AS the northern anchor of America's ramparts in the Pacific, Alaska is destined to play a stellar strategic rôle in the defense of this hemisphere.[i] Present plans call for the expenditure of some $50,000,000 to create or enlarge Army air fields, naval air bases, submarine bases and other military installations in various parts of the Territory. Of this sum, $34,325,000 has already been appropriated, $17,200,000 for the Army and $17,125,000 for the Navy. But these preparations will be of little value unless Alaska is connected with the States by dependable means of transport easily defensible and available all the year round. Practically everything consumed by the Territory's inhabitants, whether civilian or military, is now being imported; and this condition is bound to continue, at least as far as arms, munitions and general military supplies are concerned. The problem of improving and making secure our lines of communications with Alaska is therefore one of great importance and urgency.

At present, all traffic between the United States and Alaska must go by sea -- except for such mail, freight and passengers as are carried from Seattle by Pan American Airways or from Edmonton and Vancouver by Yukon Southern.

II

The north coast of Alaska may be considered open for navigation during three months -- July, August and September. In only some ten of the fifty-odd years since 1889 have vessels been able to round Point Barrow before July 1; while in two or three of those years the ice either entirely failed to move away from Barrow or moved so late that ships had ceased trying to get through. The coast southwest from Barrow to Point Hope usually opens a little earlier and closes a little later.

At Nome, on the west coast south of the Bering Strait, the first ordinary steamers arrive sometime during May and the last ones usually leave between October 25 and November 5. But Nome is only an open roadstead. The harbor of Port Clarence -- spacious enough to accommodate the entire United States Fleet, but almost too spacious since the sea in it is occasionally rough -- opens later than Nome and closes earlier. At the head of Port Clarence the excellent little harbor at Teller, usable only by small vessels, has a still shorter active season. St. Michael, farther south, is open for about the same period as Nome -- unless use is made of special methods, about which more will be said shortly. St. Michael is the port nearest the mouth of the Yukon River. This stream enjoys a slightly longer season than its southern neighbor, the Kuskokwim, because of the heat which its water has accumulated in its vast basin where summer temperatures frequently run above 90° in the shade, and sometimes even reach 100°. The delta of the Yukon generally freezes over during the first week of October, two or three weeks before the main stream above the delta.

All these facts are important, for by showing that the north and west coasts of Alaska are readily accessible by steamer during only a few months of the year they indicate the serious problems involved in supplying a considerable part of the Territory. One way to alleviate this difficulty is to use the "special methods" alluded to above.

The Soviets have developed a system by which numerous shore observatories along polar coasts work in conjunction with planes that scout the sea in order to report the condition and movement of ice. In Alaskan waters vessels could be similarly directed and redirected constantly so as to take advantage of thin or loose ice or of the widest available gaps in the pack. The season for northern Alaskan water-borne commerce might thus be extended at the same time that the safety of navigation was increased. The Soviets also use powerful icebreakers to accompany fleets of transport ships, and this helps still further to lengthen the navigation season and to assure safety. Such special ships would be useful principally in the waters to the south of Point Hope, and their usefulness would increase as one went south. They would thus be most important south of the Yukon, where places now closed for several months each winter might perhaps be made accessible for the entire year.

The chief harbors of southern Alaska are, with one exception, little troubled by ice. At Skagway, Juneau, Cordova, Seward and, of course, the ports in the Panhandle, there is no trouble at all. It is unfortunately the chief harbor of Alaska, Anchorage, that lies idle through several winter months because of ice. Anchorage is located at the head of Cook Inlet, where the tides are among the highest in the world. These currents keep the ice in such a state of agitation that the port at Anchorage is useless for nearly half the year. However, some observers believe that by using modern methods Anchorage could be kept open the year round.

In any event, Seward, 80 miles south of Anchorage on the Gulf of Alaska, has since the construction of the Alaska Railroad been the winter port for Anchorage. But Seward too has drawbacks. Along the railroad just north of it the heavy snows have been a serious problem in winter, the very time when that port must carry the burden of traffic. Furthermore, this stretch of track contains high wooden trestles which military experts regard as vulnerable to attack or sabotage. Both railway and Army experts have therefore been urging the construction of a cutoff. Recent reports indicate that preparations are now being made to convert Portage Bay, on the east side of Kenai Peninsula, into a harbor that will replace Seward.

