On 30th December 1941 the United States Navy reported the presence of Japanese warships in Alaskan waters, a fact which demonstrated the major remaining weakness in the defense position of the Territory. The only railway ran from Fairbanks southward to the ports of Anchorage and Seward (the latter ice-free, but the former ice-bound for half the year). There was no overland route connecting Alaska with the rest of the United States. Apart from air, the only means of communication between the two was by sea, either the open Pacific or the channel among the islands off the British Columbia coast. Neither of these routes was secure from the hazards of submarine or air attack. This last consideration led to the decision to build a military road east of the protective barrier of the Rocky Mountains. Plans for the construction of a great international scenic coastal highway between Seattle and Fairbanks were put off indefinitely. The advocates of the prairie route, who had been active in making representations at both Ottawa and Washington, won out over their rivals, and the Joint Defense Board of the two countries reached a decision as to the general line of the project towards the end of February, 1942.
The strategic need for such a highway and the advisability of building it by way of Edmonton had already been brought up in the Canadian House of Commons on 29th January, 1942. It was a more or less open secret that this would be the route selected, especially as it would roughly parallel on land the commercial airlines already in operation and would be close to the chain of Government airports completed or under construction in both Canada and Alaska.
In the latter part of February the Edmonton Manager of the Canadian Bank of Commerce reported to Head Office that a delegation of United States Army officers had been in the city and were on their way to Dawson Creek in connection with the choice of route. The Bank immediately, through its New York Agents, offered its services at Edmonton, Pouce Coupe, Dawson Creek and White Horse. The Bank had been operating branches for several years in those centres — White Horse (opened in 1900 to serve the transshipment of gold from the Yukon field), Edmonton (1902), Pouce Coupe (1916), and Dawson Creek (1929).
The offer was accepted, and on 6th March 1942, these four branches of The Canadian Bank of Commerce were designated by the United States Treasury as depositories of public moneys. They were given the authority to accept and maintain deposits to the official credit of finance officers of the United States Army. Three days later, a vanguard of the United States Army Corps of Engineers detrained at Dawson Creek, the terminus of the Northern Alberta Railways, to arrange for the establishment of the railhead camp for the thousands of men who were to follow. On the 17th and 18th of March the Canadian and American Governments exchanged notes providing for the construction of the road. The costs were to be borne by the United States, including those of maintenance up to six months after the end of the war, when Canada would assume responsibility for the maintenance of that section within her boundaries. The route was to be from Dawson Creek over the existing dirt road to Fort St. John, thence to Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, White Horse and Fairbanks.
Thus began an undertaking that in times of peace might have taken two or three years to carry out, but under the stress of war was completed in just over eight months. On 20th November 1942, the official opening of the Alaska Highway took place at Kluane Lake in the Yukon, about 150 miles west of White Horse, although the improvement of the constructed road took several more months. The story of the construction of nearly 1,600 miles of highway over muskeg and mountain and across many rivers and streams (including the bridging of the Peace River at Fort St. John) is one that has been often told. It caught the imagination of the public at a time when the menace of Japanese invasion was still real, and recalled in some measure the exploits of the hardy prospectors in the days of the Yukon gold rush.
Hardly had the building of the Highway got under way in the spring of 1942 than a subsidiary project was conceived which, for the engineering difficulties encountered, almost dwarfed the primary undertaking. This was the Canol project, shrouded for more than a year in a cloak of secrecy. It entailed the surveying of a route across a mountainous wilderness for a pipeline from the oil wells near Fort Norman to White Horse, and the laying of the line, with extensions to Fairbanks, Skagway and Watson Lake. The purpose of the project was to service the Alaska Highway and adjacent airports and to supply the Alaskan bases with oil in the event that sea traffic was suspended. Enormous quantities of materials and machinery had to be brought by rail, barge and even portage via Prince Rupert or Edmonton to the two terminals of the main pipe-line at White Horse and Fort Norman. A winter road had to be constructed from the town of Peace River to Great Slave Lake and thence to the oil wells. The actual laying of the pipeline was comparatively simple. The preliminary work of surveying and of transporting material and equipment had taken from June 1942 to May 1943. The construction of the pipeline was completed by February 1944. The refinery at White Horse received its initial supply of oil the following April
A vast area in Canada was thus covered by these twin projects, from the southern bases at Prince Rupert and Edmonton to White Horse and Great Bear Lake in the north. Over 40,000 United States Army Engineers and civilian workmen, Canadian and American, were employed on these tasks. It was the impact of this “invasion” which made the Alaska Highway and Canol memorable to the citizens of the peaceful North and, not least, to the Bank of Commerce branches established at the transportation and construction bases.
