Finding Alaska Highway construction workers

Every so often we get the question: my father/grandfather/uncle/great-uncle worked on the construction of the Alaska Highway. Is there the a list out there of all the people who did? How can I find out more about where he worked?

The short answer to that is: there’s no list that we know of, and it depends.

The longer version, because that’s not a great way to respond to a reference request, goes something like this:

Depending on the source you’re using, at least 11,000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers servicemen worked on the Highway construction. But those weren’t the only people working on the highway. Both Canadian and US civilian contractors made up quite a lot of the workforce too. According to one federal report, at the height of construction nearly 16,000 civilians were working on the Highway. The first, 11,000 servicemen count, is probably a total count of the individuals who were assigned to the highway construction. The second is probably just a minimum since some workers over time might have left and been replaced.  You’ll notice that I’m defaulting to men here: I’ve not seen exact numbers but based on everything I’ve seen and read, the workforce was primarily men.

Here’s some research hints we provide to people who ask us these questions. If you know of any other great tips for researchers looking for individuals who worked on the highway, please share in the comments?

Knowing if the person you’re interested in researching was there as a member of the military or as a worker for a contractor may help as you start your research. If he was a member of the military, you might want to see if  you can get your hands on his military personnel file to see if it mentions his duty stations or his unit so you can go looking for unit histories. The National Archives has some guidance on their website about researching military personnel records. Finding unit histories can be complicated but if your basic web search isn’t turning up one (a lot of times veterans’ organizations post these things online!) you might want to start with the Corps of Engineers history office or ask a librarian at your local library to help you track one down. The good news is that the military tended to track where soldiers were (they had to feed them and move them around!) so unit histories and personnel records were kept and maintained. The bad news is that a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in the 1970s destroyed a lot of WWII personnel records. But the National Archives site can give you more details on what they have and other alternate searching ideas for these files.

William Herbert Newlove photographs

Where it gets a little more complicated is with the records of the civilians working for contractors. Unlike the US Federal Government, corporations and companies may not have the same records-keeping requirements. And to be honest, in the past, archives and museums didn’t always make a lot of effort to collect and preserve the records of small businesses and the businesses themselves may not have kept/preserved/passed their records on to an archives. So if your name search on the web is taking you nowhere, what do you do? Knowing who he worked for is a start. The highway construction was actually parceled out to several contractors by both geography and type of work. So several contractors were assigned to oversee broad sections of the route during construction: kind of a more administrative and logistical job. Then other “roadway contractors” were assigned smaller areas within those regions, and some sections of the highway had yet a separate contractor to handle surfacing. Knowing the company that your guy worked for can help you narrow down the geographic area in which he worked.

And if you have the company name, how do you find that area? There’s a map! In 1946, the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Roads issued an interim report on the Alaska Highway. It’s a pretty substantial report: it’s 323 pages long. And it has a lot of info in it (no list of names!) so if you’re interested in what the government was doing in regard to the construction of the highway and planning for further maintenance and such, this is probably a good start. It even has the pay schedules for different grades of workers in case you’re curious about how much somebody could have earned while working on the highway. How do you get your hands on it? A lot of libraries that have government documents collections may have it, so you might be able to interlibrary loan a copy if your local library doesn’t have it. It’s also been digitized as a part of the US Congressional serial set and some libraries have a subscription to that database so you might be able to see it there if you’re willing to look at it in electronic form. Here’s the details you or your reference librarian will need to locate it as I just grabbed it from the listing in the Serial Set database:

The Alaska Highway. An interim report from the Committee on Roads, House of Representatives, pursuant to H. Res. 255 authorizing the Committee on Roads, as a whole or by subcommittees, to investigate the Federal Road System, and for other purposes. March 13, 1946. — Committed to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union and ordered to be printed, with illustrations. Date March 13, 1946, Session 79th Congress, 2nd Session, Volume Serial Set Vol. No. 11020, Session Vol. No.2, Document H.Rpt. 1705, Publication Type House Report

There’s also many many many histories written on the construction of the highway. So you might want to look for those and see what your local library can interlibrary loan for you. One we like and point people to a lot, especially for people interested in the civilian contractor experience, is Alaska Highway Expeditionary Force, a roadbuilder’s story by H. Milton Duesenberg. It has a reprint of the map from the congressional report as well as many other bits of information and is a very readable history of the highway construction.

Plus there’s loads of archives out there that have things related to highway construction. You’d be hard-pressed to find an archives or museum in Alaska that doesn’t have at least a few photographs related to highway construction. We’re working on a statewide guide to archival resources about highway construction but in the meantime, you can look at the collections held by individual Alaskan repositories (many have some sort of catalog or listing on their websites). If you’re interested in what we have here in the archives at the Consortium Library, we’ve started a list of our collections related to highway construction and it can be found here. Generally though, if you’re looking for somebody specific rather than just general photos and documents related to highway construction and the workers, you’ll probably need to know for whom and where the person worked in order to find archival materials related to that specific place or person.

And don’t forget the Alaska’s Digital Archives if you’re just curious about Alaska Highway construction and want to see photos of it. There’s currently over 350 photographs of highway construction in the Digital Archives so you’ll find plenty to browse through.

About aschmuland

I'm head of Archives & Special Collections at the Consortium Library. I've been with A&SC since 2002, first as reference archivist, now as head of the department.

Comments are closed