The 663,300 mi² that would become the State of Alaska were purchased from Russia for 7.2 million dollars on March 30, 1867. At two cents an acre, that was a good deal!
100 years later this purchase was paying for itself thousands of times over, but that would not have happened without constructing the highway that connected the US mainland to Alaska.
The Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) highway was built in 1942 to help the United states military bolster the Alaskan territory defenses in the case of a Japanese amphibious invasion. The new defenses would prevent the Japanese from gaining a foothold on the North American continent.
The construction was carried out by 11,000 men in the pristine Alaskan wilderness. This involved some regiments with motorized machinery and others equipped with basic hand tools. The highway was constructed in an astonishingly fast 8 months during World War II, way ahead of its original 2 year timeline.
There were many hardships, the soldiers not only suffered from the brutal winter but mentally the men couldn’t get over the isolation. They were hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families.
Some soldiers suffered more hardships than others in the form of discrimination for all-black regiments. In line with the prevalent racism and segregationist thinking of the time, soldiers were separated into regiments based on skin color. The black soldiers were sent out in the deep wilderness with very few supplies, while the all-white battalions had the better machinery and conditions.
The black regiments went old school on the vegetation, and even when they did manage to obtain a few bulldozers, they were stolen by the all-white regiments.
The documentary is glorious because not only does it describes the story of how the Alaskan highway came into existence, it shed light on the feats of soldiers whose exploits were not acknowledged in History books until 75 years later.
Regardless of skin color, all these men suffered hardships that most wouldn't dare imagine, and this joint effort by bold and innovative Americans managed to construct the 1,500 mile highway in only a few months during one of the most brutal winters in Alaskan history.
This grand venture wasn't without sacrifices: 50 men perished in the cold. Though their deaths were unfortunate they didn't die in vain. The highway was completed on October 29, 1942 and its strategic importance today is proof that their ingenuity and resilience lives on in the Alcan Highway.
The History Channel / description text by Alejandro Daniel
Modern Marvels - Season 9, Episode 5 - 11 February 2003