Dempster Highway History

In 1958 the Canadian government made the historic decision to build a 671-kilometre (417-mile) road through the Arctic wilderness from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Oil and gas exploration was booming in the Mackenzie Delta and the town of Inuvik was under construction. The road was billed as the first-ever overland supply link to southern Canada, where business and political circles buzzed with talk of an oil pipeline that would run parallel to the road. The two would ultimately connect with another proposed pipeline along the Alaska Highway.

All eyes turned to the Yukon on Aug. 17th, 1959, when Ottawa announced that oil had been discovered in the territory’s Eagle Plain. Sometimes a government can move with amazing speed. Almost in the next breath, Ottawa gave major concessions to the oil industry in an attempt to stimulate more exploration in Eagle Plain. All that drilling equipment and infrastructure couldn’t get in—and all that oil and potential tax revenue couldn’t get out—without a highway across the Arctic Circle. The sounds of bulldozers filled the air as construction began at Dawson City in January of 1959. But high costs and bickering between the federal and Yukon governments kept progress to a snail’s pace until 1961 when it stopped altogether. Only 115 kilometres (72 miles) of roadbed was built before the project was abandoned.

Nothing happened until 1968, when the Americans discovered huge reserves of oil and gas at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. A high-stakes poker game developed between Washington and Ottawa. Billions of dollars were at stake, and political fortunes hung in the balance on both sides of the border. The Canadian government was afraid that the United States would develop the massive oil field with no consultation, no consideration and no benefits to its next-door neighbour. It wanted to assert Canadian sovereignty over the arctic seabed off the Yukon’s north coast in the Beaufort Sea, and over the Arctic Islands which hadn’t been formally claimed by any nation.

20 Years Later

The Dempster Highway—Canada’s first all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle—was officially opened on Aug. 18th, 1979, at Flat Creek, Yukon. It was touted as a two-lane, gravel-surfaced, all-weather highway that ran 671 kilometres (417 miles) from the Klondike Highway near Dawson City to Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River in the Northwest Territories. It also linked with the Mackenzie Highway at a point 67 km south of Inuvik. The Canadian Armed Forces 1 Combat Engineer Regiment from Chilliwack, B.C., built the two major bridges over the Ogilvie and Eagle Rivers. Ferries handled the traffic at Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River.

The highway didn’t look like your average road then, and it doesn’t now. That’s because it’s unique in highway design and construction. It sits on top of a gravel berm to insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath. The thickness of the gravel pad ranges from 1.2 metres up to 2.4 metres in some places (four feet to eight feet). Without the pad, the permafrost would melt and the road would sink into the ground.

The Route

The highway roughly follows the route of Jack Dempster’s original trail. He learned it from the Gwitchin Indians of the region, and they learned it from their ancestors. It was their main transportation link between the Yukon and Peel river systems. The Gwitchin floated triangular rafts down these rivers, carrying goods to barter and trade with Loucheux Indians, and later with white traders. From the turn of the century, Royal North-West Mounted Police patrols mushed their dog teams up the frozen rivers and creeks and over divides between Dawson City and Fort McPherson carrying mail, news and the law.

From Trail to Highway

When the Conservatives came to power in 1957 under the leadership of then-prime minister John Diefenbaker, his northern affairs minister Alvin Hamilton was the man most responsible for the decision to build the Dempster. Hamilton had a personal interest in the North. One of his relatives had staked claims in the Keno Hill area during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Other relatives had lived and worked in the Great Bear Lake area and on Melville Island in the NWT. Hamilton and other Conservatives devised a strategy for resource development, which included making an inventory of natural resources. The road program would promote exploration work and help to determine the extent of Canadian resources. The roads would be instrumental in developing those resources once they were located. The Whitehorse Star of Sept. 5, 1957, quoted Hamilton: “I visualize making every corner of the Yukon accessible. We can’t develop without access. I see a network of trunk roads branching out from Dawson City. The great development possibilities in the northeast corner certainly justify road investments into the Mackenzie River Delta area. A trunk road from Dawson City area through the Peel Plateau and on to Aklavik is under active consideration.”

The Department of Public Works (DPW) in Ottawa was asked to estimate the cost of surveys, and to estimate the cost per mile for the road from Dawson City to Eagle Plain. Very little was known about the area that the proposed road was to cross. Large portions of the Yukon hadn’t even been mapped yet. There was another problem: DPW didn’t have any staff in the Yukon. They soon did. On Nov. 8, 1957, the highways division of DPW reported that aerial photos had been taken of three possible routes: From Mayo via McQuesten River to the Hart River and the Peel Plateau; From Dawson City to the Hart River via the Klondike River; From Dawson City via the North Klondike River and the Blackstone River to the Ogilvie River and the Peel Plateau (the route ultimately selected).

DPW estimated the total cost at about $30 million for a road from Keno or Flat Creek to Aklavik, with bridges and access roads to the Eagle Plain and Fort McPherson. The estimated cost per mile was $30,000 to $35,000. The total cost was cut to $22.7 million after it was discovered that operating ferries would be cheaper than building major bridges. The right-of-way was to be 100 feet. The roadway itself was to be 24 feet wide, the minimum allowed for two-way traffic. These and other plans were well underway when a federal election was called on Feb. 1, 1958.

