“Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway”
By Heath Twichell; Epicenter Press, 2022/1992; 408 pages; $29.95.
“Miles and miles of miles and miles” is how one of the men who helped construct the Alaska Highway described it. It’s a sentiment most anyone who has driven that seemingly endless road will echo as they count mileposts while traveling through some of the most rugged and sparsely populated lands in North America, lands that witness some of the continent’s most severe weather.
The Alcan, as it is colloquially known, traverses mountains, bogs, prairies, and more, challenging drivers for 1,387 miles with cliffside curves, endless straightaways, bridges over dozens of rivers, dust in summer, ice and snow in winter, occasional small settlements becoming fewer and fewer as one drives northwestward, only a handful of traffic signals, and one international border crossing. We can forgive a traveler for asking, “How long did this take to build?”
The long answer is it’s never fully built. The short answer is one extended season.
Most Alaskans know the lone highway reaching into our state is a product of World War II. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and longstanding fears of Alaska’s vulnerability were realized when Dutch Harbor was also bombed and two Aleutian Islands were seized. The remote territory, then still nearly two decades from statehood, could only be reached by sea or air, and ships and planes could be intercepted by Japanese forces patrolling the North Pacific.
The only reasonably secure means of keeping Alaska and its growing military bases supplied was through Canada. Planes could never meet the military’s freight demands, and putting in a railroad would take a decade. A gravel road, however, could conceivably be built in one year. And so it was.
This is the story that the late military historian and West Point instructor Heath Twichell told in his account of the highway’s construction, “Northwest Epic.” Originally published in 1992, the 50th anniversary of the Alcan’s opening, it’s recently been reissued by Epicenter Press, bringing an invaluable work of Alaska’s history back into print.
Twichell begins with chapters discussing conditions in prewar Alaska and the access difficulties that bedeviled it. Several road routes were proposed by various parties, each reflecting their own interests, but in the Depression, there was little capital to be had.
When war broke out, America faced a diplomatic challenge: convince Canada that the United States needed a road on Canadian soil. The solution was to call it a wartime necessity, put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge, and pay for most of it. Canada agreed, and by March 1942, less than three months after the U.S. entered the war, a route was chosen and troops and equipment began streaming north.
Twichell had a deep personal connection to all of this through his father, Col. Heath Twichell Sr., who was involved in the military command and direction of the project (the civilian Public Roads Administration constructed a significant share as well). The elder Twichell’s voice is one of many often evoked in this book, adding to a sense, for the reader, of having been on-hand for the event.
Twichell Jr., tells a gripping tale of the many challenges that faced Army crews as they pushed through little-traveled territory that was often unmapped. Regiments were deployed to various locations along the route, and from there began blazing a path towards the next crew, which was coming their way.
Twichell details daily life, where hunting and fishing were among the permitted diversions. This had the added advantage of providing camp cooks with something other than canned and dried goods to create meals from. Gambling was the only accessible vice, and troops were generally too exhausted after a day’s work to become discipline problems. Then, as now, wildfires and their accompanying smoke were ever-present.
One cannot explore the history of the building of this road without recognizing the complex dynamics of race. Black soldiers were crucial to its construction, but they were strictly segregated and, especially early on, poorly treated. Twichell documents their path into the Yukon, enduring hardships both natural and imposed, but also moments of humor, such as an Indigenous man’s first sighting of a Black man.
Twichell’s father took command of the demoralized 95th Engineers. The Black regiment had been stripped of most of its heavy equipment by white crews and had been forced to do most of its work by hand. The elder Twichell tasked them with bridge construction instead, and soon they were hopscotching from one river or creek to the next, spanning them with bridges capable of handling the Army’s load sizes. Morale improved.
Twichell Jr. was a strong proponent of civil rights, and honest about his father’s shortcomings on racial issues. Though never hateful, he could be highly patronizing, especially regarding Indigenous peoples. Twichell neither attacks his dad nor makes excuses for his views. He simply offers his father as a complex product of the times and places he lived through. And through that, he offers this history as complex and human. It’s an important thing to remember as we try to understand the past and those who impacted it (and an important understanding for modern readers to lend Twichell; he doesn’t capitalize Black or Native because this was not common practice in the early nineties).
Twichell painstakingly details the feuds, turf wars, promotions, and transfers (sometimes forced) of the assorted military brass who oversaw the project. His father was one of the few officers to last the duration. Politicians got involved as well, including a rising Missouri senator with a reformist bent, Harry Truman. He went after the Canol oil project, affiliated with the highway, and called it a boondoggle for good reasons.
On Nov. 20, 1942, two converging bulldozers met near Beaver Creek, close to the border, and the Alaska Highway was open, six months and 1,570 miles after it began. It “was really only an emergency supply route — particularly northwest of Whitehorse — and a very tenuous one at that,” Twichell writes. Yet from that came one of the world’s great drives. A “Northwest Epic” indeed.