The Dalton Highway: A Multi-Media History of Alaska's Arctic Road

The Discovery of Oil

The North Slope of Alaska stretches from the Brooks Range north to the Arctic Ocean. The region contains two major oil reserves: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), designated by President Harding in 1923 as an emergency energy reserve, and the Prudhoe Bay oil field discovered in 1968. Oil from the Prudhoe Bay field travels along an 800-mile pipeline from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez at the Gulf of Alaska. At the time of discovery, there were no roads north of Livengood, 400 miles from Prudhoe Bay. In 1968, Alaska's Governor Walter Hickel directed the state to build a frozen trail to provide truckers access to haul supplies north to the oil field. The Alaska Department of Highways was in charge of building the road from Livengood. The route went north from Livengood across the Yukon River to Bettles Field, Ninemile Hills, and Crevice Creek. Then it ran northward along the John River to Anaktuvuk Pass, along the Anaktuvuk River to Schrader Bluff, then northeast to the Itkillik River. Then the route ran eastward across the Kupuruk River to the Toolik River to the Sagavanirktok River and continued along the Sagwon River, terminating at an airstrip at Sagwon [see historic map provided by Oliver Backlund]. A dozen crew members driving Cat-trains, tanker trucks, and bladders hauled supplies north. They left Livengood in November of 1968 to build the winter ice road. The crew arrived in Sagwon in March of 1969 [see pictures of this historic trek in Harold Tillesonís photo gallery]. This road, commonly called the Hickel Highway, was intended to be a temporary ice road to haul supplies. It was abandoned due to environmental concerns about damage to the terrain and plans were made for a permanent and more environmentally sound transportation system. The new road would be called the Dalton Highway. At first, the Dalton Highway was called the North Slope Haul Road, because it was used by truckers to carry building material and supplies for the oil development at Prudhoe Bay and along the route of the oil pipeline. Click to view a map showing the Dalton Highway route, courtesy of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Hesden Scougal.

An Unforgiving Terrain

Construction of the pipeline to carry the oil from Prudhoe Bay and the Dalton Highway to supply the camps and the oil field presented significant challenges for engineering. Between Arctic Alaska and Valdez, there are three mountain ranges, active fault lines, miles of unstable permafrost, and the ½ mile wide Yukon River that had to be crossed [see interview with Dennis Nottingham for discussion of construction of the Yukon River Bridge]. The road and pipeline were completed in just three years and at that time it ranked as the largest privately financed construction project ever attempted and cost over $8 billion when completed. It was turned over to the State of Alaska in 1981, and officially named the Dalton Highway, after James B. Dalton, a lifelong Alaskan and expert in arctic engineering. He supervised construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and served as a consultant in early oil exploration efforts on the North Slope, including pioneering winter trails for transporting heavy equipment [see section 9 of Bruce Campbell's interview for a description of James B. Dalton and his work on pioneering northern transportation].

The Dalton Highway was open only to commercial traffic until 1981, when the state allowed public access to Disaster Creek (mile 211). In 1994, public access was allowed all the way to Deadhorse (mile 415). Today the Dalton Highway attracts visitors who wanted to explore the Arctic and travel the highway. Travelers should be aware that The Dalton Highway is a primitive remote road with limited services. There are no medical facilities between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. Food, gas, and vehicle repair services are very limited. There is no public access to the Arctic Ocean at Deadhorse.

[Portions of this section are courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management]

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