Alaska Highway or Alcan? And where is Mile 0?
What's the real name of the road, and where does it start and end?
by Murray Lundberg
Northern Highways - Alaska, the Yukon & northern British Columbia
Dateline: February 11, 2006. Last update: December 8, 2023.
The Road to Adventure - in a world that gets more crowded every year, the Alaska Highway provides an unequalled opportunity to see wilderness on a scale that has to be seen to be believed.
As the main access route to a region that was named after the original inhabitants' descriptive names Alyeska ("the Great Land") and Yukon ("The Great River"), the highway offers a unique, never-to-be-forgotten experience for those who come prepared to look and listen carefully.
Built in 1942 as a miltary access road, the highway stands as a tribute to the determination and resourcefulness of the tens of thousands of men and women who have worked on it, not only during the construction, but through the constant upgrading of the higway,and the maintenance that has, often against enormous odds, kept it open year-round since it was built.
Called the Alaska Military Highway or Canadian-Alaskan Military Highway at first, it then for very short periods became the Alaska-Canada Highway and then "Alcan" to some people. The various forms of the original military designations, though, were soon officially replaced by "Alaska Highway", the name by which it is officially known today. To the people who built it, though, it was simply The Road. For 8 months, the lives of 18,000 men and women were dominated by The Road, and for most, it would remain one of the highlights of their lives.
Today, there is a lot of confusion about the highway. Many Americans still know it as the Alcan, and claims by communities as far away as Weed, California,
that they are the start of the Alaska Highway, make finding the truth tougher than it should be (the Alaska Highway portion of Alaska Route 2 was once proposed to be part of US 97, which begins at Weed). The photos and descriptions below will hopefully clear up some of the confusion.
Click on each photo below to enlarge it
In 1943, Jean Ball stands by the sign marking the start of her Great Adventure. She left Edmonton to work on the Canol Project, and as Jean Kadmon decades later, wrote an exciting novel
based on her experiences. You can read excerpts from Mackenzie Breakup by clicking here.
Despite the sign in the photo, Alberta Highway 2 was the Peace River Highway, not the Alaska Highway. On March 12, 1942, the Edmonton Journal clarified that: "Edmonton will be on the Alaska highway this year. Whether it will stay there in succeeding years will depend in large measure on the foresight and energy of the government and people of Alberta.
This year, the part of the highway that lies in Alberta is a railway. That is likely to be the case as long as the war lasts, for railway transportation is certain to be used wherever possible in preference to motor vehicles in order to save gasoline and tires.
The actual new highway, being built by the United States, does not lie in Alberta at all, for its southern terminus is Dawson Creek. The new road runs through northern British Columbia and the Yukon territory.
Whether, when peace returns and the military highway becomes a commercial and tourist highway, the southern extension of the road from Dawson Creek runs
through Alberta or British Columbia or both will depend on the governments and peoples of these two provinces."
Dawson Creek, British Columbia, is the true start of the Alaska Highway, but even there you have to do some digging to find the exact location.
Captioned Alcan Highway, this postcard show signs marking Mile 0.0 of the "Canadian-Alaskan Military Highway". Fort Nelson is noted as being 360 miles away, and the sign on the right also states: "Road under construction. Not open to the public." The sign on the left reads: "Beginning of St. John Ft. Nelson sector, Alcan military highway. Construction began on May 6, 1942. U.S. Army.".
We have posted dozens of other Early Alaska Highway Postcards.
The original military road was 1,670 miles long, but by the time it had been upgraded to an all-weather highway in 1943-1944, this sign in Dawson Creek stated the length as 1,568 miles.
This photo shows the traffic circle at the intersection of 8th Street and Alaska Avenue that is generally recognized as the start of the highway. The location used to be marked by a plain four-foot-high post, but it was knocked down by a car in 1946, and a fancy new post was erected downtown.
The former grain elevator in the background now houses the
Dawson Creek Art Gallery.
This is the most-photographed "Start of the Alaska Highway" monument. Very attractive, but it's in the wrong location - it was put there for visibility, not historic accuracy. Behind it is Alaska Highway House, a combination visitor centre and interpretive centre that's open year-round.
This area at NAR Park (Northern Alberta Railway Park) is as close as you're going to get for a good photo of the start of the highway (and you have to dash across often-heavy traffic to get this shot). There are several signs and monuments about the highway here, including the simple post seen at the top of this article.
The brass plaque at NAR Park says:
and the official starting point of the
GREAT ALASKA HIGHWAY
constructed between 1942 and 1944,
and extending for 1,523 miles from
DAWSON CREEK, BRITISH COLUMBIA
However, being cast in brass doesn't mean it's true. See comments below about the errors.
To confuse the situation even more, there were "Mile 0" signposts put up at other locations than Dawson Creek. This one was at Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1942 - it actually marks Whitehorse as Mile 0 of the Northern Sector of the highway project. The sign on the Dodge weapons carrier says: "First truck, Dawson Creek to Whitehorse. Driving time 71 hours" - it arrived in Whitehorse on September 27, 1942.
The Fairbanks business community was successsful in getting the "End of the Alaska Highway" monument erected on the banks of the Chena River at what is now Golden Heart Park. In about 1991, however, it was moved to Delta Junction, 98 miles south. The move was justified by the fact that the Richardson Highway
already existed between Delta Junction and Fairbanks when the Alaska Highway arrived. This 1960s sign states the length of the highway as 1523 miles, but sometime later it was changed to 1520 miles.
The original tote road was 1,670 miles long, but it was substantially shortened when it was upgraded to an all-weather highway in 1943-1944.
The current "End of the Alaska Highway" monument at Delta Junction, Alaska. This is Historic Mile 1422. It is in front of the Visitor Center along with some interpretive displays about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and across the road is the restored
As of 2018, Historic Mile 1422 is actually about 2,225.5 kilometers, or 1,383 miles, from Dawson Creek due to continuing work to straighten the highway.
The Alaska Highway