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Review: Arctic highways equate to adventure for builders and travelers

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Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2010 4:05 am | Updated: 1:03 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Every once in a while, I find an old book I missed on its first go-round. Rooting through old libraries and book stores leads a true armchair adventurer to overlooked treasures, and even though the publication date is far from new, it’s worth sharing the find with one’s fellow aficionados.

Such is true for “Northwest Epic,” a comprehensive look at the building of the Alaska Highway during World War II. Written by Heath Twitchell, and winner of the Allan Nevins Prize in American History, this fact-filled tome is just the ticket for those of us who’ve heard tales of the bone-jarring, car-wrecking trip that was a ride up the “Alcan” in its early days.

I took the highway from the Lower 48 to Fairbanks in 2005, and wondered what all the fuss was about. My van filled with furniture, and dog and I survived with no damage, all glass intact, with an adventure to fill the scrapbook. I couldn’t relate to the stories my parents told me about taking the road in the early 1960s. Seemed okay to me.

Then I read this book. All the stories were true — and then some.

Most Alaskans know the tale — the military, during World War II, was afraid the Japanese would cut off shipping lanes, and also believed Alaska was a strategic staging area for the Asian theater. But, getting to Alaska from the Lower 48 was — well, if not impossible, then awfully difficult. With no railroad going all the way, rivers that froze early and stayed frozen for six or seven months, weather and climate that made the era’s plane travel iffy, and no roads to speak of, getting troops and supplies to this important place would be problematic.

But efforts to get a road linking Alaska with the Lower 48 began long before the war, as Twitchell points out. Once the first explorers found their way into the Yukon and Alaska in the 18th century, efforts to open up the vast riches of furs and minerals began in earnest. Alexander Mackenzie made the first attempts to map the area in 1789, but he was not the last.

Still, when the war broke out, America’s leaders, while realizing it would be nice to get the road built, weren’t convinced it was necessary. Until Dec. 7, 1941. That’s when the impetus to get the road built really took off.

The original road, 1,500 miles of gravel over permafrost, muskeg, uncharted mountains and treacherous rivers, was built by the U.S. Army in less than two years. The official total cost of these 1,500 miles of road was $500 million, the most expensive construction project of World War II.

What started as a simple road, a way to get from Point A to Point B, soon spawned numerous other construction projects, including the Haines Cutoff and a number of gas and oil pipelines. Army engineers, many of whom weren’t engineers until they were drafted into the Army engineering companies, innovated on the fly. They learned to deal with permafrost, swampy muskeg, rivers that scoured everything in their pats, temperatures down to minus-70 Fahrenheit, lack of supplies, clothing, heavy equipment and parts.

Several officers made or lost their careers on this project. Men learned to lead, build, troubleshoot, innovate and deal with adversity and difficulties using only their wits, skills and teamwork. This was a massive undertaking, requiring more than 12,000 military troops, who were then followed by more than 5,000 civilian Public Road Authority workers who smoothed out the rough draft of a road into a useable, permanent, year-round path between Alaska and the rest of the U.S.

“Most roads just happen,” Twitchell writes in the first chapter. “Following the easiest contours of the land, a footpath broadens with increasing use into a trail and eventually becomes a thoroughfare. Paving and grading do not make such a highway; they only confirm its existence. But some roads do not follow the dictates of terrain, time and custom. Instead they are built in response to more urgent imperatives.”

Twitchell notes that efforts to convince the government to build a road had begun years before; in fact, there were several groups pushing for roads through Canada into Alaska, all championing different routes. When the inland route was finalized, a combination of different parts of two routes, the location “provoked strong protests from power West Coast political and economic interests,” Twitchell writes.

In fact, the entire project was fraught with political protesting and infighting, and not just from the American politicians. Seeing as the road was an incursion into Canada’s sovereign territory, even the Canadians threw their opinions into the mix. Twitchell goes into great detail regarding the Canadian view of the project, not the least of which was concern that the road was a precursor to the US attempting to “annex” parts of Canada.

He also details the politics and maneuverings from various interested parties and those who hoped to get rich from the deal.

But the bulk of the book is, of course, the building of the road. It is part mystery, part thriller, part adventure and part social commentary. The author has a good grasp of the forces of history which converged and eddied around the project, noting how they affected construction and other aspects of it. He devotes an entire chapter to the aspects of civil rights and segregation, noting that half the troops sent to build the road were black soldiers, considered to be of lower intelligence and skill than whites, leading them to work as stevedores and laborers, even though they mostly had the same training as the white soldiers.

The road was built in sections — companies would start at opposite ends of the section and build toward each other, usually meeting at a stream or river. When the final section was finished, an historic picture made its way across the world, an ironic one, as Twitchell notes: “There was a poignant symbolism in the wire-service photograph that soon appeared in hundreds of newspapers … It showed two grimy but jubilant solders shaking hands atop their ‘dozers. One was a black man from Philadelphia, Corporal Refine Sims, Jr. The other man was white, Private Alfred Jalufka, from Kennedy, Texas.”

Twitchell, who took on the project when he inherited an unfinished manuscript started by his father, also named Heath Twitchell, spent years researching and reviewing the road. His father was an officer with the Engineers Corps, assigned to several units throughout the project. This I, as Twitchell writes in the dedication, for his father, “a builder of highways and bridges. This is the story he started to write …”

It is a fitting tribute to a man who epitomizes the early 20th century — strong, dedicated, a builder of infrastructure. The book is well-written, an easy and compelling read. And though it has been languishing in the forgotten shelves for almost 20 years, it is still a fresh and fabulous story of the building of a road …

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at martinlibbie@yahoo.com.

Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway

By Heath Twitchell

St. Martin’s Press

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