The Yukon’s Magnificent 11 – Part 6 of 6

Haines Road (Highway 3) & Alaska Highway (Highway 1)

Quiz Question

A. A sea captain

B. An Army general

C. A female missionary

D. A trading company governor

E. A reclusive fur trapper

The surprising answer is C and her name was Francina E. Haines, a board member of the Presbyterian ministry sent in 1880 to the long-established Chilkat community of Dtehshuh (“End of the Trail”) to build a mission and school on land donated by the indigenous chiefs of the Chilkats. She was the chairwoman of the committee that raised the funds to build it and a member of the Board of National Missions.

Haines was based in New York and though I’ve researched her extensively, including everything in the Sheldon museum in Haines, I can’t find the elusive sentence that proves she ever set foot in Alaska. She was simply the conduit of funds from New York to build the Mission. The road itself, Highway 3, called the Haines Cutoff during construction, was built in 1943 by the U.S. Army following the Old Dalton Trail from gold rush days, which itself followed the ancient traditional route to the interior used by Chilkat fur traders for centuries. It rises dramatically out of the end of the Chilkat River Valley, climbs quickly into the coast mountains and then concludes in the Yukon at Haines Junction, 237 kms away, where it meets the Alcan.

It was built during the wartime boom as a backup route to the interior of Alaska in case the White Pass & Yukon RR and the Alaska Highway were bombed and closed by the Japanese. After the naval Battle of Midway, in June 1943, when the enemy lost most of their aircraft carriers, that threat was erased for the duration and the Haines Cutoff was used as a shortcut to get material and fuel to Fairbanks.

Nowadays, it is a popular summer route to central Alaska for RVs and stays busy in the winters because of its heavy snowfalls and well-deserved reputation as a kind of snowmobile mecca. Sledheads come from all over the world to do the Haines Road, and it’s also a popular long-weekend destination year-round for Whitehorse residents.

The Haines Road hosts the popular Chilkat Bike Relay each summer through the scenic route. PHOTOS: courtesy of the Government of Yukon

Fort William H. Seward, a United States Army installation, was constructed south of Haines in 1904 on land donated by the Haines Mission and was the sole military base in Alaska until WWII. It was sold to private interests in 1947. The mission, school and orphanage lasted until statehood in 1959 when they were shuttered and torn down in 1960 for violations of the new fire and safety codes. We saved the Alaska Highway for last out of respect for her role in relation to the other ten of The Magnificent Eleven. Without the Alcan, the others wouldn’t exist and the Yukon would be stuck in the 19th century forever, which might be pleasing aesthetically for nostalgia buffs but unfathomable to 21st-century realists with an eye towards the future.

Even though the road structure of the Territory looks as if it was designed cleverly and carefully with tourism in mind, all of the six-part series above clearly proves it was not. It was mostly “potluck” that this giant game of highway connect-the-dots settled down by 1980 into a smooth delivery system of tourists to every corner of the Territory from Watson Lake to the NWT border above Eagle Plains and the Arctic Circle.

To oversimplify, it almost appears as if one of the great tourism RV destinations in the world happened by design—but it didn’t. Without question, the most significant event was the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98, which gave us Dawson City, the #1 tourism destination North of the 60th parallel. The second was the miraculous construction of the Alcan in 1942-43. Combine the two and you have the formula for a long and happy future, much like a successful marriage or business partnership. The saga of Alcan construction and subsequent improvements is too well-known and over-documented to be repeated here in this brief road summary, but this fact must be mentioned one final time: the sheer audacity of constructing an all-season “highway” from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska, under wartime pressures and conditions, remains one of the great engineering marvels of all time and possibly at the top of the list in the roadbuilding category.

Those who fly to and fro, rather than drive the Alaska Highway, have no perspective of how hard it was to get here at one time. We are not a suburb of Vancouver, even though it only takes two hours to get there in an Air North jet.All eleven numbered roads in the Yukon are members of the same family of highways descended from one matriarch or patriarch, depending on your gender. That is why the Alcan or Alaska Highway was, is and always will be the #1 road in the Yukon and Alaska. All are magnificent but only one reigns supreme—then, now, and forever. Your roving reviewer has so many favourite places on the full length of the Alcan that they are too numerous to mention, but here are ten teasers:

  1. The climb up Steamboat Mountain 87 kms west of Fort Nelson in B.C. (the true start of the highway).
  2. The sharp corners near Tetsa River where it looks like the mountain is in your lane.
  3. Captain Jack’s breakfasts on the south end of Muncho Lake.
  4. Liard Hot Springs, a mandatory splash & dash rest stop.
  5. The continental divide near Rancheria after which all rivers and lakes flow into the Yukon.
  6. Kluane Lake and the first views of the Big ‘Uns coming into Haines Junction.
  7. Slim’s River and Sheep Mountain.
  8. Kluane Lake.
  9. Camping on the Donjek, and
  10. Tok (rhymes with cloak not clock), where the gateway of Alaska awaits your pleasure.

Enjoy the drive; there’s not another like it, but there is one that is close.
B.C. Highway 37, which runs from the Yellowhead 16 through Dease Lake to hook up with the Alcan 12 kms north of Watson Lake, concludes in the Yukon and is considered “Plan B” as an access road to the Territory and Alaska.

When asked which is “better,” the answer is simple: If your starting point is east of the Rocky Mountains, come up via the Alaska Highway. If you start off west of the Rockies, stay there and come up Highway 37. There’s no point crossing the Continental Divide several times unless you have to. Both are beautiful paved drives and you can’t lose whichever you choose.

In 1884, Haines, Alaska was named for:
A. A sea captain
B. An Army general
C. A female missionary
D. A trading company governor
E. A reclusive fur trapper

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