If you ever have the chance to sit and chat with Don McKinney about his part on the Alaska (ALCAN) highway, you’ll be lucky.
Don worked on the Alaskan highway during the summer when he was 16 and a high school student in Fairbanks, for 85-cents an hour.
“Dad was overseas on a job and a buddy asked if I’d like to work for the road commission. I assumed we’d be picking up bottles or something like that,” he said.
Instead, he was put to work in the camps where the men were preparing land for the road.
Don worked in five camps including the Delta Bridge Camp, Donley Dome Camp, Pike River Camp, Delta River Junction and the Dead Man’s Curve Camp.
“We had very little rain and few storms, which helped speed things up a bit,” said Don.
In places, it was 25 degrees below to 52 degrees below zero.
This was just before World War II started, but a road connecting Alaska to Canada had been discussed for years before the war. The immediate danger posed by a potential attack by Japan pushed the effort to the foreground. Both American and Canadian governments knew there was a need to increase a military presence along Alaska’s coast and the Aleutian Islands. So, the actual highway construction began when Pearl Harbor was bombed. But first, the path for the highway needed to be cleared.
Don’s first job was at the Delta Bridge Camp where he was assigned the job of cutting branches from the trees. Not as easy as it sounds. He said the huge evergreen trees were first pulled from the location with a caterpillar, then they gave the workers a #2 plated ax and they crawled in the thick branches to cut them off close to the trunk.
“I had used an ax as a Boy Scout, so I was comfortable,” Don said.
They lived in a tent and had no entertainment, laundry service, mail, electricity, shower or movies. They ate canned food, but there was a telephone.
Don said the other workers were older. Due to World War II, the federal government had asked each state to allow 16 to 18 years old youths to work in road construction and other jobs they had been excluded from before. The workman’s compensation laws were changed to temporarily include the youth.
Don drove a Model B Ford dump truck. It held one cubic yard of gravel.
“I learned to drive on that truck. Around that area is where they repaired the existing roads. In Alaska, they have permafrost that can be anywhere from a foot to three or four feet deep. The road was built through all that permafrost and, believe me, when it thaws there is plenty of deep, thick mud,” said Don. “Alaska is blessed with loose gravel and that went down in place of the permafrost. We repaired holes, and often we didn’t see another human for days.”
He hauled gravel to the Fairbanks area. A lot of the very young drivers were natives of the area.
While using a brush cutter it glanced off the branch and hit his foot, doing a good deal of damage.
“Our boots, LL Bean made them, were rubber up to the ankle and leather on up,” said Don. “I was off for three weeks with that injury.”
One of Don’s buddies was killed when he was riding on the running board of a truck. He either fell off or jumped off and the rear wheels ran over him.
In another camp, Don hauled gravel from a local gravel pit in an old dump truck. They were building up the regular road.
When he was at the Delta River Junction, he still hauled gravel in an old Ford dump truck, but this truck was in good shape. While here he helped fight a small forest fire with four other young men.
“At Dead Man’s Curve Camp there was a large number of men and trucks. Probably 50 men,” said Don. Here they were actually building the road. It was near this camp where, five years before, Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers were flying together in a Lockheed hybrid airplane when they crashed just 15 miles outside of Point Barrow, Alaska. Both men died instantly.
Don helped on the first 100 miles of the 1,500 mile road. Then he joined the service and served in the 101 Airborne Division and the 82nd Airborne. That’s another story for the future.
Greensburg resident Pat Smith may be contacted via this publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.