Building the Alaskan Highway

Morris men worked on large construction project

By Thomas Hiatt

“Hundreds of pieces of machinery got stuck in the ditches,” John Schultz of Morris said, recalling his father’s experience of building the Alaska Highway during the heart of WWII. “They just slid off the side of the road and they just left them there. They didn’t have equipment big enough to get them up the hills. They’d just ship in new ones.”

John’s dad, the late Julian “Spike” Schultz worked on what was then called the Alcan Highway from 1942 to 1946.

“They would stay in camps,” John continued. “You’re sleeping in some little tent-type shack and the bears would come into them at night and raid the garbage. My dad said ‘I was always concerned about them bears getting into our sleeping quarters and kind of raising havoc with us, but they didn’t.’”

“He also told me ‘one of the things we used to do is meet on the roads on payday. We got our money in silver dollars. Trucks were going both ways and we’d meet and stop. We’d make a line across about 20 feet and pitch those silver dollars toward it. Whoever, of course, got the closet got to pick up all the money. I was a pretty good pitcher and did well. Some guys didn’t do so well.’

Julian “Spike” Schultz worked on the Alcan Highway for four years in the 1940s. Contributed photos

The idea of connecting the Alaska Territory to the lower 48 states dates back to 1899. E.H. Harriman, railroad magnet, proposed a rail line starting in Chicago and terminating at the Bering Sea. The Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1896, served as the incentive. He dropped the idea after the mines dried up.

The impetus for building an actual road came from Donald McDonald, a locating engineer for the Alaska Road Commission, in the 1920s. It would start in Seattle and end in Fairbanks. In 1933, in order to prove the project’s feasibility, MacDonald commissioned sledder and trapper Slim Williams to travel the proposed route by dogsled. It took five and a half months, but the moxie of the huskies finished the job. Unfortunately, despite the personal petitioning of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, political and economic disagreement between Canada and The United States stalled the project.

A decade later, due to the urgency brought on by World War II (Japan had occupied two of the Aleutian Islands), the two countries finally hammered out an agreement and construction began in March of 1942. This inland route would also connect air bases in British Columbia and the Yukon with supply lines.

“Spike,” a native of Minnesota, had been somewhat used to the cold. However, many of those recruited came from the Deep South and were largely uninformed of their destination and thus completely unprepared for the subarctic conditions.

“When we first went through there, that was just solid wilderness,” recalled another local, Louie Fischbach, in a 1979 University of Minnesota, Morris radio broadcast. He had been hired by the Army Corps of Engineers as a personnel director. “When I first got there, oh boy. We had a lot of people who came to work but the turnover was about three everyday. I was the last guy on the Highway. I closed up all the camps from Edmundton, Canada to Whitehorse.”

When crews finally finished the highway on Oct. 28, 1942, this largely gravel road ran approximately 1,700 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska (connecting roads led to Fairbanks and Anchorage). They opened to the public in 1948. Its length continually changes with repaving, reshaping and straightening.

John recounted the sheer loneliness of his father’s time there “I asked him one time - after I’d been to Alaska myself on a fishing trip and enjoyed it very much - ‘When you were living up there, did you ever once think about calling my mother and I to ask if you could move up there?’ That, I thought, would have been neat, to live in Alaska. ‘It never entered my mind,’ he said. ‘I missed my wife so much that I just couldn’t wait to get back.’”

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