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Winter Maintenance Problems on the Alaska Highway, 1943

Alaska Highway History

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

Winter Maintenance Problems on the Alaska Highway, November 1943

    THE ALASKA HIGHWAY if set down in an inhabited area with suitable access roads, railroads and other means of transportation and supply would be just another road like thousands of others that interlace the northern United States and Canada. This particular highway does not fall into this category, however, for its construction and maintenance, besides embodying certain essential and basic elements - plans and specifications, labor, material, equipment, and management - as in the case of any construction or maintenance operation wherever located, involved two other problems of major importance - a short construction season and difficulties in transportation.

    The original "tote" road for the Alaska Highway was pushed through last year by troops of the U.S. Corps of Engineers under the command of Brigadier-General William H. Hoge and Brigadier-General James A. O'Connor, respectively in charge of the northern and southern sectors. The initial plan called for the soldiers to build a "tote" road over which equipment could be hauled and supply lines established. The intention then was that the "tote" would be widened, straightened, graveled and generally brought up to proper standards by civilian contractors working under the U.S. Public Roads Administration.

    The original idea was abandoned, however, when it became certain that a uniting of all the forces - engineers and contractors - was needed to complete the assignment by the end of the year. Thus it came about that it was the pioneer military highway and not a finished highway that presented maintenance problems last winter. It was strictly a military winter road.

    Roughly the road follows this route: Beginning at Dawson Creek. B.C., 400 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alta., and the end of the Northern Alberta Railroad, it follows a former dirt highway northward for 65 miles to Fort St. John, B.C., where it leaves a fairly well inhabited district and plunges in to densely wooded rolling country, proceeding northward for 250 miles to Fort Nelson, B.C. From Fort Nelson it goes past mountains northwest for a distance of 360 miles to Watson Lake on the Yukon-British Columbia boundary, thence through mountains westerly and then northwesterly for 275 miles to Whitehorse, Yukon gold-rush town. From Whitehorse the route lies along beautiful Kluane Lake and skirts the St. Elias mountain range, crossing the Alaskan-Yukon border and proceeding northwestly to Fairbanks, Alaska, 600 miles from Whitehorse.

    The total length of the highway is 1639 miles, and there is only one town worthy of the name in this distance. Other than the terminals at Dawson Creek and Fairbanks only one access point exists along the entire highway, namely at Whitehorse which was served by the narrow-gauge railway of the White Pass and Yukon Route from Skagway on the Pacific Coast.

Transportation Problem

    The chief problem in respect to maintenance, it can be readily seen, became transportation - transportation of men and machines to do the work, of food, clothing, fuel, everything needed to enable men to live and work and machines to function properly. This transportation was dependent on a long, extended life-line, a breakdown of which anywhere would throw the whole plan into disorder.

Snow Easily Handled

    The intense cold during the winter proved another great hazard, perhaps the greatest as far as maintenance proper is concerned, but snow, strangely enough, did not present a major problem. From Dawson Creek to Whitehorse the snow never exceeded 1½ ft. in depth; from Whitehorse to Kluane Lake it was not more than 2 ft. and from there to Fairbanks it ranged from 2 to 3 ft. In most cases this depth of snow could be handled readily by blade graders and bulldozers. In case of trouble V-type snowplows were available.

    Nature, however, has queer traits in a country where the temperature may drop as low as 72 degrees below zero, as it did last winter - springs that flow all winter long; rivers that freeze from the bottom up; bitter cold that frosts a man's lungs if he breathes too deeply or quickly.

    To brave the frigid temperatures men had to be clothed with heavy woolen underwear, socks, shirts and jackets. Leather shoes proved unsatisfactory. and Indian moccasins, mucklucks or felt boots had to be used. A fur-lined parka was devised with a hood to cover the head, and thick blanket-like trousers and wool mittens, sometimes with outer leather ones, completed the apparel necessary to meet the extreme climatic conditions. To prevent frosting of lungs wool mufflers were wrapped about the nose and mouth, all breathing being done through this covering so as to check the cold air long enough to warm it slightly.

    In the sleeping and living quarters the frost often became inches deep on the walls despite insulation and roaring fires. The men were furnished with sleeping bags as blankets were insufficient. The sleeping bags were double-lined, the inner lining being filled with kapok or eiderdown and the outer lining being windproof and water-repellant.

Keeping Equipment Functioning

    The problem of keeping engines warm enough to function properly or at all was a very serious one. At times the motors were left running practically the entire night and day. On diesel equipment it became necessary to warm the fuel lines by placing under them and igniting cans filled with sand or dirt saturated with gasoline. At one time the driver of a light pick-up vehicle used a mixture of half No. 10 motor oil and half kerosene for lubrication, but even with this mixture the motor had to be run l5 minutes of every hour night and day or the mixture would freeze solid. Of course, this vehicle was used for transportation only. No hauling could he done as the motor would not have had sufficient lubrication to enable it to run.

