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Construction on the Alaska Highway, July 1943

Alaska Highway History

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

The Minneapolis Star Journal - Tuesday, July 20, 1943

Boom! And Explosion Tears Alaska Highway Hill Apart


    Mile 117 North of Fort St. John. JACK AND JUDD BROWN of Mankato and Frank Leguil of Adrian, Minn., were road builders who joined forces to negotiate a contract to build part of the Alaska highway. Last year they followed the army engineers, building hasty 20-mile stretches between Fort St. John and Steamboat mountain, west of Fort Nelson.

    This year they have the section from Mile 105 to Mile 130, building a five-mile piece of completely new road around Suicide Hill and making a wide, gradual grade down to the Sikanni Chief river. The bridge there was a separate contract by Pedersen Brothers of Montevideo, Minn.

    Setting up camp in February - last year they lived in tents - the Brown & Leguil outfit started work on the road April 26. That is earlier than road work usually starts in Minnesota. Some frost was encountered, and still is, but only a few rainy days interferred with grading. Several kinks have been ironed out already and much surfacing finished. The big job is the Sikanni hill. There the grade must be lowered as much as 60 feet through rock and be pushed back to make a safe route, One of the chief difficulties is that traffic must keep moving while this construction is under way.

    Organization of the Brown & Leguil camp is pretty typical of contractors along the way. Jack Brown acts as superintendent of construction. Frank Leguil is known as a "free man." That is, he is not on the government payroll as are all the others. Each contracting firm must have a free man to deal with the PRA and other governmental groups. Practically all contracts provide for payment by the government of expenses, plus a specified fee. Judd Brown remained at Mankato.

    Five foremen are on the job, drawing from $450 to $550 a month each. R. S. Anderson of Minneapolis is camp manager at $350, and Terry Louris, clerk, of Mankato, earns $275 a month.

    Hourly men get time and a half for all hours over 40. There are two shifts a day, seven days a week, starting at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. With an hour off for eating, the usual trick is 10 hours. The four hours off allow time for oiling, greasing and minor repairs.

    Tractor operators get $1.60 an hour and scraper operators $1.70. In the two classifications are 35 men. The five shovel operators get $2 an hour. Six motor patrol operators get $1.60, the blacksmith and six mechanics $1.56½, the 32 truck drivers $1.40, six laborers 96½ cents, four oilers $1.30, four greasers $1.06½, four dump directors $1.16½. The pay scale is set by PRA and is the same in all camps. In addition to the two office men here, three men are in the Brown & Leguil office at the Okes camp in Fort St. John.

*    *    *

    Ole M. Olson of Balsam Lake, Wis., is cook, a job he has had in Jack Brown's camps for 20 years. He draws $350 a month, as does the baker. A second cook gets $325 a month and a third cook $300. The 10 dishwashers and waiters each get $225. All kitchen help receives board and lodging in addition. The rest of the workers pay $1.25 a day.

    Four meals must be prepared each day to care for the two shifts. Lunches may be had at cost in the canteen. In addition to their own workers, Brown & Leguil, under common agreement, must also feed other workers who happen by at meal time. There is no rationing of food, but meat, butter and canned milk have been scarce of late.

*    *    *

    Each contractor has an engineering staff, furnished by PRA (public roads administration). Here they have offices and bunk rooms in a separate building. T. E. Anderson of Duluth, on leave from the St. Louis county highway department, is resident engineer, P. A. Leverson of St. Paul is assistant and Leo Tschida, St. Paul, office man, Both were with the state highway department.

    Nine young engineers' aides are employed, both Canadian and American. They are high school and college youths who work as linemen, chain men and level operators.

    When finished, according to present plans, the Alaska highway will be a heavy duty road of good construction, Anderson explains, but with some steep grades. Maximum grade on the highway is 10 per cent, while Minnesota sets a limit of 6 per cent.

    The engineers stake out and supervise all work. If the Brown & Leguil section of the road is typical, engineers and contractors are co-operating splendidly. Anderson estimates that this 25-mile sector will be completed before Sept. 1.

*    *    *

    Brown & Leguil men boast of the fine soft water which they haul from a well nearby. Taking a shower in it, I spied an electric washing machine in the bath house and saw a chance to get the dust out of my clothes. After sketchy directions I went to work. The clothes were clean in five minutes, but all had turned a rosy hue. I HAD INCLUDED A PAIR OF RED SOX.

*    *    *

    With Brown, Leguil or Anderson I moved from one spot to another with those busy fellows, watching graveling operations, the putting in of creosoted wood culverts, the rooting up of wet sections. But principal attention went to the Sikanni Chief hill. For days a well driller had been making holes 20 to 40 feet deep in anticipation of dynamiting off a big corner of rock. The crew poured box after box of dynamite into the holes, nonchalantly packing it with a big tamper. Four hours they kept loading in the explosive. By 10 p.m. four tons had been stowed into the holes and covered tight with mud and rock.

    The dynamiter hooked up his wires. Traffic was stopped half a mile away in both directions of the road, trucks were moved to safety, the dozen onlookers got near shelter, 300 feet from the nearest charge. Frank Leguil had hoped to get movies of the explosion but heavy clouds moved into the sky, a wind whipped downstream along the valley and the evening turned cold. Still, the night was not dark. With a clear sky, movies would have been possible.

    Leguil shouted the signal, the powder man made contact and the side of the hill shot into the air. Shot far and wide. The ground shook. I dived under a truck. Stones showered down on it.

    When the unpleasant smoke had cleared away, we climbed into the rough gash. Thousands of tons of rock had been sent down the slope. More had been torn loose. A minute later the huge shovel moved up and began tossing the debris over the cliff.

*    *    *

    Brown & Leguil like to keep "bulling" ahead.