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Driving the Alaska Highway, 1948

History of the Alaska Highway

Driving the Alaska Highway in 1948 (photos)

The Kansas City Times - June 22, 1948


High Water May Block a Ferry or Take Out a Bridge - Hotel and Eating Facilities Are Not Adequate Since the Route Has Been Opened to General Use - Long Wait for Parts if the Car Breaks Down.

    The following excerpts from a reporter's dispatches give an idea of what may be encountered in traveling the Alaska highway.

By Joseph Hearst.
(Copyright, 1948, the Chicago Tribune.)

    GRAND PRAIRIE, ALTA. - So you want to see the Alaska highway. Well, if you are from the Mid-West, be prepared for 2,500 to 3,000 miles of driving through monotonous plains country before you even reach it.

    And if you are bringing your wife, tell her to get out her grandmother's old linen duster and be prepared to breathe and eat dust for many miles before you reach this little town 100 miles from the start of the highway. And they say the dust of the Alaska highway can match anything encountered so far.

    Theoretically, the highway from Edmonton to Grand Prairie, a stretch of almost 400 miles, is a gravel all-weather road. Actually, in rainy weather it becomes impassable in many spots. Culverts wash out. Cars have to be pulled through the bogs by tractors or teams. If you hit that kind of weather it will be wise to wait in Edmonton until the road dries out.

Dust and Deep Ruts.

    We were fortunate in finding the road dry, so all we had to contend with were the clouds of encompassing dust caused by each passing car and the deep ruts here and there that called for careful driving lest the oil pan be ripped away.

    Driving through Alberta to Dawson Creek takes the tourist through mile after mile of spring wheat country, where nearly every town has five or six grain elevators. Occasional great stands of birch, spruce, poplar and pine trees break the monotony of the rolling farmlands. Here and there, burned-over areas dramatically illustrate why every traveler is urged to use extreme care with matches and cigarettes. Between High Prairie and Valley View there is a 20-mile stretch of charred stumps and trunks lining each side of the road.

    The ferry over the Big Smoky river, east of Grand Prairie, illustrates the uncertainty of travel in this region. Recently high water kept the ferry from operating for two days and cars backed up on each side of the river in a spot where there were no accommodations for travelers.

    Dawson Creek, British Columbia - This is the little town where the Alaska highway proper starts. It had a bustling, shoving population of 15,000 in the war days, when American soldiers and civilians were building the highway and running supplies through to Alaska.

Town of Wooden Sidewalks.

Map of Alaska Highway, 1948     The population is down to about 3,000. A pall of dust seems to hang permanently in the air. Business is good. The hotels, one very modern by local standards, are doing a good business. It is a town of wooden sidewalks, thirty telephones and some running water. Some houses have water piped into them. The other householders buy water at 65 cents a barrel from peddlers who bring it around in trucks. Just now the water is bad because of floods in the mountain rivers and probably some breakdown in the water system itself.

    In the center of the intersection of the two main streets the "zero" mile post, signifying the start of the highway, has been erected. It shows the mileage to Fairbanks at 1,523.

    Non-residents are requested to stop in Dawson Creek to check with the provincial police. If they have firearms but no hunting license, the police will seal the guns for the trip through British Columbia and Yukon territory. This wasn't done formerly, but the police say there has been much indiscriminate shooting at wild animals from cars. Hunting has been prohibited under any conditions in a 2-mile strip down each side of the highway.

    The police, however, say few Americans stop for the firearm inspection or to obtain the permits that give them the right to kindle campfires along the highway if they camp out or have a breakdown at night and need a fire for warmth.

    Fort Nelson, B.C - a sign in the little lobby of the hotel says the bridge near Watson Lake is still out. A footnote says the bridge over Gardiner Creek is unsafe for automobile travel and closed to loads of more than 4,000 pounds.

Hotel Full, Food Short.

    Motorists bound for Alaska inspect the notices and debate whether to remain here or move on up the road to the hotel at Lower Post, 300 miles away. Then they read another notice which says the hotel at Lower Post is filled and that the hotel at Watson Lake is short on food, and they decide to stay at Fort Nelson until the bridges are repaired.

    The washout or dangerous weakening of a bridge on the Alaska highway automatically stops all traffic. There are no detours in the wilderness of birch, spruce and poplar forests and across the scores of small streams that crisscross the terrain. When the road is barred travelers just stand by and wait it out. If they are housed in a place such as this hotel they are lucky. This is a 1-story hotel of forty rooms that resembles a converted barracks building. Most of the rooms are just large enough for a single bed, a dresser and chair. There are no private baths. But the place is clean and the management friendly. The food is good.