Ice a Major Problem

    As stated above, snow provided no problem; on the other hand, ice proved a major one. Between Watson Lake and the Alaska border there were more than 250 places where icing caused grief in one form and another. East of the continental divide, this condition was not a problem as the annual rainfall amounts to only 13 in. approximately, the country being virtually semi-arid.

    In some sections of the road there is permanent glacial ice, or perma-frost as it is sometimes called, a few feet and sometimes only a few inches below the surface. On some sidehill cuts, for instance, there can be found several feet of earth and gravel overlying from three to six feet of ice beneath which is gravel again.

    A peculiar thing about this formation is the fact that springs which flow from the ice deposits in the summer continue to flow or bleed during the coldest weather. The water flows into culverts and ditches where it freezes, filling them up and then overflowing on the road. The continued overflow and subsequent freezing cause huge mounds of honeycombed ice which block the road.

    This is called mushroom ice due to the formation of the deposits, which build up into mounds not unlike gigantic mushrooms. It is thought by some that the explanation of the phenomenon of the ice deposits bleeding in the winter-time is that the tremendous pressure on the ice from the weight above on the hillside increases the temperature to such an extent, where the ice comes in contact with bedrock, that thawing occurs underneath, resulting in springs which last winter continued to flow at 72 degrees below zero.

Combating the Ice

    Portable steam outfits mounted on trucks were used in an effort to clear the culverts and ditches and to relieve the icing conditions, but this proved a neverending task. The use of oil drums filled with fuel was also tried, these being set near the culverts and allowed to burn night and day, but this scheme was found impractical. Gangs of men laboring with picks and shovels attempted to dig out the clogged drainage systems and to remove the ice from the road, but could never keep up with the work. Where they were available, sand and gravel were sprinkled over the top, and traffic was enabled, slowly it is true, to travel over the road.

River Peculiarities

    The streams and rivers of this far-north country have a habit of freezing from the bottom up. The current is so swift that ice does not form on the surface as in normal cases; instead, freezing occurs along the sides and bottom, causing the stream bed to rise. Because the stream bed is raised, the water overflows and forms a new channel. This keeps up all winter long, with the stream overflowing time after time and wandering all over the valley or canyon bottom as the case may be.

    In many cases the ice has been measured and has been found to have built up as high as 20 ft. above the original surface of the stream. One case is recorded of a northern river with banks 109 ft. high where the ice built up to a depth of more than 50 ft.

    Nothing being known at the time of the construction of the highway about this peculiar trait of northern rivers, bridges and approaches were constructed in the normal manner. The result was that the approaches and bridges were in many cases completely covered with ice, making them useless. The ice was honeycombed and unsuitable to travel over. The ice going out in the spring incidentally took out nearly all the bridges.

Rebuilding the Bridges

    The only remedy for this situation was to rebuild the bridges last spring and summer with the decking sufficiently high above the stream or river to stay clear of the ice. The same steps were taken with the approaches, and in many cases what formerly was an approach became part of a longer-span bridge. It really became necessary, because of the spring and summer floods, to build the bridges with abutments on the bluffs on each side of the stream.

    For example, one bridge with a total span of 175 ft. over a river with water flowing in two channels proved wholly inadequate when a sudden rise in the stream caused it to spread from bluff to bluff, a distance of 2700 ft. In another case a stream that was hardly wide enough to prevent one from jumping across turned into a raging torrent extending across the canyon for 1900 ft. It is not unusual for flash floods to be experienced in many other parts of the world, but the peculiar feature of the northern rivers is the unpredictable things they do. In both of the cases just referred to there was no indication to show that this flooding had happened before for decades, if ever. At one place during this past summer, after the danger of spring floods had been overcome and the summer rains were supposed to be over, a certain bridge was replaced seven times in ten days. This, of course, was a temporary bridge which was finally replaced by a permanent structure.

    Most of the rivers of the north are glacial in origin, and their valleys and canyons are strewn with boulders, trees and huge gravel deposits which form what appears to be a delta sometimes extending across a valley for a width of a mile to two miles. These are the same streams that ice up in the winter. In the summer the freshets caused by rainfall or the melting of glaciers as a result of unusually warm weather carry down an enormous amount of material - boulders as big as pianos, logs, gravel, etc. This debris clogs the channels, raises the level of the stream bed and causes the water to overflow and form new channels just as in the winter. This condition results in glacial-deposit fans that spread all over the valleys.

    An instance is recorded where a stream changed its channel four times in half an hour and the level of the valley as a whole was raised five feet by the deposits of gravel, boulders and other debris. VVhat this boils down to is that conditions in the north are unpredictable both in the summer and the winter, and that the only way to provide a crossing over these streams is to bridge the entire valley or glacial fan.