For the time being, however, Anchorage is the most important city in Alaska. Just back of it is Fort Richardson, chief military establishment in the Territory. From Anchorage runs the government railroad northward across the high Alaska Range to the Tanana-Yukon basin at Fairbanks; and from it will soon run a branch road up through the Matanuska Valley to tie in with the Richardson Highway which extends from Valdez to Fairbanks.

III

This brings us to the question of what facilities exist for connecting the ports of Alaska with the interior. First of all there is, as already mentioned, the Seward-Fairbanks railroad. Its main line covers a distance of 470 miles and is open for freight and passenger service the year round. Besides carrying through traffic from the Yukon basin to the coast, its branch lines serve the Matanuska Valley farming area as well as several coal fields.

The railroad from Cordova inland along the Copper River ceased operation in 1938, but might be reopened. More important is the railway from Skagway across White Pass to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. From Whitehorse goods and passengers proceed by boat down the Yukon River to Dawson and to the great interior basin of Alaska. Like the Alaska Railroad, the White Pass line is open throughout the year,

There is only one road worthy of the name leading from the coast into the interior of Alaska -- the 371-mile Richardson Highway from Valdez to Fairbanks. This has a narrow, winding roadway and is not surfaced. Parts of the highway are closed each winter by snow, especially in the passes; but with the use of modern snow-removal machinery the road could doubtless be kept open in all except the worst weather. There is also a respectable road from Fairbanks to Circle -- the Steese Highway. The snow is drier and smaller in quantity in the interior than it is south of the Alaska Range, and for this reason it is easier to keep roads open in the Yukon Basin than on the southern coast. Indeed, Alaska blizzards, except those along the Bering Sea and the Arctic Coast, do not cause as much trouble as those of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Many roads, or trails, wind through various parts of the forested interior, and these are open in the winter when the ground is frozen. In the summer, however, when the mud and swamps turn into jelly, they become impassable. Hence it is upon aviation that much of Alaska must rely for transportation facilities.

In Alaska planes are used, both for freight and passengers, in a higher per capita ratio than anywhere in the world except in the Canadian and Soviet Far North. In 1938 the approximately 30,000 permanent white residents of Alaska purchased about 30,000 separate airplane passages. In the same year, Alaskan airways carried as much freight as all the airlines in the United States. There are three ways of flying to Alaska: Pan American Airways from Seattle and the two routes of Yukon Southern (subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway), one from Vancouver and one from Edmonton. From Seattle-Vancouver, Pan American and Yukon Southern coöperate to make up a seven-times-a-week schedule, four days from Seattle by Pan American and three from Vancouver by Yukon Southern. These Alaska services have so coördinated their schedules with the transcontinental airlines that it is possible to reach Fairbanks from New York City in 20 hours. In another three hours of flying one may reach the frontier between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in Bering Strait between Little and Big Diomede Islands.

In 1939 there were in Alaska about 175 airplanes doing scheduled runs, many of them available in their spare time for charter service. By now the number is undoubtedly higher. These planes operate not only out of "big cities" in Alaska, but sometimes out of villages. With them one can go to any part of the mainland territory and to some of the neighboring islands.

Of supreme importance to Alaska's forested interior basin, greater in area than all the seaboard states from Maine to Georgia, are the two large rivers, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim. The Yukon, third largest stream on the North American continent, has been navigated by flat-bottomed steamers with a draft up to six feet, from its mouth to Dawson, a distance of 1,100 miles, and by steamers of shallower draft another 300 miles to Whitehorse, terminal of the White Pass railway. The Kuskokwim is navigable for the 330 miles from McGrath to the sea. Both streams are open from May to October.

It has been suggested that the value of these two waterways as arteries of commerce would be greatly enhanced by joining them at a point near the Bering Sea where the portage between them is about 20 miles wide and 20 feet high. To dig such a canal would be simple and cheap, and would contribute to Alaska's defensibility by improving its interior lines of transportation.

Another suggestion, made with the same objective in mind, is to broaden and improve the road which runs across where the head of Lake Iliamna is less than 20 miles from Cook Inlet. Such a road, used in conjunction with steamers on Iliamna and its outlet to the Bering Sea, would represent a valuable cutoff for traffic from Bristol Bay to points on the Gulf of Alaska.

