History of the Alaska Highway (also known as ALCAN)

Constructed during World War II for the purpose of connecting the lower 48 states to Alaska through Canada, this iconic highway has a history almost as long as the road itself. Learning about the highway before you drive on it will enrich your trip to Alaska! Here are some important dates and numbers to help you remember the history of the ALCAN highway construction.

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  • Dec. 7, 1941

    The attack on Pearl Harbor, which sent the United States into World War II, was a direct catalyst for the construction of the Alaska Highway. While a road connecting Alaska to Canada had been discussed for years before the war, the immediate danger posed by a potential attack by Japan pushed the effort to the foreground. The American and Canadian governments recognized the need to increase a military presence along Alaska’s coast and the Aleutian Islands, and since there was no practical way to do it without a road, highway construction began.

  • March 8, 1942

    Construction on the Alaska Highway, also known as ALCAN, began on March 8, 1942. The highway’s 75th anniversary is in 2017.

  • Five routes

    Four original routes were planned out and rejected for various reasons, including being too close to the coast and leaving the route vulnerable to attack, or being too close to mountains and leaving it vulnerable to snow and floods. The fifth and final route was chosen to link the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route, from which ultimately the U.S. launched aircraft to support the Soviet Union’s struggle against Germany. But time was running out, meaning there wasn’t time to properly study the route before construction began. Engineers had to work out the kinks as they went along.

  • Seven regiments

    Rather than starting from Point A and finishing at Point B, seven regimentsof U.S. Army engineers were stationed at various points along the highway to build portions of it simultaneously. The U.S. had an aggressive timeline for completing the highway – it needed to be completed before winter of the same year. Surveyors would work about ten miles ahead of road crews, mapping out obstacles and dealing with permafrost and tricky swampland by laying logs and covering it with fill, a time-consuming process called “corduroying.”

  • 11,000 troops

    Most of the U.S. Army’s engineers were already engaged in projects elsewhere in the world, and the government found itself needing more manpower to build the highway. The military sent more than 10,000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers soldiers to build the road. All of the soldiers worked in extremely harsh conditions, including below-freezing temperatures, mosquito infestations, snow and ice, and challenging terrain. About a third of these engineers were black soldiers who worked in segregated units and were often left without proper equipment. An iconic photograph shows a black Army engineer and white Army engineer shaking hands after their regiments connected the final portion of the highway – a symbolic and significant demonstration of equal abilities that helped lead to desegregation of the military in 1948.

  • June 3, 1942

    The military base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands was bombed by the Japanese, adding an extra measure of urgency to the completion of the highway. But there was still a lot of work left to do – only about 360 miles of the road had been completed by then.

  • Oct. 25, 1942

    The last section of the ALCAN highway, which starts in Dawson Creek, British Columbia and ends in Delta Junction, Alaska, about an hour-and-a-half drive southeast of Fairbanks, was finished on this date. The highway created a functional passage to Alaska and a key strategic supply corridor for the military. It was still a rough ride, though – only military vehicles could manage the passage until 1943.

  • 1948

    The highway was opened to the public in 1948, opening up a new route for adventurous travelers seeking an overland route to Alaska. It remained mostly gravel at this point, though, so it was considered a tough trip.

  • 1992

    Portions of the 1,387-mile highway remained unpaved until 1992. It’s still a highway for intrepid travelers, who can still expect rough sections. The highway is remote, subject to extreme weather, and drivers may still encounter gravelly sections where repairs are being made (or needed).