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

Public Officials:Woodrow (Woody) Johansen

Select a section below to listen to summarized excerpts from the original interview.

William Schneider and Dan O'Neill (H85-04-01)
Gayle Maloy (H87-82-10)

Woody JohansenWoody Johansen at his desk  
Date: April 17, 1985 (H85-04-01)
January 4, 1985 (H87-82-10)
Identifier: H85-04-01 (segments 1-9)
H87-82-10 (segments 10-14)
Approximate Length: 120 min.
Biographical Information: Born in Eyak, Alaska (now known as Cordova).
Woody Johansen was schooled in Fairbanks, Alaska. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, earning a degree in Civil Engineering. In 1940, there were limited opportunities for Civil Engineers due to the boom in mining for gold. Johansen decided to be involved with mining, and worked as a foreman in Livengood, Alaska until he was offered an Engineering position with Fort Richardson. The Dean of Faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks solicited him to teach as a professor for the Civil Engineering Department. He accepted the position and taught from 1942 to 1955. Thereafter, he became employed with the Alaska Road Commission.
Summary of Interview: Woody Johansen discusses his role with the Winter Haul Road (Hickel Highway) as a District Manager; his knowledge of the Alaska Road Commission, the Bureau of Public Roads, and the establishment of the Alaska State Highway Department; his memories of the crew hired to construct the Winter Haul Road; and his personal stories and shared experiences about the building of the Winter Haul Road (Hickel Highway). His responsibility on the Winter Haul Road as a District Manager included project management, engineering, recruitment, logistics, contract negotiations and mediation.

This interview has been edited. Original recordings are available at the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Libary, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Segment 01) Woody Johansen was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska. He relocated to Fairbanks to enroll at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). He worked as a welder for the Copper River Railroad, which was a long, hot summer job for a youth. When he watched touring cars with the engineers driving them, he decided to become a Railroad Engineer. Woody graduated as a Railroad Engineer, but discovered there were no jobs because the Copper River Railroad closed down (1940). There was also limited work for Civil Engineers. Woody started to work as a foreman in the Livengood area for four years. He was offered an engineering position at Fort Richardson, and accepted. The UAF Dean of Faculty asked Woody if he would teach. Woody began teaching from 1942 - 1955. Woody wanted full-time year around employment, so he became employed with the Alaska Road Commission as the District Engineer for Fairbanks until he retired.

Segment 02) Gold was discovered in Alaska and in the Yukon. The federal government became concerned with the district of Alaska because a large number of people were coming into Alaska where there were no facilities, and no cities. There were rumors of starvation. Concerns for road access became evident. Congress directed the Army to build roads because the Army built the communications systems that connected Alaska to the Lower-48. Congress extended the Army's responsibility to highways. In 1905, Congress established the Board of Road Commissioners with three army men in charge of building and maintaining roads and trails. The philosophy was to build as much as possible to open up the country. Trails were common. When the traffic increased, the trail would evolve into a sled road, then to a wagon road, and finally into a vehicle road. In the late 1920s, it became necessary to consider the automobile, so roads with a packed surface were built to carry automobiles. In 1920, the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) became official.

Segment 03) In 1940, during the Cold War, the Army and Air Force decided Alaska was a strategic location that needed paved highways. The Army lobbied Congress to provide funds to make possible the surfacing of the major highways. Due to the Army's lobbying efforts, Alaska would not have received the support -- at least before the discovery of oil. The Board of Road Commissioners was managed by army officers in Alaska. The board did not follow a bureaucratic process. They were an independent group who had to lobby money from Congress. Every year the Board had to present a budget to the Department of Army, the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior, as well as convince Congress that money was needed to accomplish the planned road system. In 1910, Alaska became a territory state and had a delegate to represent Alaska. This delegate resented the Alaska Board of Commissioners because it could lobby for appropriations without the delegates consent. This hurt the progress of highways in Alaska because we had a delegate who worked against the head of the Board. The Alaska Board of Commissioners was responsible for all the roads, trails and ferry systems in Alaska.