The most vulnerable link in the Territory's chain of communications is that connecting it with the United States by sea. Vessels from Puget Sound bound for ports in the Panhandle, naturally take the Inside Passage, the tortuous and spectacular route that threads its way through a maze of rugged islands along the fjord-like coast of British Columbia and Alaska. This is the most important tourist route to Alaska. Ships headed for all other ports in Alaska generally take the open sea, and in time of war they would therefore be liable to attack from hostile naval units operating in the North Pacific. Even those ships which followed the Inside Passage would by no means be entirely safe from attack by surface or submarine raiders lying in ambush in the countless hideaways which this deeply indented coast affords.

Summarizing, one can say that the various transport services to and within Alaska are fairly adequate for the peacetime needs of the Territory's 70,000 whites and natives. But they are pathetically inadequate to provide for the probable requirements of war conditions. In the event of an American naval defeat in the Pacific, commerce between Alaska and the States would be severed and Alaskans would become prisoners within Alaska, except those who could fly out. Those left would starve, since the food-producing potentialities of the Territory have scarcely been developed at all. These facts explain the necessity for the construction -- at the earliest possible moment -- of a modern highway across Western Canada to the interior of Alaska.

IV

Various routes have been suggested for this proposed highway. Those most discussed are four in number, designated as Routes A, B, C and D.

The most publicized of the four is Route A, which runs north from Seattle and Vancouver through Prince George and Hazelton to Whitehorse and Fairbanks. About a third of this road, from Seattle to Hazelton, is already in place, but only a part of it is in a state fit to carry the heavy military traffic of modern war.

Route A is picturesque, with many attractions for the tourist; but its steep grades and numerous curves would entail relatively heavy construction costs. It lies in general far enough inland to escape the heavy snows deposited by the moist winds of the North Pacific; keeping it open in winter would thus be relatively easy. Yet it is near enough to the coast to allow a number of feeder highways to be run up to it from tidewater. This would permit the road to be built from several intermediate points simultaneously, rather than merely from the termini, thereby reducing both the time and cost of construction. After the road had been finished these feeders would make it easier to furnish traffic on it with fuel and other supplies, and they would also serve as outlets for coastal communities now accessible only by sea.

Mr. Donald MacDonald, chief proponent of Route A, says it can be built from 60 foci in 18 months at a cost of $25,000,000. Hon. Anthony J. Dimond, Delegate to Congress from Alaska, puts the cost at $30,000,000. Either set of figures puts both a time limit and a price limit equal to only a third of the requirements for building a battleship. And, say the highway advocates, battleships sometimes go on rocks and in any case grow obsolete in ten years, whereas a road constantly increases in value and importance, in peace as well as in war. But some critics maintain that its proximity to the coast is a fatal military weakness of Route A, for it would expose the road to aerial raids from the North Pacific, and might even be cut by a hostile force if the United States were to lose, even temporarily, control over those waters. To this MacDonald replies that military units could easily be stationed along the highway, in addition to the chain of air bases already being set up along its route.

Route B is the same as Route A as far north as Prince George. Beyond that point Route B follows a course considerably farther inland. Since it passes through less rugged country, it might be cheaper to build, though its construction would take longer for it lacks the coastal feeders which are a feature of Route A. Furthermore, this same lack of feeders would increase the difficulty of supplying fuel along Highway B after it had been completed.

Routes A and B have their southern termini on the Pacific, and to many observers this is a serious drawback, for most of the manufactured goods -- especially defense apparatus -- which would be carried over a highway to Yukon Territory and Alaska would originate in the industrial areas of southeastern Canada and in the States east of the Mississippi. If this highway were to be built along either Routes A or B, it would mean, for instance, that a truck being delivered to Fairbanks from Detroit would have to go around two sides of a triangle. This is one of the reasons why some commentators feel that the highway should run direct from Chicago, the Twin Cities and Winnipeg northwestward across the prairies, keeping east of the Rockies till near the Arctic, thus making a beeline between the eastern industrial centers and Alaska.

