ALCAN Highway Memories

You'll learn how ALCAN Highway travelers made their way over this incredible road. From its days as a barely two-lane dirt trail, to more recent highway years.


alcan highwayCan you imagine driving on this road?

When you read these ALCAN Highway memories, keep in mind that the road first opened around 1947.

For many years that followed, it was nothing more than a barely two lane gravel-covered dirt road that curved around all over the place.

In the summer it was dusty, and when it rained, the fine dust turned into slick, slimy mud. It was a very rough drive.

Back then, gravel constantly pelted the underside of your car. And the rocks on the road caused many flat tires.

As cars and trucks passed you on the other side, gravel flying through the air routinely broke headlights and cracked thousands of windshields.

In fact, replacing headlights, windshields and repairing flat tires became a reliable source of income for the few service stations along the way.

But gas stations weren't the only things that were scarce along the ALCAN Highway.

Grocery stores and places to eat and stop for the night were few and far between. If you were driving at night, stopped your car and turned off the motor, what you heard was total silence. Especially in the Yukon Territory where there are miles and miles of nothing but wilderness.

When you had a breakdown out in the middle of who knows where, you were totally at the mercy of others who were driving the road. Fortunately, drivers would always stop to offer assistance.

In the winter, the highway presented different problems. Ice and snow covered the road, and driving conditions and cold temperatures were dangerous.

In the stories that follow, you get to ride along and experience the memories of driving the road back in the day. Enjoy.


Breakdown on the ALCAN Highway


breakdown on alcan at summit motel

Ride along on the highway in 1972 as author Ron Proctor takes his VW Bus on an adventure he will never forget. 


From the story:

On Friday morning, without any road services in the area, I cautiously began to drive the bus from the Hot Springs and got as far as milepost 462 at the town of Toad River along the highway.

At the gas station there, a mechanic gave me the grim news: the generator had blown and the fan belt which cooled the engine burned off. He knew a mechanic at Summit Lake, 35 miles south of Toad River, who had a Volkswagen generator and arranged for it to be delivered the following day.



March 1966 on the ALCAN Highway


march on alcan highway

“It was March 1966, when my husband and I left the big city to go somewhere that scared me to death.”

Destination: Anchorage, Alaska


From the story:

“Watch out for the semi's”, one of them said. “They drive fast and will kick up gravel. If a rock hits your windshield, get the truck's license plate number. They'll pay for the repair.” “And stop for moose. If you hit one, your car will be totaled,” said another. “And don't forget,” he continued, “if you see a car that's stopped, you have to get out and see if the driver needs help.”



Traveling with a White Cat Pink Tail


winter on the highway

How do you find a white cat in the snow along the Alaska Highway?

Author Rick Hood tells this story about a trick that worked on a family pet.


From the story:

Both cats were great rabbit hunters accustomed to North Carolina woods but not so much to snow.

We didn't worry particularly about the Seal Point Siamese, but we feared the long-hair white Persian might be difficult to spot in the snow if she ever did escape the car.



Drove So Many Times


alaska canadian highway

On one trip, we ended up with a hole punctured in our gas take.

We stuck some gum in the hole until we could get it fixed properly.


From the story:

One year we actually got 3 flat tires at one time. My dad had to walk a ways to the nearest gas station and thank God there was one reasonably close by, I haven't a clue what we would have done if there wasn't one.



No Ordinary Canary


entering alaska

This family traveled the highway with a dog and a bird.

Follow their adventures on the road when it was a tough drive.


From the story:

At age 11, I traveled the ALCAN Highway from Wyoming to Anchorage with my father, my mother, my sister and two brothers — not to mention a dog, a captured ground squirrel, and a canary — to start a new life in Anchorage.



What I Learned Driving the ALCAN Highway
Seven Times


alaska canadian highway

Ric drove the highway during the 1960s when it was mostly a gravel road.

He used different vehicles and remembers his time on the highway.