    In the little lobby Americans sit around in the long evening - it gets dark about 11 o'clock p. m. now and dawn comes at 3 a. m - and talk about their experiences, the opportunities for a living in Alaska, and whether anyone should come up here for a short vacation. A young couple returning to their home in Fairbanks from a trip to the United States say that living is very high in Fairbanks, the housing is extremely short and that some people are living in tents, but they wouldn't live anywhere else.

Cost of Car Trouble.

    Mrs. Myrtle Cook of Long Beach, Calif., and her brother, Robert Mullen of Redwood, Calif., hope to get there sometime.

    "We've been sitting here for two weeks trying to get our car fixed," Mrs. Cook said. "To date it has cost us $200, and the car still won't run. We spent $35 to fly in parts. It is costing us $15 a day for food and rooms. I don't think anyone should drive up here who doesn't have to."

    Mile 687, Alaska highway - Women held an indignation meeting on the south bank of the Rancheria river. Some had been sitting in the little clearing for twelve days since the bridge over the river was closed to traffic and work of tearing down the ice-battered wooden structure and replacing it had begun. The husbands of some had pitched in and worked as volunteers, aiding the slim crew of ten or twelve employees of the Canadian northwest highway system brought in to build the new bridge.

    Mrs. Thomas Olwell of Philadelphia and her husband are among the few travelers on the highway who are making a vacation trip. Most of the parties are men going to Alaska to work and taking their families with them.

    "I wouldn't send my worst enemy to this highway," said Mrs. Olwell. "I don't think anyone who hasn't been over it can imagine the dust. And this delay at the bridge is a double hardship on many of these people trying to get to jobs in Alaska on limited means."

    Whitehorse, Yukon Territory - Americans heading for jobs in Alaska were strung out for hundreds of miles along the Alaska highway tonight, driving through the twilight in an effort to make up a few of the many hours lost when the bridge over the Rancheria river at mile 687 was condemned, torn out and rebuilt. For hours this morning cars, trucks, trailers and busses lined up waiting for the last plank to be nailed down. Finally, just before noon, the few cars on the north side came across. Then the rush from the south started.

Speed Despite Danger.

    Great clouds of dust filled the air and formed a dense fog that made tast driving hazardous. But there were anxious drivers who swung out of line and raced to get ahead. The first accident occurred within three miles of the bridge when a driver pulled out, saw a dust-obscured gully too late and turned over. Fortunately neither of the passengers was injured.

    Brig. Gen. A. B. Connelly, commanding officer of the Northwest highway system with headquarters in Whitehorse, says the delay at the Rancheria bridge is the worst that has occurred since the Canadians took over its maintenance from the United States army on April 1, 1946. It seems obvious that more men and more machinery are needed to keep up the 1,221 miles of the highway in Canadian territory. Connelly declined to say how much money is appropriated annually for upkeep but from other sources it was learned that the request in the next budget is for $3,800,000.

    One of Connelly's engineers volunteered the view that the highway will not actually be a year around all-weather road until all of the rivers it crosses are properly spanned by steel and concrete structures. Steel for these bridges is stacked in Whitehorse where it was left by the United States army, but Connelly does not have enough manpower to put in more than one or two permanent bridges a year.

    Fairbanks, Alaska - The speedometer on this reporter's car showed it had traveled 4,214 miles from Chicago to Fairbanks. The final twenty-five miles were over a road that had recently been flooded by the Tanana river for two weeks.

    Regardless of the time you arrive in Fairbanks during the summer it will be daylight to some degree, and the sun will set and rise in the North. Newcomers frequently hang blankets over the windows to get enough darkness to sleep.

    The town of 7,000 is a welcome sight after the miles of wilderness. Neon signs dot the streets, some of which are paved. There are many taverns and restaurants. Prices are high and so are wages. Housing accommodations are tight.

    Here are prices from a restaurant menu where we had our first meal: steaks, $2.50 to $5; bacon and eggs, $1.50; chicken chow mein, $2.25; griddle cakes, 45 cents; two poached eggs on toast, $1.50; salads, $1.25 to $2.25; fresh sliced tomatoes, $1.75; hamburger sandwich, 50 cents. Plenty of coffee costs a dime.

Alaska Highway, 1948