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Yukon River: North to Alaska

War brings a highway to the Yukon

More on the Yukon River:
Yukon River:
Route of the Gold Rush

North to Alaska:
War brings a highway to the Yukon

Bonanza - The quest for Klondike gold

Staking a Claim:
A First Nation's right to the land

Cold Rush:
Stampede up the frozen Chilkoot Trail

Scaling Fish:
Salmon spawners get over a dam

Heal and Purify:
A First Nation recovers from cultural suppression

Spreading the Word:
Yukon storytelling tradition welcomes the world

Losing Track:
The White Pass and Yukon Route

When the United States joined the Allies in the war against Germany and Japan in 1941, American military leaders feared the Japanese might invade Alaska. The remote northern state depended entirely on shipping for its supplies, and ships could be easily attacked by submarines.

The fear was justified. Japanese naval units did land on some remote Alaskan islands and some Japanese submarines reached the west coast of the United States.

The American government rushed to build a secure, inland route to Alaska. In just eight months, they pushed through 2,333 kilometres of dirt road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, in the middle of Alaska.

The American Army took over the White Pass and Yukon Railway and used it to carry bulldozers, trucks, prefabricated bridges, and thousands of soldiers into the Yukon. Whitehorse became the main construction base.

The American Army was racially segregated during the war. Most of the Army units sent to build the road were made up of black soldiers from the Southern United States, commanded by white officers. The biting blackflies of summer and the bitter cold of winter made life miserable for men accustomed to year-round good weather.

First Nations living in Northern Yukon were among the last of North America's aboriginal peoples to maintain a traditional way of life, having little contact with non-aboriginals.

The Alaska Highway brought the First Nations into regular contact with non-Natives, and exposed them to diseases against which they had little immunity. Construction crews over-hunted the game upon which the First Nations depended. The traditional way of life became impossible.

First Nations families had no choice but to move from hunting and fishing territories to settlements along the highway where they could find work and government services.

The Alaska Highway was turned over to Canada after the war and has been constantly improved ever since.

There is plenty of evidence today remaining of the wartime construction. Well-built military barracks have been converted to solid, attractive homes in Whitehorse. Abandoned military trucks and construction equipment are still common along the highway. A prefabricated "Bailey Bridge" is in use linking a Whitehorse city park with an island in the Yukon River.

Today the Alaska Highway remains the only overland route between the "lower 48" states and Alaska. At the same time, the highway is Canada's only road link to the Yukon. Its name alone carries an aura of adventure and the Alaska Highway has become an important tourist route.

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