Trucks Frozen in Solidly

    To revert to winter maintenance, the ice formed by either springs or overflowing rivers is honeycombed. Naturally the only way by which traffic could proceed was over the top of the ice, but the trucks broke through the upper layers and often became stuck. Unacquainted with the quirks of nature in the North, some truck drivers would get out of their cabs to look over the situation. That is all it took to cause trouble, for in temperatures of 30 degrees and below only a few minutes are required for truck tires to become frozen solidly in the ice. Before the driver could get back into the cab to break the wheels loose the truck had become frozen in until spring.

    At one river crossing in particular, trucks could be seen in all stages of becoming buried in the ice. Some had been buried to such an extent that just the tops of the cabs were showing. After the spring thaw all of this equipment was recovered.

Crossings Corduroyed

    To overcome this condition the crossings were corduroyed with logs or timber. Water was then poured on this foundation so as to form a solid sheet of ice and provide a firm road bed.

    During the coming winter many of the difficulties experienced last winter will be overcome to a great extent. Maintenance and relay stations have been built every fifty miles or so along the entire length of the highway, and warm barracks, mess-halls, heated garages and repair shops are scattered along the route.

Highway Improved

    During the past construction season, U.S. Army Engineers under the command of Brigadier-General Ludson D. Worsham; division engineer of the Northwest Division, with the aid of the U.S. Public Roads Administration and civilian contractors and workers have converted the original "tote" road to an all-weather military highway. The road now averages 26 ft. in width, most of the bad curves and hills have been removed, and the surface is graveled from end to end. The first convoy over the new all—weather road reached Fairbanks, Alaska, shortly after the middle of October.

    It is thought that most of the bad icing conditions have been eliminated by the installation of permanent bridges specially designed to span the streams and rivers where icing conditions existed last winter. The roadway will be far above the ice even if the situation becomes worse than last winter which was one of the most severe on record. These bridges range from small natural-timber structures to the great Peace River suspension bridge between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.

    All spots where springs caused trouble have either been detoured where possible or bridged to allow water to flow beneath and build up ice beyond the road. Traffic-regulation signs have been placed, and all curves, steep grades, junctions, bad spots and bridges have been marked.

    Under the direction of General Worsham each district engineer will be responsible for the maintenance of his portion of the road. The maintenance problem resolves into the following elements:

1. Road surfaces and ditches.
2. Bridges and culverts.
3. Traffic control (signs, etc.).
4. Unpredictable contingencies and disasters.
Thirty-two Sections

    Because of the element of uncertainty, most of the work outside of routine patrol is planned on the basis of having organized forces, especially equipped for a specific purpose, distributed along the project in such a manner that work of a magnitude above normal routine operations can be quickly accomplished.

    The highway is divided into 32 sections of about 40 to 50 miles each. within each of which is located one of the more permanent maintenance camps or relay stations. The function of these camps is to provide bases from which routine patrols will operate. Each of these patrols will have civilian labor and motor patrols, dump trucks, pickup trucks, blade-type snowplows and rotary sand spreaders.

    In addition, eight areas are established along the highway and its feeder roads. Each are will have a special force equipped with all the machinery and tools necessary to take care of any emergency and will operate under the direction of area headquarters. Among this equipment will be pile-drivers, cranes, welding outfits, heavy trucks and trailers, thawing outfits, power shovels, portable electric plants, etc.

    "We Will Try - We Will Dare" is the motto of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, builders of the Panama Canal. Once again in the building of the Alaska Highway with the cooperation of the Canadian government and thousands of American and Canadian workers, they have tried - they have dared - they have won.

Photograph captions (photograph quality was not good enough to copy here)

Stretch of honeycomb ice on the Alaska Highway after being corduroyed and now in the process of having water applied fo form a solid roadbed.

Hillside springs which flow all winter long in temperafures as low as 72 deg. below zero produce mushroom ice along the Alaska Highway and disrupt traffic. In the illustration on the left, ice from such a spring has blocked the road. At the right, men with picks are attempting to divert a spring so as to keep if from overflowing on the road.

A truck that has slid into a ditch along the Alaska Highway because of ice caused by a hill-side spring. This truck, like many others under similar conditions, quickly became frozen solidly in the ice and could not be removed until the spring thaw.

A bulldozer with its engine enclosed with canvas during operation on fhe Alaska Highway last winter. The engine was enclosed to help prevent freezing of fuel and lubricating lines. The problem of keeping engines warm enough to function properly was a serious one.

A section of the Alaska Highway from which snow has been cleared with a blade grader without any difficulty. The snowfall was not sufficiently heavy to present any serious maintenance problem.

Left: Equipment for the Alaska Highway being thawed out and repaired last winter. Note the heavy clothing of the repair crew. Right: Thawing out thick grease in a motor truck by the use of cans filled with sand and gasoline. The temperature was 52 deg. below zero at the time this picture was taken.