Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Tok, Alaska--a community built for the open road

1962 Kenworth truck with Holmes model 750 25-ton wrecker seen in Tok in 2011

Tok, with 1300 residents, is the largest community in the Upper Tanana Valley in Eastern Interior Alaska. Athabascan Indians have lived in the area for generations. At the end of the 1800s a string of villages, including Healy Lake, Mansfield Lake, Tetlin and Old Tetlin were located along the hundred-mile section of the Tanana River nearest the Canadian border.

The Valdez-Eagle Trail (1899-1901) and Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (1900-1904) were built through the area, and the Episcopal Church established a mission at Tanacross (just south of Mansfield Lake) in 1912. A few traders, such as John Hajdukovich, opened stores at some Native villages. Gold discoveries to the north along tributaries of the 40-Mile River, and along rivers such as the Chisana and Chistochina to the south lured prospectors. For the most part, though, people headed for the diggings only passed through the area.

The situation changed dramatically with construction of the Alcan Highway in 1942, and the routing of the highway’s Alaska section down the Tanana Valley. The U.S. government was eager to punch through the 1500-mile-long Alcan in one building season, so construction began in the spring of 1942 at numerous points along the proposed route. Janet Haigh, in her book, The Alaska Highway, a Historic Photographic Journey, points out that responsibility for the segment from Alaska into Canada fell to the U.S. Army’s 97th Engineering Regiment, an all-black unit.

When the 97th landed at Valdez in April of 1942 its first task was just reaching the remote Tanana Valley location where it would begin work on the Alcan. The shortest route for a new road to the Tanana and the U.S./Canadian border started at Slana, 63 road-miles northwest of the Richardson Highway’s Gakona Junction. From Slana north over Mentasta Pass to the Tanana River was about 70 miles.

Soldiers from the 97th widened and improved sections of the Richardson Highway and Gulkana-Slana Road as they worked northward. Finally, in early July, they began cutting a new road through the wilds northwest of Slana, roughly following the path of the almost abandoned Valdez-Eagle Trail. By mid-August the lead party reached a point just south of the Tanana River, a few miles from its confluence with the Tok River. It was there that the yet-to-be constructed Alcan Highway would intersect with the newly-blazed Slana Cutoff (now called the Tok Cutoff).

According to Donna Blasor-Bernhardt’s book, Tok, The Real Story, the 97th established a tent camp and supply depot at the intersection, took a right turn, and started blazing a road towards the Canadian border.  A civilian contractor, Lytle and Green, built the 100-mile section of highway between Delta Junction and Tok while the 97th worked its way east.

In the summer of 1943 the Northern Commercial Company built a store at Tok and the camp began morphing from temporary worker housing to permanent community. A townsite was laid out in 1946, which was also the year that the highway opened to civilian traffic. In 1947, a school was built at Tok and the U.S. Customs established a station there. The Customs station moved to the border 80 miles away in the 1970s, but Tok has remained an important service, supply and transportation center for Eastern Interior Alaska.

Because of the community’s history as a transportation center, I thought the old wrecker pictured in the drawing would be an appropriate subject. It is a 1962 Kenworth truck with a Holmes model 750 25-ton wrecker unit. Owned by Willard Grammont of Willard’s Auto in Tok, it has been cruising Eastern Interior Alaska highways for decades assisting stranded motorists.


  • Conversation with Willard Grammont, long-time Tok resident

  • The Alaska Highway, A Historic Photographic Journey. Janet Haigh. Wolf Creek Books. 2001

  • The Upper Tanana Indians. Robert A. McKennan. Yale University. 1959

  • “Tok Community Profile.” Alaska State Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. 2016

  • Tok: The Real Story. Donna Blazor-Bernhardt. Winter Cabin Productions. 1996

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