From the story:

More gravel road and just one flat tire. Using a jack on the side of a gravel road proved to be a challenge, but I got it done at last. Several kind folks stopped and asked if I needed help, but I thanked them and fixed it myself.



Her Family has a History on the Highway


long stretch of dirt road

From 1957, when the ALCAN Highway was a narrow two lane dirt road, to 1972 when portions had been paved, her family experienced the road many times.


From the story:

The road was gravel and quite a few of the rivers had no bridges yet – just wood planks.”



ALCAN Highway Experience


alcan dirt road

Long before the highway was paved. It was a tough, but beautiful drive.

Flat tires and cracked windshields were a way of life on the road.


From the story:

The ALCAN was a narrow, gravel covered dirt road that wound through the Canadian wilderness like a drunken snake had charted its course.

In the summer, the constant sound of gravel flying off your tires and pelting the under carriage of your car, truck, or camper could be maddening.

Flat tires were common, as were broken headlights and windshields from gravel tossed up off the road by passing cars and trucks.

Driving the road and surviving it was a badge of honor.




ALCAN Highway Diary


1947


photo courtesy of Gene Gough


gough family on the alaska highway 1947The Gough family on the Highway

Carola Gough kept a diary of the families 1947 ALCAN adventure.

From the Diary:

Road is terrible, wet, and slippery. Up and down we go. Just passed cliffs where we could see coal. Looks like sunshine ahead. There's a rainbow against the mountains. Bought gas at Summit Lake. We had planned to fish here, but they say there are no fish in the lake. Clemma must have meant Summit Lake, Alaska. So we'll go on and do our 200 mile stint – 20 miles to go.


Across the mountains we can see for miles, trees, mountains, clouds, nothing but wasteland. Surely is lonesome. Stayed at an old road on top of the mountains, cooked dinner and stayed overnight. Wieners and macaroni sure made a hit with everyone.



You can read about the Gough family's 1947 trip

In a diary kept by Carola Gough. A must-read.

Read her “ALCAN Highway Diary”  and enjoy






The Flat Tire Problem


Circa 1954


Photo below courtesy of Dorothy Fry


early days on the highwayFlat tires were common in the early days

In the Picture:

Dorothy Fry (little girl), David (brother) and Roy (dad)


If you traveled the ALCAN Highway in those days when most of it was gravel, you know first hand that flat tires were a real problem for travelers.

In some stories on this page, you'll read accounts where it wasn't just one flat tire, but multiple flats at the same time. And when that happened, travelers relied on the kindness of other travelers to help them out.

But a flat tire on the highway could also be a blessing in disguise.

It gave everyone in the car a much-needed break. If you were traveling with kids or teens, they enjoyed getting out of the car while the tire was being changed. And if you were the driver, it was nice to let go of the steering wheel and have a different view that didn't include the road ahead. If only for 10 to 15 minutes.


ALCAN Highway Memories


Photos below courtesy of Erik Park


highway in those early daysA Check Point along the highway

Erik's mom traveled the ALCAN Highway with her family in 1947 from Boulder, Colorado to Alaska, and the following year she graduated from Anchorage High School.

The adventure of driving over the highway to a new and distance place was a challenge. At the end of their journey, what would they see, what would they experience? One thing was sure. They would never forget the highway.


alaska canadian highwayTaking a welcome break along the rough road

For travelers on the highway, taking a break from being in a moving vehicle driving along the twists and turns of the narrow road was more than welcome.

Just to stand up for a while and stretch their legs. To take a short walk, or even enjoy the beauty that surrounded them on this famed road. Yes, taking a break was a welcome part of the journey.


1950s


mile 1187 alaska highway

The photo above by Jack Stalberg shows the barely two lane road on a cold day.


Notice how beautiful but stark it is in the picture above.

And the contrast of the brown road against the snow-covered landscape is at once beautiful and striking. You can almost feel the cold


1950s


1950s signs on the highway

In this Jack Stalberg photo, the signs read that you are entering the Yukon Territory and that it's over 300 miles to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.


