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Waste along the Alaska Highway during WWII

by Murray Lundberg


Alaska Highway History

An Explorer's Guide to the Alaska Highway ("Alcan")


    Stories about the construction of the Alaska Highway are almost always very positive - tales of an incredible feat of engineering under some of the toughest conditions on earth. But there used to be other stories as well - including stories of appalling waste during the departure of the U.S. Army, Public Roads Administration and contractor crews in 1944.

    When I first moved to the Yukon in 1990, there were still people living here who had seen and/or taken part in the legal dumping and illegal salvage of a vast range of goods and materials that were both expensive and hard to obtain here. From food to kitchen appliances and furniture, buildings to trucks and tools, enough material to stock entire towns was destroyed, in a period when wartime rations were still in place, and civilians were told of the importance of conserving everything for the war effort.

    I consider myself lucky to have talked at length with two of the people who had seen this destruction first hand - Edna Cooper and John Scott. Both of them were able to retrieve some things, but most of their memories were of the vast quantities of stuff that was smashed or burned to prevent any salvage. John's feeling was that it was done at least partly to protect local merchants, and there's no doubt that donating millions of dollars worth of food and materials to a community would have a huge impact. Edna's family bought a cabin in Carcross that was built with materials taken from both U.S. Army stores and abandoned sternwheelers, and was expanded partly with salvage from the Army dumps. I bought Edna's cabin in 1997, and part of its charm for me was certainly knowing where the material came from - while working on it, I found wood that still had Army stamps on it.

    Nothing was spared in the dumping - even barrels of fuel, oil, and various lubricants were burned. Millions of dollars were spent cleaning up some of the dump sites in the 1990s, but even today, seventy years later, huge sums of money are still being spent on cleanups at dump sites such as this one near Mile 115.

    The article that follows talks about the dumps in the Dawson Creek and Fort St. John area, but dumps like this were burning all along the highway. According to both Edna and John, there were some drivers taking loads to the dumps who could be convinced to set some material aside, sometimes encouraged by a bottle of whiskey, but more often, they would dump their load into the fire, or take sledgehammers to material, right in front of the people watching. See a scan of the original newspaper page here.








By B. A. McKelvie
Daily Province Staff Correspondent.

    VICTORIA, July 8.--Denial by officials of salvage waste on the Alaska Highway does not alter facts.

    I had not been in Fort John many hours when I was told about what was termed "criminal dumping" of perfectly good material that was not required longer on the road.

    The first individual upon whom I called greeted me with "I hope you can do something to call attention to the awful waste and destruction of perfectly good - and lots of them unused - things that is going on about here."

    I asked what was meant by "things," and was told that stoves and ranges - and these most essential household utilities are uppermost in the minds of a people who live in a country where the winters are long - sleeping bags, blankets and similar articles were destroyed.

COLLECTS EVIDENCE.

    My friend took me to meet a prominent man. "He got a fine new stove off the dump," was added to the introduction "Yes," replied the man, "but it is a crime. I don't wonder at people going 'red' when they see such waste." My companions then fell to discussing a "brand new kitchen range" that another family had salvaged.

    I called on several other prominent citizens. All had something to say about the destruction of property.

    That afternoon I went to Dawson Creek and the following morning to Pouce Coupe. In the bus passengers were talking about the waste and burning that was going on.

"AFRAID TO WRITE."

    Returning to Dawson Creek that night I was driven about the district by a friend. "I hope you will write something about it," he said. "No one here dare write to the papers telling what is going on." He added that one protest was met with the suggestive reply, "You'd better keep your mouth shut."

    We passed a big heap of tile pipes. I remarked upon the size of the pile.

    "Too bad, he declared, "that stuff like that has to be broken up."

    We drove to the top of a hill. Looking back I saw a fire blazing and asked if it was a burning building. I was told that it was a consuming fire on a dump, and that it was burning night and day.

    We drove back that way and the flames were fingering 25 feet into the dusk of a gray evening.

    "What kind of stuff?" I questioned my companion. "Well," he replied, "I'll give you an example; a friend of mine was standing on this road the other day when a big truck load of stuff for this fire came along.

GOT BUNDLE.

    He called to the man sitting on the pile, 'Kick one, of those bundles off.' Whether the man did kick it off, or whether it fell from the truck I can't say, but, anyway, he got the bundle, and in it were three new blankets."

    My friend had also heard of the story that I had first heard at Fort St. John that a few days previously 600 pounds of sugar had been destroyed. He had no personal knowledge of it but the report was current.

    On Sunday morning I talked with several men. One of them had formerly been a trucker on the road. His stories of waste and extravagance during construction were astounding, while his indignation at the continued waste in salvage operations was emphatic.

    Others in the group agreed that it was "criminal" to waste what so many people could use.

JOINS CHURCH GROUP.

    That evening I joined a group after church. These good people were also condemnatory of what was going on about them.

    Returning to Fort St. John I secured a car and with two friends visited two of the dumps. I understand that there was a third, but I did not see it.

    In the afternoon we drove to the edge of the high plateau that stands 800 feet above the flat on which_the original Fort St. John of fur trading days was located.

    The top of the dump, which one of my friends estimated to be about 600 feet long, was littered with cans, debris and decaying food. He explained that heavier articles rolled down the slope and if I cared to climb down I would probably find something worth while there. Time would not permit the 800-foot descent.

VISITS SECOND DUMP.

    That evening we drove out to the other dump. It is just above the point on the opposite shore where the Moberley River enters the Peace. We estimated the width of it to be roughly 1000 feet and the descent to a fringe of poplar trees 200 feet. The top of the hill was fringed with people, while the foot of the dump had the appearance of an active ant hill as men and women worked and sorted over the material.

    It was here that I met a triumphant farmer who proudly exhibited a big barrel heater that was in brand new condition, and a patent water heater that he had recovered. He pointed out other stoves that could be seen among the poplars below.

    In answer to a question as to whether he was going to bring up another, he replied that he was satisfied; the stove he had on his wagon would last him for ten years, but he announced to the group of admiring and envious people around him. "I'll bring up another stove for anyone for $10.

    Whether or not his offer was accepted I do not know, as I moved off.

    One of my friends went down to the bottom at the dump, when he returned I pointed out what appeared from the top to be numerous truck tires, and asked if they were usable.

    "They are not tires," he said. "I thought they were at first, but they are hot-air chambers for furnaces. The rotten thing is that every one has been hit with a sledge hammer and the cast iron has been broken before chucking them over this dump."

    As we left the dump my other friend picked up a big porcelain cup, such as is used in construction camp mess halls. There was not a crack in it, nor was the glaze even chipped. He remarked, “Well, this will be a souvenir of this terrible waste."

    Today at Victoria I was informed by an official that a colleague who had recently returned from the Peace area "tells me the same thing. What's the use of trying to deny the waste, too many people know about it."