Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Alaska Road Commission - 55 years helping develop Alaska

An old horse-drawn grader (shown in the drawing) sits at the Alaska Department of Transportation offices on Peger Road in Fairbanks. Built by Western Wheeled Scraper in Aurora, Illinois, it is probably one of the earliest graders still in existence in Alaska, dating from about 1900. (The design was patented in 1898.)  It’s an amazing machine, and incorporates most of the movements standard on modern motorized graders. Of course, everything on the grader was operated by hand and it must have taken a burly operator.

It was utilized by the Alaska Road Commission (ARC), the entity responsible for trail and road construction throughout Alaska from 1905 to 1960. Prior to the ARC’s creation, the federal government, through several laws, had tried building roads in the territory.  Each attempt proved inadequate, in part because the government did not take an active role or provide direct funding.

The Nelson Act of 1905 changed that with the establishment of the “Board of Road Commissioners for Alaska” (more commonly called the Alaska Road Commission). The ARC, under the authority of the War Department, was tasked with constructing and maintaining trails and roads in the territory, and was overseen (at least in its early years) by a board of three Army officers. Its first chairman was Brigadier General Wilds P. Richardson.  The commission was funded through a combination of fees and direct appropriations from Congress.

The ARC began work immediately--flagging winter trails, upgrading and blazing new trails, and constructing roads. The early years were arduous, with the ARC having to deal with permafrost, rugged terrain, and seasonally swollen streams. In permafrost areas, corduroy roads were constructed (logs were laid perpendicular to the roadway and covered by gravel).  Bridge building was avoided by fording small streams and using ferries to cross major rivers (such as the Tanana at Big Delta). One of its earliest projects was upgrading the Valdez-Fairbanks trail to a wagon road (completed by 1910).

In 1932 the ARC was transferred to the Department of the Interior. By that time it had constructed over 1,000 miles of roads, and over 4,000 miles of trails.  The Bureau of Public Roads, which eventually became the Federal Highway Administration, assumed responsibility for the ARC in 1956--an important milestone since it could now receive federal funds under the Federal Aid Highway Act. In 1960 the ARC was transferred to the new State of Alaska, becoming the Alaska State Highway Department.

Many of Alaska’s historic highways are named for Road Commission officers instrumental in their construction: the Richardson for Brigadier General Wilds Richardson, the Steese for Colonel James Steese, the Elliott for Major Malcolm Elliott, the Edgerton for Major General Glen Edgerton, and the Taylor for ARC president Ike Taylor.

When the State assumed the ARC’s responsibilities, it took over the maintenance of about 3,000 miles of roads, most constructed by the commission.  Although the ARC is gone, its equipment and buildings can still be seen at places such as Big Delta State Historical Park, or scattered along roadsides across the state.