North to Alaska! Fifty Years on the World's Most Remarkable Highway


304 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7710-2164-X
DDC 388.1'09711'8




Reviewed by Graham Adams, Jr.

Graham Adams, Jr., is a professor of American history at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.


Fifty years ago Canada and the United States jointly agreed to sponsor
construction of the Alaska Highway. An immense undertaking that
stretched over 1500 miles (from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to
Fairbanks, Alaska), it represented, as Coates states, “one of the most
unusual and massive construction projects of the twentieth century.”

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and then occupied the islands of Kiska
and Attu in the Aleutians, many anticipated a Japanese attack on Alaska
followed by a deeper thrust into North America. As a result, President
Franklin Roosevelt quickly approved a U.S. Army recommendation for
construction of the highway. Canada gave its assent but refused to
participate in financing or building the artery, even though it would
pass through more than 1200 miles of Canadian territory.

A massive work force of American soldiers under the direction of the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a crude but serviceable unpaved
road within eight months despite bitter cold, blizzards, mosquitoes,
blackflies, and floods in the sub-Arctic wilderness. A civilian agency,
the Public Roads Administration, took over from the Army and upgraded
the highway, but as the Japanese threat of invasion faded, cutbacks in
appropriations hindered progress and the artery remained unfit for
tourist travel.

Canada reluctantly inherited the highway from the United States in
1946, but the government attempted only minimal improvements. In the
1960s, responding to pressure from the booming new state of Alaska,
Canada initiated a more vigorous program, which gradually brought the
road up to modern standards. Today tourists can drive on a fully paved,
well-maintained highway that offers superb scenery. Nevertheless, the
artery must now compete with a thriving coastal ferry system, the rival
Stewart-Cassiar Highway, and air transport.

Coates’s well-written and well-researched study reflects the
author’s deep affection for this extraordinary human accomplishment,
and his book makes a much-needed contribution to the history of the


Coates, Kenneth S., “North to Alaska! Fifty Years on the World's Most Remarkable Highway,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,