One of our fairly regular reference requests goes like this: “I’m looking for a list of all the men who worked on the Alaska Highway.” One of the regular variants of that request goes like this: “My uncle/grandfather/dad/dad’s friend worked on the highway and I’d like to know where he was.”
And we gulp a little, because this isn’t usually a straightforward question. See, the problem is, we don’t have a list. We can’t find a list, and believe us, we’ve searched. (If you know of a complete–or even incomplete–list will you tell us?) Depending on which estimates you believe, better than 30,000 workers put in time building the highway. And better than 10,000 of those were servicemen. Which means that the rest were probably civilian contractors.
Military records are easy. Well, not easy, but a researcher has a chance of looking up a military discharge or similar record to see where a serviceman served. But civilian personnel records? Kept by a number of different small construction companies from all over the United States that may or may not be in business any longer, well, you can see why we gulp. Nobody expects us to have those, but we do like to provide pointers where we can and the dispersal of records like that–if they’ve even survived–makes it very hard for reference archivists to give pointers!
Here’s a photo from the William Herbert Newlove photographs. Mr. Newlove worked for one of those civilian contractors, most likely the Sears Construction Company from Iowa. His niece and nephew gave us these photographs a few years ago. Great photo: too bad Mr. Newlove didn’t identify any of the men in it!
So what do we say when we get questions like these? Pretty much what we’ve said above. We sometime suggest that the researcher hit the books first to see what types of resources the authors used: a lot has been published about the building of the highway and many of those books are available wherever the researcher might be. If not in their local library, then available through their local library’s interlibrary loan service. Local libraries are great for things like this and the reference librarians who work at them are fantastic: they can find all sorts of books and articles for researchers.