How Black American Soldiers Built One of BC’s Major Highways

A photograph from the South Peace Heritage Archives' George Hifferman Collection at the visitor center in Dawson Creek, BC shows some of the soldiers who helped build the Alaskan Highway during World War II.  (Andrew Kurjata/CBC - photo credit)

A photograph from the South Peace Heritage Archives’ George Hifferman Collection at the visitor center in Dawson Creek, BC shows some of the soldiers who helped build the Alaskan Highway during World War II. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC – photo credit)

One of the most iconic routes in North America, the Alaska Highway runs 1,400 miles from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction in Alaska.

It connects Alaska to the lower 48 states, passing through the Yukon and British Columbia, and was completed in 1943 with bulldozers, shovels and handwork.

But the legacy of the black soldiers who helped build it has long been overlooked.

In recent years, American lawmakers and a Canadian author have strove to right these wrongs, one voted to set a day of recognition for the soldiers, and the other wrote a book about the black history behind the highway.

At the height of World War II, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, 11,000 American troops were sent to build the foundations of the Alcan (as the highway used to be known).

About a third of those soldiers were black, part of three all-black regiments sent to work on the highway in a military that was still segregated and didn’t allow black soldiers to perform sensitive duties or fight on the front lines.

In 2017, on the 75th anniversary of the highway’s construction, Leonard Larkins said it was “times past” that he and the other black soldiers working on the project got their due.

Larkins worked with the 93rd Engineers and helped clear a path through pristine wilderness on both sides of the border. He recalled the shock of arctic temperatures he first experienced as a young man from Louisiana.

“You can’t stand there too long, you know. It’s way too cold,” he said.

Luigi Zanasi

Luigi Zanasi

A photo from the bulldozer meeting – as Black Cpl. Refines Sims Jr. and white private Alfred Jalufka met in the middle and cleared the final link of what would become the highway in the Yukon Forest — a turning point for integration, according to the New York Times.

Battling through freezing temperatures and permafrost in winter that turned to sweltering heat, mud and mosquitoes in summer, black soldiers defied the expectations of their white superiors and debunked notions of racial inferiority by performing quality work in extremely difficult conditions.

American journalist, author, and historian Lael Morgan, who died in August 2022, researched the highway project on its 50th anniversary and has been largely credited with introducing it to modern audiences.

She said before the Alaska Highway was built, black soldiers relied primarily on housekeeping and clerical work. And when the highway was completed, her role was reduced to a historical footnote, and only a fraction of the photos shared publicly showed any of the black soldiers who helped make it happen.

AP Photo/Mark Thiessen

AP Photo/Mark Thiessen

Ken Coates, Professor and Canadian Research Chair in Regional Innovation in Saskatchewan, has also researched the story and says black American soldiers literally laid the foundation for the monumental highway. They felled countless trees, laid logs over the swamp and permafrost, and covered it with scrub, branches, and earth so engineers, contractors, and civilian workers who followed them could finish the road.

“It’s inconceivable today that a comparable group of people could accomplish so much with so few tools,” Coates said. “They had some bulldozers. They had some trucks. It was a great accomplishment to do what they did in a short amount of time.”

According to historical records, the soldiers who built the Autobahn arrived in late winter 1942 and some stayed until 1943, with the work being completed in just nine months.

One of the reasons black soldiers’ contributions were not recognized was largely the discriminatory military policies that prevented them from visiting cities like Seattle, Vancouver, and Whitehorse.

US Army Corps of Engineers Office of History via AP

US Army Corps of Engineers Office of History via AP

The Canadian section was turned over to Canada in April 1946 and opened to the public in 1948.

Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway is in Dawson Creek, BC, where photos and artifacts from its construction – including the story of the black soldiers who helped build it – are preserved at the Visitor Center, local art gallery and Pioneer Village.

The highway itself has become a popular tourist destination, attracting Canadians, Americans, and people from around the world each summer.



For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences—from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community—see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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