Friday, March 23, 2012

Relics of Alaska Highway construction rest in Delta Junction

Early 1940s Osgood 200 face shovel at Delta Junction
Some people think that 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 bank of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks used to proclaim Fairbanks as the end of the Alaska Highway, but that signpost was moved to Delta Junction in about 1991.)

Constructed in1942 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 perceived Japanese threat in the Northern Pacific and Alaska spurred development, though.  President Roosevelt approved the project on February 11, 1942, and work began later that spring.

In order to speed construction, the project was begun at multiple locations along the proposed route.  Construction crews began working north from Dawson Creek in 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 using the pioneer road for access. 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 6x6 cargo truck, and several other vehicles. (The Osgood excavator is shown in the drawing.) Much of the equipment was donated by local residents.

When I talked with Jeff McNabb, a Delta resident who was involved with acquiring and moving the equipment, he said 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 Alcan history.


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