Northern resource development was a vital plank in the Conservative election platform. It was the focus of Diefenbaker’s opening campaign speech in Winnipeg on Feb. 12th. Speaking to an overflow crowd, ‘Dief the Chief’ outlined his party’s national development strategy. Item number one was the roads program: “We intend to start a vast roads program for the Yukon and the Northwest Territories which will open up for exploration vast new oil and mineral areas—30 million acres! “We will launch a $75 million federal-provincial program to build access roads. THIS IS THE VISION!

The Liberals under Lester Pearson attacked it as the building of roads “from igloo to igloo”. Diefenbaker pounced. He ridiculed Pearson’s criticism and said it clearly demonstrated the Liberals’ lack of vision. Voters bought it. The Conservatives won an overwhelming majority. They elected 212 members in the 265-seat House of Commons. Hamilton was given $100 million for a Northern Roads Program. A companion ‘Roads to Resources’ program got another $75 million for joint federal-provincial access roads. Diefenbaker coined the famous ‘Roads to Resources’ phrase. But because of delays, cost overruns and other problems associated with it, Opposition politicians and the national press had a field day. Among other things they called it the Road to Remorses. Isolated construction workers referred to it as the Road to Divorces.

The highway’s original name was Yukon Territorial Road No. 11. When it reached Flat Creek it was called Flat Creek Road. As work progressed it became Eagle Plain Road, and after that it was called the Aklavik Road. It got its final name in 1963. The first 48 kilometres were cut through the spruce forest along the banks of the North Fork of the Klondike River. Only 12 miles, from 60 to 72, were built in 1961 however. Construction first slowed, then came to an abrupt halt after it was learned that the promising oil discovery at Eagle Plain was a dud. Of all the wells drilled, none had commercial potential. Diefenbaker suddenly had other priorities. The government decided to cut its losses and it put the highway project on hold. For the next 10 years the 72 miles of road just sat there, but not without earning yet another nickname: The Road to Nowhere.

Government funding was renewed in the early 1970s amid speculation of an oil pipeline being built down the Mackenzie River Valley. Environmental issues plagued the project in the 1970s. Concerns were first raised in 1975 by Eleanor Millard, the MLA for Old Crow, and by the Yukon Conservation Society. The society expressed its concern about the effect the highway would have on the Porcupine caribou herd. It recommended control of traffic in areas where the caribou crossed the highway. There are about 120,000 animals in the Porcupine herd, but only about 70,000 animals cross the Dempster during the spring and fall migrations. As far back as written records go, the Porcupine herd is recognized as an international resource for native people in Alaska, the Yukon and NWT. Their concern, however, fell on deaf government ears. The government’s hearing was suddenly restored when first nations and other environmental groups endorsed the society’s concerns. Early in 1976 the Yukon government voted to delay the Dempster project in favour of completing the Skagway road instead. Concerns about the possible negative effects of hunting on the Porcupine caribou herd also prompted the territorial government to impose the first-ever hunting ban along the Dempster in October of 1977—two years before the road actually opened.

The Dempster Highway was completed in 1978, but the official opening and dedication ceremony was held the following year. Since then it’s become general knowledge that the highway itself is no threat to the caribou. In the late 1970s, environmentalists warned that the animals would change their migration route to avoid the road. They were wrong. Following a three-year study, the Canadian Wildlife Service reported in 1982 that the caribou would cross the road, even where the banks are steep. It also noted that they had started using the road themselves to travel, and even loafed around on it sometimes. The former Yukon Wildlife Branch (now Renewable Resources) identified human hunters as the greatest threat to the caribou. For this reason the Yukon government has not aggressively marketed the Dempster Highway in its tourism promotions.

Official Opening of the Dempster Highway in Dawson City

A crowd of 200 people turned out in Dawson City for the official opening of the Dempster Highway on Discovery Day weekend, Aug. 18, 1979. In addition to the official ceremony, a potlatch was also held in Dawson for the late Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker, who died shortly before the scheduled opening. The Dempster opening would have been the fulfillment of Diefenbaker’s ‘vision of the North’. He was to have officiated at the ceremony. Instead, a chair was left empty next to the podium, where he would have sat. Then-public works minister and former Yukon MP Erik Nielsen represented the federal government. He was joined by then-Indian affairs minister Jake Epp. The two politicians unveiled a brass plaque that read: “DEMPSTER HIGHWAY. The First Canadian Highway to Cross the Arctic Circle Linking Southern Canada and Arctic Canada.” Cpl. Dempster’s children were there too. His son, Dr. J.R. Hugh Dempster, and daughter Sheila (Mrs. W.E. Calvert of Vancouver), unveiled a plaque in honour of their father, for whom the highway was named. (This happened after a group of Yukoners petitioned the government to have the highway named after Dempster).

No story about the Dempster Highway would be complete without acknowledging Harry Waldron, the eccentric, self-proclaimed ‘Keeper of the Arctic Circle’. He was an ex-highway worker in his late 60s when he took to sitting in a rocking chair at the side of the Dempster. His sidekick was a battered roadside cairn that informed tourists they were crossing the Arctic Circle. Waldron wore a tuxedo, sipped champagne, posed for pictures and entertained tourists with stories about the Yukon and a few verses of Robert Service. He and his roadside rocker became so popular that, for a while he was paid a modest wage by the Yukon government to do his thing.

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