 1942, and work began that spring.
To speed construction, the project began at multiple locations along the route. Construction crews began working north from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, east and west from the Whitehorse area in the Yukon Territory and east from Big Delta (now Delta Junction) in Alaska.
The original plan called for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel to punch through a pioneer road, followed by civilian contractors who would build a standard road. However, it quickly became apparent this was unrealistic, at least in terms of getting the road built in one construction season.
Consequently, civilian contractors worked alongside Army personnel, improving the pioneer road so military convoys could safely use it. By the time the road was competed in November 1942, 11,000 troops and 7,500 civilians had worked on the highway.
A small cache of equipment and vehicles used during highway construction can be seen at Delta Junction. The equipment is located between the Delta Junction Visitor Center and the Sullivan Roadhouse Museum, and includes an Osgood 200 face shovel, Caterpillar D8 bulldozer with Letourneau ripper, Studebaker US6 6×6 cargo truck and several other vehicles. The Osgood excavator is shown in the drawing. Much of the equipment was donated by local residents.
Jeff McNabb, a Delta resident who helped acquire and move the equipment, told me the site itself is another remnant of World War II history. The property was once a transfer point for the CANOL Pipeline, a project to supply fuel for the Alaska Highway and Northern Staging Route (a series of airfields, through which military aircraft were ferried from the U.S. to the Soviet Union.) At Big Delta, a stub line went south to supply fuel to the Big Delta Army Airfield (now Fort Greely).
The Alaska Highway has been straightened and improved over the years. There are just a few spots left where you can see or experience the original road. The equipment at Delta Junction is one of the only places in Alaska where you can still touch a piece of Alaska Highway history.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at http://sketchesofalaska.blogspot.com