Edmonton was a nerve centre of great activity. Here were established the North West Division of the United States War Department Engineers, the Headquarters of the United States Public Roads Administration and the offices of the various contractors. The United States Government erected at considerable expense warehouses and storage deports, and a large Army Hospital to provide for casualties in the Aleutian Islands, for which fortunately no need arose. It also built airplane hangars and living quarters for its Army Air Force and a new airport for the heavier type of aircraft. Edmonton became a centre of air traffic; it is reported that during the height of activity, when aircraft were being sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease Scheme, as many as 650 planes landed at or took off from the Municipal Airport daily.
The effect of the influx of American servicemen on the North was in one sense permanent — it sped up the development of these communities by perhaps ten or twenty years. The presence of a large floating population nearly equal in size to that of Victoria or Saskatoon literally forced civilization on the North. It is a maxim of the United States Government that nothing is too good for the American soldier and when he wants something he generally gets it. Thus, roads, hotels, motion picture theatres, stores, hospitals and modern sanitation sprang up almost overnight where the soldiers were stationed.
The southern base of construction operations on the Highway was Dawson Creek and the Bank of Commerce branch at this point became the financial house for project. Dawson Creek, with 518 inhabitants at the 1941 census, had a resident population of 5,000 at the height of the boom. Thousands of American soldiers, truckers and construction workmen were located along the Highway between this village and White Horse. The influx of population severely taxed the water supply and showed the inadequacy of the sanitation system. Water was accordingly brought in from the Cut Bank River, twelve miles away, and modern sanitation methods were adopted.
The boom lasted longest at White Horse, where the Canol project and the operation of the local oil refinery kept activity at a high level well into 1944. Plans for the resurfacing of the Highway were curtailed early in 1943 and most of the work from that time on consisted in bridge building and in maintenance.
White Horse, the northern terminus of the White Pass and Yukon Railway running from Skagway, is the transshipment centre of the Yukon Territory, for from here the riverboats ply to Dawson. Through here also had passed the trail of “98”. It was here, too, that Robert W. Service then a clerk in The Canadian Bank of Commerce, wrote Songs of a Sourdough, and near here stands a cabin of Sam McGee whose cremation he immortalized. After the gold rush White Horse settled down to the normal life of a northern town, shipping gold from the Yukon mines and furnishing supplies to the large and sparsely populated district it serves. But with the new boom the traffic through the town assumed new character and proportions. The railway now carried as much freight during a single week as it had done in several months only a few years before, a great airport was in operation, trucks were rolling along the new highway to Fairbanks, and an oil refinery had been erected. The population had risen from an average 500 before the boom to one of over 20,000 within a radius of ten miles. The congestion of visitors in the town and the demand upon its inadequate facilities were therefore even greater than in the case of Dawson Creek. The Americans solved these problems as they had done elsewhere. They installed water supply and sanitation systems, put up warehouses, Army stores (selling to the troops even such luxuries as canned pineapple and oysters), a base hospital, and broadcasting station in White Horse, and a motion picture theatre in every camp, with films especially released from Hollywood. They also leveled off the baseball park, where a league of thirty teams, one from each unit, competed weekly among themselves and against the R.C.A.F.
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