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The AlCan Highway

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I just finished watching the new PBS documentary about the making of the Alaska Canada Highway. This highway is very close to my heart. The first time I traveled it was in utero, and there were two more times after that.

And there was still a lot I didn’t know about how it was constructed. For example, the reason they are showing this documentary right NOW is because it’s black history month. And the highway was contructed by a lot of black engineers and regiments. It was really the first time the army had allowed black soldiers to be engineers and to operate big machinery.

I sure didn’t know that growing up in Alaska.

Building roads, building methods of transportation is a hugely important task. More than just tanks and trucks, the ability to transfer necessary things from one place to a far place is something we’ve been perfecting at higher and higher rates of success.

First it was trails, then horse and wagon trails. Ships cut distance over the waters, and then sails gave way to engines that could pull gargantuan loads.

Trains ate up the land. Then, because we moved away from the regimented standardization that trains required, we all got cars and built highways.

Let’s not forget planes. And sattelites.

At the moment, packages and information are shooting around the world at incredible rates, unthinkably fast and with a phenomenal success rate.

Did we do that? who did that? Was it us? Maybe it was.

Right now my meandering thoughts are being sent over the internet for anyone in the world to read. I live in America, where I am not censored, so those thoughts can flow and fly to anywhere in the world unchecked.

I was talking with Chris about how the Alcan highway was built, and I called out all the problems they were going to encounter before they hit them.

“Maybe the Russians would have known how to build a road over the permafrost,” I said.

But no. The Russians did not build roads. They gave up on the permafrost problem and stuck to planes. Planes flew in the goods for whoever lived far away.

When it was the monarchy, the technology wasn’t even there yet to need the roads built. They started the Siberian railroad, that’s as far as they got. Stuck on the standardization, no surprise.

But the Soviets didn’t avoid roads just because of the permafrost. They had concerns with the idea of allowing people access to get in their cars and just go somewhere. That sort of freedom was a bad idea in their minds. Keep people where there were, where you knew where to find them.

The ability to get around and the ability to get your deas and your stuff around is very powerful.

I am truly grateful for the men who build the Alcan highway. It got me around, that’s for sure.

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  • Excellent post – sounds like the best road trip.

  • Tom Marson

    Yes it was shown on PBS with heavy emphasis on black contributions.

    In fact this was overemphasised 3 of the 7 army units were black. But to follow the documentary it seemed they did most of the work. Also missing was he fact that lots of American civilian road contractors were pressed into service. They were given no mention. Remember these Army Engineer outfits were to a large extent amatures when they started this project. The Civilian contractors were rushed into action along with their heavy equipment (which was actually confiscated to a degree by the Army. They were professional road builders. Don’t we believe they would have made a major contribution? I personally know of one large contractor and I had a Uncle Art Marson (civilian) who was contracted there too. There were thousands more. To bad they didn’t fit into the senario that the TV producers wanted to push—- really rewriting history. TomMarson


    Sounds like a great show, I am sorry that I missed it.

  • Glenda Fleming

    I am very interested in the building of the Alcan Highway,as my Dad was one of the civilians who helped to build it. I have an album of pictures that he took during that time, and would be very interested in contacting others who have a similar interest in this project. I watched the documentary on GBH the other night, and it did not mention the civilians who participated, to a very vast extent, on this project, and I am very interested in hearing from others who were involved. Thanks in advance, to anyone who wishes to write back to me.

  • I don’t watch TV, so didn’t see the Special re: the AlCan highway, but I’m sure it left out the story of my Dad and others like him. He was a civilian who had been rejected for service by the army when he tried to enlist because he had broken his collarbone sometime earlier. So, wanting to serve his country and being a road builder by trade, he signed up to build this all-important highway to connect the terrritory of Alaska to the rest of this country. I was always proud that he had worked so hard for the war effort(he had many photos of that time that he brought back with him.) He was not one of the men who finished the project, because(tho he never said this) I believe he was told he could go home when the army units were brought in. As I said, I didn’t see the Special, but was it mentioned that the army was brought in to finish the job that the civilians had almost completed? And that they were no more welcomed by the civilians than they wanted to be there? They were soldiers, after all, who enlisted to fight the enemy, after all, just like all the WHITE men who enlisted. they didn’t know any more about building roads than you or me. No wonder my father came home from that experience hating black men, when there wasn’t a black person living within a radius of at least 150 miles of us. I NEVER understood that all of my childhood, never until there was a feature story about that highway on NPR for some landmark anniversary of the thing. By then, my father was long dead. I blame the army for that, because they didn’t want to give those black men weapons; god forbid! They might start getting ideas about their self worth.