V

There are, in fact, two proposals for such a direct highway: Routes C and D. Both of these may be thought of as starting from Edmonton where they would connect with well-established highways radiating south and eastward. They both follow the same route north from Edmonton as far as the town of Peace River. Here they divide, Route C following a more westerly course by way of Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. As the reader will note from the accompanying map, beyond Fort Nelson two courses are suggested, one to connect with Route B at Frances Lake, the other to connect at Whitehorse with Route A.

Either of these two Routes C, being fairly direct and passing through more level country, would, as compared to either A or B, represent a substantial saving in construction costs as well as in mileage between eastern American cities and the interior of Alaska. The backers of this proposal dwell on the fact that Route C runs through oil country in Alberta, and perhaps in British Columbia, and that this would greatly simplify the fuel problem. Oil has been produced for many years in the fields south and east of Calgary, while the Abasand Oil Company's plant near McMurray, 250 miles north of Edmonton and scheduled to enter production shortly, will produce Diesel oil, automobile gas and road-surfacing material "in any quantity desired." The oil sands of this field are estimated to contain 100 billion barrels of oil.

But Route C has the same drawback as B in that it would lack feeders and would therefore have to be constructed in long segments -- an expensive and time-consuming process. This brings us to Route D. Though a little longer than Route C -- perhaps 1,400 miles as against 1,300, measured from the railhead at Peace River to Fairbanks -- Route D offers better chances for rapid and cheap construction than any other highway yet suggested, for reasons which will be explained shortly.

From Peace River, D runs north across a low divide of rolling hills into the Hay River valley, and then to Providence on the Mackenzie River just below the outlet of Great Slave Lake. This segment would pass through one of the finest wheat and mixed-farming regions in Canada, as yet only in small part developed. A heavy-trucking road for use in winter (when both ground and waterways are frozen) was completed through this section two years ago from Notikewin (at the end of the all-year highway 40 miles north of Peace River) to the west end of Great Slave Lake.

Beyond Providence Route D parallels the Mackenzie, second largest river in North America, down as far as the mouth of Keele River, some 30 miles upstream from Norman. Here the Mackenzie is just over 300 crow-flight miles from the nearest point on the Alaska-Yukon road system at Mayo. By following the Keele and its branches, crossing a rather swampy tableland and then descending along a fork of the Stewart River to Mayo, Route D avoids any real mountaineering problems, for at no point would it have an altitude much over 3,000 feet. According to the report of the one known flight over the Keele-Stewart route, the canyons are not serious; but, according to the one available report of a journey made on foot, they are bad. However, all authorities agree that the Mackenzie-Yukon divide in this region is low and not particularly rough.

The section of Highway D from the Mackenzie to Mayo would be the most difficult to build, for it could be constructed only from its two termini. But southward from the point where it meets the Mackenzie River, Highway D could be built simultaneously from many points, since it would almost everywhere be parallel to railways, makeshift wagon roads or navigable rivers. Supplies for construction could thus be set down at enough places to permit the highway to be completed in less time than it would take to finish any of the other three proposed roads. Also, Highway D would cost less to build. Mr. W. A. Fallow, Minister of Public Works in the Province of Alberta, has put the cost at $12,000,000; other proponents estimate it at $15,000,000.

The question of fuel -- for use both during and after construction -- is also important. Road D, like Road C, would utilize the oil produced in Southern Alberta and at McMurray. In addition, the northern part of Road D could be supplied from the plant of the Imperial Oil Company of Canada on the Lower Mackenzie near Norman. Imperial Oil drilled its first producing well in the Norman fields in 1920; but local demand did not justify production until 1936, at which time a steam still began providing ordinary gasoline and Diesel oil, consumed locally by river steamers and by the heavy machinery used in the gold, radium and other mining industries that have developed so spectacularly in the region of Great Bear Lake during the last decade. In 1939 a modern unit was installed, with a capacity of 840 barrels of crude oil a day and capable of producing gasoline, light and heavy Diesel oil, and bunker oil. In this plant it is now possible to make aviation gasolines of somewhat better than 80 octane by the use of tetra ethyl lead. In 1940, 87 octane was being made with an imported blending fluid. In 1938 Imperial produced 27,697 barrels around Norman. This field has never been classified as one of the world's greatest, like the McMurray sands; but it is known to be large in area, and the impression prevails that with two or three years of energetic and well-financed drilling there is at least an even chance of finding a supply there that would produce several million barrels per year, enough to satisfy the commercial and military needs of both the Yukon Territory and the interior of Alaska.

