Yukon River: North to Alaska
War brings a highway to the Yukon
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
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
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