FLASHBACK: 1942 and the Alaska Higway

from the diary of O. T. Howey


Some 24 years ago, in November 1942, six D.O.T.'ers in four half-ton pick-ups made the first civilian trip up the Alaska Highway from Edmonton to Whitehorse. It took them 11 days (70 hours of driving) to cover the 1500-odd miles. Scarcely a year before, most of the route had been but a casual assortment of trappers' trails travelled by dog team and an occasional pack horse.


The six men, Oliver Howey, Jim Connolly, Ted Argue, Gib Wall, Des Carty and Art Taylor, all members at that time of Edmonton region telecommunications, were delivering the Chevrolet pick-ups to range stations at Aishibik, Snag, Teslin and Smith River, where service trucks were needed for transportation of personnel and light materials.


The temporary Alaska Highway, or tote road as it was called, was built by U.S. Army engineers in only eight months. It was and still is a monument to their industry and skill. (They continued to improve and maintain it until the end of the Second World War, when the Canadian government assumed responsibility).


The D.O.T. convoy was probably the first non-military group to use the whole road. When they began they didn't think the word pioneers applied. By the time they pulled into Whitehorse they weren't so sure. Before starting they were aware of two points where they could expect difficulties. The Peace River bridge, beyond Dawson Creek, had been taken out by moving ice and the ice at Teslin Lake was considered unsafe, but as it turned out these places were passed easily compared to some of the hairpin curves, switch-backs and grades they encountered elsewhere.


The four trucks left Edmonton on the morning of November 23 in a light snowfall which gradually increased until at Clyde visibility was a matter of yards. Still they decided to push on to Athabaska where accommodation was better and the day's mileage would total a creditable 100 miles. The six were tired when they finally got to bed there.


By nine the next morning after having first awakened the town, they were off again. The D.O.T.'ers had managed to rouse the Chinese cafe owner to serve breakfast at 7 a.m. The garage operator who stored the trucks overnight suffered a similar rousing. November 24 was to prove one of the longest days of the trip. They were on the road about 15 hours to add 271 miles to their total-stopping, exhausted, at midnight.


High Prairie, for dinner and the night, had been the original objective. Once there, however, they were told chances of the ferry continuing to operate across the Big Smokey River, nearly 100 miles further north, were poor. Southbound U.S. Army drivers reported that the river was freezing rapidly and, while the ferry had run that day, it might not be able to continue much longer. A few hours delay could mean a complete hold-up or a long, tiring detour. So the six men agreed to carry on in hopes of getting over the Big Smokey first thing in the morning of the 25th.


The trip from High Prairie was treacherous. Heavy snow allowed the trucks to go only at a crawl and when they finally reached the river the ferry had made the last trip for the day 45 minutes earlier. Visions of relatively comfortable rooms at a Grande Prairie hotel were replaced by the reality of sleeping bags on the floor of the ferryman's shack.


The ferryman assured them that they would get across early the next morning. He then allocated "lying room" on the floor of what Oliver Howey described as the smallest shack of its kind. It contained, of course, a wood stove that seemingly burned out two and a half minutes after the travellers had bedded down. It was a good 20 degrees below zero. Some misguided "architect" had raised the floor about two feet off the the ground, allowing for tropic ventilation! In the morning a long and rather heated discussion took place as to whose job it was to get up and start the fire. Exasperated, the ferryman settled the discussion. As the smoke from the resulting explosion cleared, all hands arose with quickly summoned alacrity. The ferryman stood with a quart bottle marked "kerosene" in his hand.


The convoy couldn't get under way until some two or three hours had been devoted to chopping the ferry free from the imprisoning ice. Even then, the ferry had to be poled through ice and current to get across. The D.O.T.'ers most definitely worked their passage!


The next 28 miles into Grande Prairie made the first bit of real driving possible. They made Fort St. John by nightfall, and on the way passed a steady stream of great six-wheel army trucks loaded with a variety of equipment. As well, between Grande Prairie and Fort St. John they frequently had to do minor detours around long lines of gravel piles to avoid all kinds of road machines, whose operators chose to remain oblivious to traffic. Apparently a bulldozer operator is somewhat like a performer - the show must go on - and oncoming traffic can do anything it chooses to get out of the road just as long as it doesn't disturb the bulldozer.


The next morning the group was unable to get away from Fort St. John until nearly noon due to a flat tire, oil and gasoline requirements. The local garage, due to expanding business created by the highway, needed three times the staff and twice the space to service customers adequately.


