In spring 1942, the U.S. Army began construction on a military road intended to protect Canada and the United States from a possible Japanese invasion. Alaska-Canada Highway, commonly known as ALCAN, remains the only overland route to Alaska. It had a profound impact on both nations. Most Americans know little about the highway. A new documentary made by a professor and students at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) aims to change that by exploring the compelling stories of the people who built it.
“Building Connections: Reclaiming Lost Narratives of the Alaska-Canada Highway” is a production of MediaLab, a class at PLU. The primary collaborators were Robert Marshall Wells, an assistant professor of communications, and Shannon Schrecengost, a junior communications major.
The class offers an environment in which students can develop skills they will use in media careers. “It is a wonderful outlet for us to get hands-on experience with local media, which we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” said Schrecengost.
The documentary is MediaLab’s major effort now, but it didn’t start out as a class project.
During summer 2006 Wells was doing a fellowship sponsored by the Canadian consul in Seattle. Each year the consul operates the program for professors at Northwest universities.
While traveling with a group of 15 scholars around western Canada, he visited an archive in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
He was intrigued by photographs of workers on the project.
“I mistakenly thought I knew a lot about Canada. That fellowship opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Wells remarked. “As I peeled the onion, I realized this had some research opportunities.”
Soon he asked Schrecengost and others to get involved. She had been in several classes taught by Wells. “It sounded like too great of an opportunity to pass up,” she said.
The two traveled more than 10,000 miles by air and vehicle from January to June of this year doing research. Their travels took them to California, the East Coast, Toronto, Yukon and Alaska. They went through historic archives and interviewed people who worked on the highway. They drove the highway, stopping in small towns along the way.
“We talked to a lot of people from a lot of walks of life,” Wells remarked.
The engineering aspect intrigued Wells. Original estimates had it taking two to three years to build the 1,500-mile highway, about the distance of the Canadian border to Tijuana, Mexico. It winds through rugged terrain in the Rocky Mountains, crossing rivers, lakes and wilderness areas. The workers finished the task in eight months.
Much of the workforce was black U.S. Army soldiers. Wells said they were not told what they were building, and expectations on them were low.
Schrecengost noted there some regiments of white soldiers on the job and about 4,000 black soldiers. The races were segregated on the project. It was an eye-opening experience to interview the black soldiers. “They felt they didn’t get any recognition,” she said. “At the time they had no idea what they were doing.”
The black soldiers worked at an incredible speed and accomplished much more than the white soldiers, she added.
Wells noted that Native Alaskans and First Nations people were affected both positively and negatively by the highway that arrived in their isolated areas.
“As a former journalist, what intrigued me were the stories untold,” said Wells, a former reporter with The News Tribune and Seattle Times.
Costs for making the film were covered by a grant from Wang Center for International Programs at PLU.
The premiere of the documentary, which is open to the public, takes place this weekend. A panel discussion will feature Pete Grosvenor, a political science professor at PLU; Kenneth S. Coates, a specialist in the history of northern Canada and Aboriginal issues who is dean of humanities at University of Waterloo in Ontario; Lesley McCullough, director of intergovernmental relations with the government of Yukon; April Moi, executive director of Northern Rockies Alaska Highway Tourism Association; Wells and Schrecengost.
A version of the film about 40 minutes long will be shown. Schrecengost said a longer version will be submitted to Public Broadcasting System. There are plans for a book as well.
The “Building Connections” premiere is at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at Washington State History Museum.