As far as Highway D is concerned, the products of the Norman field would serve not only to build the road quickly and cheaply, but once built would supply traffic along it with a constant source of ready and inexpensive fuel. Furthermore, by means of its northern leg from the Mackenzie River to Dawson, Road C could keep the Yukon Territory and Alaska supplied with oil products at prices greatly below those now prevailing there. The champions of Route D point out that Alaska's oil supply, coming as it does entirely by sea from the United States proper, might be cut off, or greatly curtailed, by an enterprising enemy in time of war. The construction of an all-weather road from Fairbanks to the Mackenzie near Norman would be, they claim, one of the most important steps toward making Alaska defensible. It has also been suggested that a pipeline might be laid from Norman to the head of navigation on the Yukon River system.

Route D is, of course, less exposed to attack from the Pacific than any of the other three. It would also be less subject to blocking in winter because the amount of trouble caused by snow decreases as one goes inland from the ocean. Route A would thus have the most difficulties in this respect, and Route D the least. As far as the latter is concerned, the thousand miles from Chicago to the Peace River would suffer more from snow than the stretch from the Peace River to Fairbanks, since the strong winds which produce drifts on the prairies do not occur in the northern forest.

VI

Air communication between the United States and Alaska is assured by Pan American Airways from Seattle to Juneau, Whitehorse, Fairbanks and Nome, with a branch to Bethel. At Whitehorse, Pan American connects with the Yukon Southern lines running to Vancouver and Edmonton. There is also a regular airline from Edmonton down the Mackenzie to its mouth at Aklavik, with a branch running to Coppermine. However, the facilities -- fields, hangars, repair shops, etc. -- employed by these commercial lines are of little value for defense purposes. The Army and Navy are therefore building bases of their own. The Navy, for instance, is developing patrol-plane bases at Sitka, Kodiak Island and Dutch Harbor; while the Army is constructing one of its major air bases at Anchorage, the southern gateway to the interior, and an advanced base, especially adapted for experimentation in cold-weather flying, at Fairbanks.

What the Army Air Corps needs, then, is what the Army itself needs -- an overland route across Canada. For the Air Corps this would mean one or more chains of large, well-equipped and well-defended air fields, located preferably east of the Rockies. Both the Canadian and American Governments are now improving the ground facilities of some of the existing fields so that they can handle large-scale military traffic. For bombers the problem is simple since they can take off in the United States and fly non-stop to their destinations in Alaska. It is the fighter planes that are a problem because of their short flying range.

As a matter of fact, the Canadian Air Minister, Mr. C. G. Power, revealed in the middle of last February that the Dominion Government was going to spend $9,000,000 on the construction of seven air fields between Edmonton and Whitehorse, and that when completed in the summer of 1941 these fields were to be open to both the commercial and military planes of the United States. A month later, on March 15, the Canadian Air Ministry and the Transport Department issued a joint statement officially announcing that work had already commenced on the construction of a series of "airdromes" running northward from both Edmonton and Vancouver. This announcement would appear to mean that existing fields at Grand Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake -- all of them located along the more southerly route proposed for Highway C -- are to be improved sufficiently to carry military traffic. Between Vancouver and Fort St. John, where the two lines join, "airdromes" are being developed at Kamloops, Williams Lake and Prince George, with a field also at Smithers en route to Prince Rupert. Presumably the work on these fields will be supplemented by the enlargement of the fields at Whitehorse, Dawson and elsewhere in order to complete the chain to Fairbanks, and perhaps eventually to Nome.

According to reports these fields now being developed will have landing strips 4,000 feet long and 500 feet wide, complete lighting equipment for night flying, and all the necessary radio apparatus for guiding aircraft in any kind of weather. To move fighter squadrons to Alaska in winter would be a simple undertaking, for in an emergency wheeled planes can descend upon the ice of lakes and of rivers, just as commercial aircraft have been doing for some time. When the fields just listed have been expanded and completed, it will be as easy to move Canadian and American fighter squadrons to Alaska in summer as in winter.

[i] See William M. Franklin: "Alaska, Outpost of American Defense," FOREIGN AFFAIRS October 1940, p. 245-250.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now