History

Alaska Highway Workers: ‘They showed up to work for different reasons, but they showed up just the same’

Signpost announcing the beginning of the highway

The Alaska Highway was constructed from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Big Delta, Alaska, in response to the Imperial Japanese Navy bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the growing threat of World War II encroaching from Asia. In March 1942, United States Army Corps Engineers troops from the lower 48 states started arriving in Northern Canada and Alaska to begin building the road. The highway was a winding road that was imposed on existing roadways between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson, and linked some shorter wagon roads in the Yukon and Alaska, but still cut a snaking swath through Northern boreal forest from British Columbia to Alaska, an area that was, for the most part, untouched by industrialization.

When the US Army declared the 1,424-mile project complete on October 29, 1942 before departing from the North, contractors working for the Public Roads Administration had to regrade and reroute the highway. Maintenance camps were established to house the workers, and when the highway was opened to the public in 1948, lodges sprouted up to provide meals, mechanical services, and accommodations to travellers.

The workers who stayed for long periods of time, or who returned year after year, express a fondness for a community and lifestyle which can be creative and collaborative; a certain freedom that goes along with living out in the middle of nowhere.

The maintenance of the highway required a large number of workers: truck drivers, mechanics, and engineers. Servicing the needs of the travelling public required cooks, dishwashers, gas jockeys, mechanics, cleaners, cashiers, and waitstaff. The wages along the Alaska Highway in the late 1940s were higher than in other parts of the country and workers came from all walks of life and from all parts of the country.

Some workers went to join a family business, while others followed friends to new places of employment; or, as in the early days of the highway, people like Paul Rivest were recruited by the Canadian Armed Forces to work for the Northwest Highway Maintenance Establishment (NHME), which was responsible for maintaining the highway.

Rivest, who lives in Whitehorse, Yukon and turned 93 in August, was training as a heavy-duty mechanic and a welder when he went as a 27-year-old to work on the Alaska Highway in 1950.

“I was going to trade school in Edmonton. I was getting 50 cents an hour and the Canadian army come up to the shop,” he says. “They hired 18 of us and sent us up the highway here to repair equipment and get stuff going.” He was offered a wage of $1.47 per hour. “I said, heck, I’d retire in a year; I’ll be rich by that time. Sixty years later I quit working.”

Paul worked as a roving mechanic for the NHME, travelling between highway maintenance camps. At that time, each camp was 100 miles apart.

Contrary to popular belief, when the US Army left the North, the highway was not much of a road and the army didn’t remove any of the heavy equipment used in its construction. A combination of mythical stories and eye-witness accounts tell that the US Army dug holes and bulldozed into those perfectly good machinery, bedding, and anything else that had been brought up to build the highway.

“When the war finished, the Americans were supposed to fix that highway and they didn’t. They just left,” Rivest says. “And you couldn’t buy any graders because they were still making tanks and that kind of stuff. So you’d go out and find something that looked like it had possibilities and you’d bring it back to the shop and fix it.”

Rivest was sent to work at Mile 533 Coal River Maintenance Camp in 1955, where his wife Donna joined him and their four sons were born during the five years the family spent there. Donna, who was born and raised in Dawson City, Yukon, had been doing administrative work for the US Army in Whitehorse, then transferred to Fort Nelson where she and Paul first met.

The Jack/Jill-of-all-trades is an apt description for any worker along the Alaska Highway. Brian Fidler is an actor, director, and the Artistic Director of the Guild Theatre who runs Ramshackle Theatre, the company that presents Theatre in the Bush in Whitehorse, Yukon. He used to work at Mile 497 Liard River Hot Springs Lodge, which was known as Trapper Ray’s (the owner’s nickname), across the highway from Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park.

“I worked there from 1994 to 1998, and I worked in the summertime,” Fidler says. “I was going to university—I would come up in early May and leave in August.”

Fidler had no experience behind the work he did, pumping gas and fixing tires; he learned on the job. He heard about the position through a friend who was working there, and it turned out that during his time at Trapper Ray’s, the staff was mostly became comprised of friends from his hometown of Kelowna.

The last stint Fidler spent at Trapper Ray’s was over winter and he ended up doing many jobs. “I’d be working in the kitchen, pumping gas, serving tables, fixing tires, and housekeeping,” he says. “Pretty much every job there I ended up doing.”

