Labor History in 2:00

November 21 - Workers Complete the Alaskan Highway

November 21, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1942.

That was the day the completion of the Alaskan Highway or Alcan, was celebrated at Soldier’s Summit. 

There had been proposals for a highway connecting the United States to Alaska since the early 1920s.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt moved quickly to organize its approval and construction.

By March 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on the $138 million project. 

More than 10,000 troops were assigned to highway construction. 

Over a third were comprised of newly formed black regiments.

Thousands of pieces of construction equipment were moved through the railroads, including steam shovels, blade graders, tractors, trucks, bulldozers, snowplows, cranes and generators.

In a matter of eight months, workers carved out 1700 miles of road between Dawson Creek, British Columbia, through the Yukon to Delta Junction in Alaska, under the most treacherous environmental conditions. 

Workers arrived in wintery Dawson Creek, pitching their sleeping quarters in snowdrifts. 

By spring , workers battled flooding rivers, equipment sinking into thick mud and fears of Japanese bombers. 

By summer, mosquitoes, dubbed “bush bombers,” were so bad workers had to eat under netting. 

Black workers also battled relentless racism.

The Army was still segregated. 

Black troops faced racist presumptions about their capacity to carry out hard labor. 

They were determined to break down stereotypes. 

By fall, white and black bulldozer drivers coordinating the work together were celebrated in the pages of the Army’s Yank magazine, Time and the New York Times. 

Some historians consider the integrated work crews a factor in President Truman’s later move to desegregate the armed forces. 

According to The New York Times, the Federal Highway Administration calls the Alcan “the road to civil rights.”

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