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Okes Construction Company camp, Alaska Highway, July 1943

Okes Construction Company, Alaska Highway, 1942-1943

Alaska Highway History

Dateline: February 26, 2023


Minneapolis Star Journal, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Wednesday July 14, 1943


Fort St. John, B. C.

George L. Peterson, 1943     THE PEACE RIVER FERRY at Taylor Flats is carrying traffic since the temporary bridge washout and a capable crew of army engineers keeps the ferry-boat shuttling back and forth, taking big trucks and assorted smaller vehicles at every crossing.

    Our car was small, so we drove onto a vacant corner of the barge. A strong wind suddenly started up and for a minute there was hesitation about setting out. The big line of waiting trucks may have decided the question, for we pushed out into the swift current and soon were winding around a long hill on the other side.

    The steep climb will be eliminated when the high suspension bridge is finished.

*         *         *

    Rain had fallen in the morning, but the afternoon ride was laden with dust. Sometimes it hung like a heavy fog over the road, so dense that we could not see the truck ahead which was kicking up all the fuss.

    For 15 miles we drove through wooded low hills over the rough gravel of the big road to Fort St. John off the main highway to the right. St. John is a trading center of a few hundred people which has found new life with the coming of Americans. But it is not nearly as hectic or big as Dawson Creek.

    A mile beyond it are the construction camps and there one enters "Little Minnesota."

    Two camps are close together. One houses the public roads administration personnel and the R. Melville Smith company's workers. Smith is a Canadian firm that is management contractor for a 250-mile stretch of road from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake.


*         *         *

    The confusion in my mind about the organization of the Alaska highway had only deepened as I talked with hundreds of people along the way from Edmonton. Each could tell about his work, about colorful incidents and hearsay, but how the whole thing ran seemed a secret.

    So I went first, on arrival here, to see C. F. Capes, PRA construction engineer for the St. John division, which stretches 650 miles from Dawson Creek to Watson Lake. And Capes made sense of the project.

    U. S. army engineers have general supervision of the road. After the approximate route was decided in Washington, the engineers made an aerial survey to locate the road. Then they went in with ground crews to stake out the way and followed with working troops who tore down the trees and constructed a pioneer road on which work was started at the same time from half a dozen points along the way.

*         *         *

    Private contractors were charged with building the permanent highway on or parallel to the army engineers' pioneer road. PRA has supervision of such construction and furnishes engineering services. The completion of a road to Fairbanks last November was the opening of the pioneer road, not - as so many suppose - the opening of a smooth tourist route to Alaska.

    The work under way is that of improving the pioneer road - putting in strong bridges, eliminating steep grades and bad corners, and generally making it a good route for military needs rather than a complete route to open up the country.

    PRA is part of the federal works agency, under General Fleming. In its anticipation of a permanent road, it had been planning for a 24-foot surfaced width, with six-foot shoulders on each side, a fully stabilized sub grade and permanent bridges, all of proper grade and convenient location. Such a road is completed, or will be by fall, from Dawson Creek to a point 30 miles north of St. John. In fact, the specifications will be largely observed for the whole length under Okes' supervision, from St. John 250 miles north to Fort Nelson. For PRA, W. J. Nelson of St. Paul is supervisory engineer of that section. Beyond that, some parts also coincide with the permanent plan.

    With the exception of certain stretches which the army engineers are working themselves, private contractors are maintaining and improving the road. Just how permanent that road will he seems to depend on the length of the war, the threat of the Japanese to Alaska and indicated negotiations between the United States and Canada. Under the agreement by which the United States built the highway, it must he turned back to Canada six months after the war ends.

    Capes has been on the job from the first. On Feb. 22, 1942, he left Washington for Dawson Creek, drove over a rough winter road to Fort Nelson, taking three days for the round trip, and then returned to Washington with a report on the country. Ordered back to St. John to set up headquarters, he arrived here March 12 with the army engineer forces. The troops started work at once and the first contractors began arriving a month later, though real accomplishment waited until summer.

*         *         *

    Col. John W. Wheeler, army engineer in charge of the Alaska Military Highway last winter for the Northwest Service command, paid tribute to Okes' industry in a bit of doggerel which ran:

"Day Okes got itchy,
Bill Bates got frisky,
    They decided they wanted to run
So they got out their scoops
And followed the troops,
    And the road to the Muskwa was done."

*         *         *

    At least 90 per cent of the men on Okes' construction are Minnesotans. Sam Markus, who has run several Minneapolis night spots, is camp superintendent; Emerson Koons of Minneapolis is in charge of kitchen and supplies; "Doc" R. A. Johnson watches personnel; Scotty Saunders is chef. If they aren't from Minneapolis, the chances are they come from St. Paul. John Andre is paymaster; Irving Pearce, former St. Paul councilman, handles insurance and compensation for the camp; Harry Schaffer, on leave from the state pharmacy board, has charge of first aid... well, you can go from one end of the orderly, comfortable camp and say with complete assurance, "HI MINNESOTA." Mankato, Waseca, Annandale, Duluth, Cass Lake - almost every town in the state - are represented.