Just imagine how many vehicles had stopped at these signs for a few minutes. Maybe they got out and took pictures, or perhaps they gave themselves some time to simply enjoy where they were.


1951


Photo below, courtesy of Nick Daggart


road in winterWinter time on the highway

Just look at the early day travelers in the photos above.

Can you imagine?

But the difficulties and trials, encountered during the early days of the Alaska Highway, did not keep those pilgrims from their goal of reaching Alaska.


Photo Below Courtesy of Marci Peterson


(Year Unknown)


alaska highwayMarci Peterson challenging the winter highway

While it is a very long road, and can be a dangerous drive, one thing is certain… there is plenty of beautiful scenery along the highway. In the picture above, Marci and her husband stopped for a short break.

Notice the narrow road, lined with trees as cloud-covered mountains fill the horizon.


Watson Lake Sign Post Forest

in the Yukon Territory


watson lake sign post forest canadaA fun stop along the way

Did you know about this unique stop along the highway?

Thousands and thousands of travelers stop to rest at the Watson Lake “Sign Post Forest” and many have contributed to this very different place by telling their ALCAN Highway stories with the signs they leave behind.

When you visit, and you really take the time to look, you'll spot signs and license plates from all over the world. Many of the signs look as if they were “removed” from their original location somewhere else on earth and given a new home in the Sign Post Forest.


BONUS


Did you know that the ALCAN Highway wasn't opened to civilian traffic until 1948?

However, two years before that, in 1946, there were two families from Arkansas and one person from Seattle who were given permission from the Canadian government to travel the highway to homestead in Alaska.

Here is their story


The First Civilian Travelers


In 1946, only military traffic was allowed on the ALCAN Highway.

But two families from Arkansas somehow persuaded the Canadian Government to let them drive the highway to Alaska, so they could homestead. A man named L.D. Roach also received permission. The two families traveled together. Roach traveled by himself.


The Highway in 1946


While it was called a highway, in reality it was nothing more than a muddy trail in the summer, with wooden bridges. The grades were steep. After a rain, sections of the road could be flooded or impassable.

There were no motels or places to get food or supplies.

Travelers were on their own.


The Colter – Hayes Caravan


Two families traveled together, the Colter family and the Hayes family.

They formed a caravan of sorts with a 1936 Willy's Overland and a 1936 Chevy. The two vehicles towed trailers filled with gas, food, and other supplies.

They prepared their food along the way, made their own repairs and camped out at night.

In those days, because of the war, tires were not made very well and repairing them was difficult.


L.D. Roach


Leaving from Seattle, L.D. Roach made the trip up the ALCAN Highway in a 1930 Packard Roadster.

His vehicle was the 8th civilian car to drive the highway (although records are incomplete and a few motorists may have driven the road without permission).

At least twice during his trip, Roach's car went off of the muddy road.


More Tried


While others later received permission to travel the highway, most had to be rescued, so the Canadian Government stopped letting civilians drive the road.


Greyhound Buses


greyhound bus alcan highwayPhoto from Explore North

From 1942 until 1944, Canadian Greyhound Coaches provided regular service on the ALCAN Highway between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks, Alaska. This was done while the road was still under construction.

U.S. Military personnel were allowed on the buses, as were civilian employees of the United States Government and workers employed by U.S. agencies or their contractors.

Each bus used two drivers working together.

As you might imagine, both the Greyhound buses and the passengers faced extreme challenges. 


ALCAN Highway Memories


Today, the road is more like a very long Sunday drive. It's paved and there are many places where you can pull over, get gas for your car, have breakfast, lunch, or dinner and stay for the night.

Depending on the time of year, you can even get in some fishing, hiking, or take pictures to share with friends and family.

When you drive the highway today, try to imagine what it was like when it was just a narrow, barely two lane, gravel-covered dirt road. Then try to imagine how difficult it was for the many thousands who drove the highway back then.

Adults, who as children, took the journey with their parents, and still recall the remarkable road. And they have plenty of interesting stories to tell about how their family made the trip.

And everyone who has traveled the highway has memories for a lifetime.


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