The Summit Motel and Cafe, c.1963. Mile 392, Alaska Highway, Hwy. 97, British Columbia. Located at Summit Pass (elevation 4,250 ft. [1,295 m]), the highest point on the Alaska Highway. (CC)

The Summit Motel and Cafe, c.1963. Mile 392, Alaska Highway, Hwy. 97, British Columbia. Located at Summit Pass (elevation 4,250 ft. [1,295 m]), the highest point on the Alaska Highway. (CC)

Workers in the remote lodges along the highway have to create their own entertainment. In the pre-Internet days of the ‘90s, the staff at Trapper Ray’s started a theatre. “The company was called the Penis Bone Players,” Fidler says, “and the reason it was called that was because Trapper Ray was a collector of penis bones of all animals, and he would stir people’s coffee in the restaurant with one of his penis bones just to get a reaction.”

The staff accommodation was a collection of older trailers in an area down a hill behind the lodge. They placed their trailers in a circle with a makeshift stage built from logs and packed down with soil. They even added a proscenium arch and a curtain that would roll up and down.

“We probably did five of these shows—they were variety shows,” Fidler says. “Pretty much everyone would chip in and do something for these shows. One person would read some poems. Trapper Ray clipped his toenails once on stage and told some stories. He was a really good storyteller—super-engaging. He could even make it work while clipping his toenails.”

The recreational part of working at Mile 1118 Kluane Wilderness Village is part of what Terri Trout remembers from her 30 seasons of living and working there. Terri’s dad John Trout owned the lodge from 1972 (when he bought the lodge it was known as the Mount Kennedy Motel) until his death in 2004.

“It was such a fabulous place to spend the summers. You’d wake up in the mornings with the mountains out the front door, the river out the back door, the creek and the lake just down the road for walking,” Trout says. “You worked hard, but you played hard, too. As soon as work was over, there was a bonfire or a canoe trip or something.”

Trout’s first summer spent at the lodge was in 1976 when she was 10 years old. “It was scary. It was a really different living circumstance coming from Edmonton,” she says. “The highway was a lot different then. It was very remote and in horrible shape; really bad potholes and tons of construction.” Her father and stepmother Liz worked full-time while trying to keep track of their combined family of five children. “We found a swimming hole and a place to fish and we saw gophers. It was pretty amazing.”

Trout first started working at the lodge as an 11-year-old, dishwashing and serving lunch to tour buses. “Bus tours were super-popular then. The lodge was 200 miles from Tok, Alaska, and 200 miles from Whitehorse—it was where the tour buses stopped for lunch.” She did that type of work until she was 17 years old. She remembers working her first full-time, nine-hour shift when she was 13. “I was the chamberperson; my step-sister helped bake in kitchen. By 15 I had a full-time cooking job in restaurant,” she says. “I did mornings for a long time, took the evening shift, but I was never the bartender—I didn’t like the atmosphere. I was hostess for hotels rooms, PetroCan girl for part of the season.”

The staff were paid on a monthly contract. “I never felt I got paid enough. We always had a monthly contract. When we were really young, $900 per month, then [it] went up to $1,200, and about $2,400 at the end when I worked there the last time in 2002.”

Trout went on to become a high school teacher of foods and fashion in Edmonton, and she said she owes her career path to what she learned at the Kluane Wilderness Village. “Certainly much of who I am came from the experience of being in the wilderness, talking to tourists and celebrating all that is fantastic about the Yukon with them,” she says. “I use the lessons I learned from some of the men and women who cooked for us or worked in the restaurant—I learned so much from all of those people. It inspired me on so many of the pathways I’ve gone on. It was home, where my dad was.”

During its 74 years of existence, the Alaska Highway has solidified its role as the primary artery for commerce and travel between the Yukon, Alaska, parts of the Northwest Territories and southern Canada, and the ‘lower 48’. Fuel and food are carried by tractor-trailers on a daily basis from southern destinations, and though there is competition from airlines, thousands of cars, trucks, and the Greyhound bus continue to transport people.

People have come from different backgrounds and for a variety of reasons to work along the Alaska Highway. The workers who stayed for long periods of time, or who returned year after year, express a fondness for a community and lifestyle which can be creative and collaborative; a certain freedom that goes along with living out in the middle of nowhere. For Rivest, Fidler, and Trout, working along the Alaska Highway in their youth not only provided them with rich memories and a plethora of lively stories, but their experiences proved to be the foundations on which they built their vastly different careers in the trades, the arts, and education.

As long as there are communities needing services along the highway, there will be a need for the highway. As long as the highway exists, there will be a need for people to work along it to provide maintenance or necessary services.◉


Photo credit: istockphoto/cineuno

You Might Also Like