North to Alaska — The Alaskan ("Alcan") Highway Then and Now
In 1867, the United States purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia. For nearly 80 years, however, the only way to reach there from the “lower 48” was by sea. That changed in 1942 when the US government and Canada agreed to construct an overland route to Alaska through Canada. Proposals for such a road had been considered for decades, but there had been little sense of urgency in either the US or Canada. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically changed that. Should the Japanese invade Alaska, it would bring the “lower 48” within much easier reach of Japanese ships and planes. Construction began in March 1942, starting north from central British Columbia and simultaneously working south from Alaska. Less than 9 months later, the 1,600+ mile land route to Alaska was declared complete. The men of the US Army Corp of Engineers had carved it through an unmapped wilderness of forest, seemingly bottomless mud, and over mountains, as they fought not only time but rain, snow, and clouds of mosquitos. This course will look not only at how they did it, but also at the context and side effects of building the road. The Klondike Gold Rush — yes, it is relevant; Japanese occupation of two Alaskan islands while the road was under construction; race relations in the US army; the road’s role in delivery of US planes to Soviet Russia; and much more. In 1948, the US and Canadian governments opened the Alaska Highway to public travel. Sixty-five years later, in 2013, my husband and I drove from San Francisco to Fairbanks AK and back on a 9,000-mile road trip that covered every single mile of the highway as it exists today. As we consider the history of this amazing highway, we will do so in parallel with this wonderful road-trip.
Joan Boothe is primarily an Antarctic historian. She has, however, also been fascinated with the history of the Arctic since childhood, and has made multiple trips to Alaska, though always arriving there by sea or air until 2013. Driving the Alaska Highway had been a dream of hers since she was a teenager. When Professor Boothe at last achieved this dream in 2013, she was struck by how much of the history of the road’s creation remains along the way. It was this experience that inspired this course. Professor Boothe has taught enthusiastically received courses on Antarctic history for the Stanford Continuing Studies program and here at the Fromm Institute. A member of the Explorers Club since 2007, Professor Boothe is a past chairperson of the Northern California Chapter.