  • Ryan MacIvor

    Glenda, and anyone else who is interested in the ALasak Highway i would love to hear from you. Specifcally, we are trying to preserve the hisitory, photos and stories of the Alaska Highway if you have pictures, journals etc.. i would love to hear from you.

    Ryan MacIvor
    250 782 4714

  • Clarenda Williams

    I was just told by my mother,that my father was one of the Black Soldiers who work on the Alcan Highway. I have been trying to locate someone who may have pictures. Before I was born my mother said all her photos were lost in a fire. My father is deceased. So there is no one to tell his story. If you can give me some infomation I would be very thankful.

  • Joshua Jay

    Clara Williams

    Just saw your letter of 2005 , and wanted to add some thoughts. I am now 93 years old and spent 15 months with the 341st Engineer Regt. building the Alcan. We started on Charlie Lake(near Ft. St. John) and built out section of the road to Ft.Nelson. This was only what was called a pioneer road amd was finished by civilian construction crews into a passable road after we moved further up toward Alaska. My company(H & S Co.) assigned me the task as regimental P>X> mgr.,a job that I enjoyed immensly. On one of my trips to pick up supplies in Dawson Creek (the rail head) I led a convoy on trucks and some of the trucks carried supplies for the 95th Engr.Rgt., a black regt. One of the trucks suddenly caught fire on our return trip and all of us fled from the burning truck except one private, a small man from the 95th who climbned into the cab of the burning truck, got the fire extingusdher and put out the fire. We all(white G>I>) applauded this man and Wrote a letter to his commanding officer to tell them of his heroic actions. Another time I was on a truck moving a load of PX supplies and we broke down. My driver left me and sent a relief truck that picked me p and towed me and the truck to one of the Black Regiments. I had to spend the night with them and the first sgt. stopped me from joining the chow line and then provided me with a private tent so that i could not mingle with the black G.I.s. I told him that I had no objections to eating or sleeping with his men, but he explained that he and the men would welcome me but that the white officers would not allow it.

    I wish I could show you the book with all the pictures we had published after we left the Highway. hould you ever be in the San Francisco area, [Personal contact info deleted] maybe we can arrange it.

  • Richard Lyon

    My dad served with one of the US Army Corps of Combat Engineer units who built the ALCAN. Afterward his unit was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. As a Baby Boomer growing up with a twin, two older brothers and a little sister, we were constantly becoming a captive audience to our fathers “war Stories”.

    Sadly none of us ever thought to pay close attention to his repetitious tales growing up, let alone record or write down our fathers rich legacy. Regrettably he passed away in 1996 leaving us with just minute fragments of his stories seared into our brains.

    I remember one time in either the second or third grade, having a family member story telling day. The teacher had asked for any children who’s father had served in the military, to tell what he did during his time in service.

    Many of my classmates would either embellish or plain fabricate their fathers military history to gain popularity with their piers. Kids would say things like ” My dad flew a fighter plane and was shot down behind enemy lines, killed a bunch of enemy soldiers before being rescued”, “well my dad commanded 10,000 men and stormed the beaches at Normandy”. Each kids story becoming just a little bit better than the kids before.

    How could I compete with Fighter pilots killing enemy soldiers, brave and dying soldiers? I couldn’t just come right out and say “My dad drove a bulldozer and helped build a dirt road to Alaska” while everyone else’s dad was earning medals and winning the war. I’d be the laughing stock of my whole class!

    I mustered the courage and said, ” My dad told me that his job in the Army was so important, it was strictly classified”. He wasn’t aloud to talk about what he did without first getting permission from the President of The United States.” I left it at that.

    Thinking I just “One Upped” everyone in my class, I felt ten feet tall. Later that day during recess, feeling ashamed I admitted to my teacher that my dad drove a bulldozer building a road to Alaska during the war. He never was near the front lines in battle.

    I’m on the downhill side of fifty with a family of my own. I would like to find out more history of my dad’s Combat Engineer’s unit and what some of the many projects they worked on during their deployment in the Aleutian Islands. Anyone who has had a family member serve in the Pacific Aleutian theater I would appreciate hearing from you. I only know that there were 4 white regiments of the combat engineers that were assigned the construction task of the ALCAN.

    Thank you
    Fourth son of
    Sgt David Glenn Lyon US Army service ID#39-076-948 Feb 1941 Aug 1945
    Richard Lyon
    [personal contact info deleted by comments editor]