The most hair-raising part of the trip was yet to be experienced during the 270-odd mile stretch from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson. The D.O.T. drivers learned on the 12-hour stretch to pay close attention and to obey explicitly all road signs. The worst hills and curves were well marked with speed limits given. The approach to the Sikanni Chief River, for example, informed all trucks to proceed no faster than five miles an hour in first gear. At that point the road turned more than 90 degrees to the left and dropped so suddenly that one had to be well advanced on the brow of the hill to see the bottom where everything disappeared into timber. A complete half circle, the curve's beginning and end were only 15 or 20 feet apart. From there the road dropped so sharply that, even in low gear, wheels skidded as they took another turn to the left and put the trucks directly onto a one-way bridge.


A temperamental air compressor engine delayed departure from Nelson on November 27, but by noon they were on their way. Once again the road plunged into low mountains. Twisting and turning, rising and falling, it searched out passes and followed river valleys. At Mile 116 it suddenly disappeared under two or three feet of broken ice, the result of an overflow backing up over 150 yards of the highway.


Large U.S. army trucks were attempting to cross by smashing their way through the ice and water. Like enraged bulls they roared over the short approach and plunged into the churning water up to the tops of their wheels. Careening crazily from side to side, one moment almost broadside to the road, the next coming within a hair's breadth of upsetting, their front wheels were thrown clear of the water to fall back crashing onto the rocks and ice below. Drivers of the big giants were hurled about in the cabs like small pieces of mechanism that had been jarred loose.


The D.O.T. convoy felt getting their comparatively small vehicles across was not too promising, but after waiting until the larger trucks had smashed most of the ice they decided to attempt the crossing with one. The opportunity of getting a tow was the best!


The D.O.T. truck stopped dead about half way across the obstacle but was freed by a mighty jerk from a heavy army truck. As soon as it was clear of the water it was on its way for Mile 165 before water freezing on the brake drums or other parts could stop it. The other three trucks turned back and headed for a construction camp to have a late supper and spend the night.


Next morning an American army road crew was at the site blasting away ice to drain the water. By 3 p.m. on November 28, the water level had been lowered enough to allow the D.O.T. vehicles, but not without a tow, to cross and be on their way.


From here on the road narrowed through mountainous area and it was decided to restrict driving to daylight hours. The crew spent the nights at construction camps. By mid-afternoon of the 29th the three-truck convoy reached Smith River range site where one truck was to be left. The remaining two left early the following morning and by five o'clock that afternoon were in Watson Lake where they caught up with the vehicle which had left them at Macdonald Creek.


Plans for an early departure next morning were thwarted by fuel line trouble in one of the trucks but, nevertheless, they still made it to Teslin Lake by 9 p.m. that night, December 1st.


Crossing the ice of a small bay of Teslin Lake had for some time been the greatest obstacle of the entire route. Several convoys had had to either turn back or wait patiently for the water to freeze to a greater depth. Before the U.S. army had stepped in to control traffic over the ice, five trucks had plunged through into 12 or 15 feet of water, their positions being "buoyed" by five small spruce trees planted in the ice.


Fortunately, the day the D.O.T. convoy arrived permission had been granted to use the ice between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., one truck at a time with a load limit of eight tons. Two soldiers, one on either side of the half-mile bay, were despatching alternately in such a way that only one was on the ice at any time. The large trucks co-operated with a will and their drivers interpreted literally the northern adage for crossing thin ice. "Keep the door open and drive like - - - -."


Roadstop north of Watson Lake

as army lorry rumbles by.

The D.O.T.'ers were consoled by the thought of the small trucks they were driving, feeling that if the larger ones could make it there was little doubt about their two-ton gross. Nevertheless, the one- and two-inch cracks crisscrossing the drive path were not reassuring.


From Teslin to Whitehorse, the final 230-mile stretch was one of the most level sections encountered. They averaged 30 miles an hour and frequently cruised at 40 and 50. At 2.30 p.m. December 3 the last two trucks were parked at Whitehorse airport, mission accomplished, and the drivers were homeward­bound by air to Edmonton.


More than 20 years later all six of these drivers are still accounted for. C. G. Connolly retired in 1964 from the Edmonton Region, P. A. Taylor is now a purchasing agent with the Department of Forestry while the rest are still with the department's telecommunications branch. D. G. Carty is now regional controller of telecommunications at Winnipeg, J. W. Wall is superintendent of emergency measures planning, O. T. Howey is electronics technician with radio communications engineering and A. G. E. Argue is superintendent, radio authorization and enforcement regulations.


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