Segment 04) In 1932, the Army was relieved of the responsibility, and the Alaska Road Commission was turned over to the Department of the Interior. The Department of Agriculture and Department of Commerce suggested the need for one federal road building agency, which they had in the Lower-48, the Bureau of Public Roads. In Alaska, the Bureau of Public Roads built and maintained roads in the forests. Yet, in other areas of Alaska, the other federal agency, the Alaska Road Commission, built and managed roads. There was lobbying between the two agencies, which resulted in animosity. The Bureau of Public Roads took over the Alaska Road Commission in 1956. Woody Johansen was part of the Alaska Road Commission. No change was made to the Alaska Road Commission because the Bureau of Public Roads did not have an organization that built and maintained roads. The Alaska Road Commission evolved into a State Highway Department.

Segment 05) When Alaska Statehood passed in 1958, the State of Alaska had a Highway Department, but did not have the personnel. ARC contracted with the Bureau of Public Roads to handle the duties of a State Highway Department. In 1960, ARC was re-established as the Alaska State Highway Department.

Segment 06) Alaska Road Commission (ARC) started as the Board of Road Commissioners of Alaska in 1905. In the 1920s, it became officially the Alaska Road Commission under the Department of the Army. In 1932, the ARC was transferred to the Department of the Interior. In 1956, the organization was absorbed by the Bureau of Public Roads, which was a part of the Department of Commerce. The ARC operated as usual, and federally managed until 1960. With the advent of statehood in 1958, the State took authority of building and maintaining roads in Alaska. To accomplish the work, ARC contracted the Bureau of Public Roads who had the personnel. In 1960, the State terminated the agreement with the Bureau of Public Roads and established a State highway department. The ARC was transferred to the state, which became the Alaska State Highway Department.

Segment 07a) Woody worked for the Alaska Road Commission for one summer. Woody’s career coincided with the contracting industry that was moving into the territory to build highways. The first contract work by the ARC was the College Road surfacing in 1950. Contract work requires paperwork and estimates. No precedent was in place for making estimates to bid out the work. Contract work was a new beginning and took several years before contract procedures were developed.

Segment 07b) The ARC planned and designed everything -- the crews, the equipment, and the campsites. ARC differed from contract work since it did not have a large engineering force. The Denali Highway project had one location engineer. The help he needed came from the crew. The foreman was in charge of the engineer and crew, the only function the engineer had was to tell the foreman where to build the road.

Segment 08) ARC had standards to observe -- the width of the road, the grades, the curvature and the strength of the bridges. Curvature and grades varied according to topography. ARC followed standards to locate and build roads. The location engineer worked ahead of the construction crew to select a location route. The location engineer's transportation was a D4 Cat with a Go-Devil. After the route was chosen, the district engineer was contacted and the ARC would review the route before the foreman began construction. When the road was completed, there was no detail survey as there is now. There was no clearing of right of way. If we encountered private property, and the individual did not grant a Right of Way, the ARC would not build. Most of the Right of Way was on federal land or donated land. Private property owners were usually happy with having a road.

Segment 09) Miners in the area discovered gold in Livengood Creek, making Livengood a mining town. Livengood Road was originally a miner's trail. Miners were traveling with heavy equipment through Dunbar from the Alaska Railroad and following the foothills into Livengood. The Livengood Road began with petitions, public hearings, and determination of need. When Woody worked in Fairbanks, the Livengood route was a rough trail in 1940. That road was built by the ARC crew, and improved by contract work.

Tape H87-82-10 begins
Segment 10) "The Winter Haul Road was close to my heart. An exciting project", says Woodrow Johansen. In 1968, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. A number of contractors were needed to deliver supplies and trailer houses up north so laborers could work in the oil fields. Alaska Governor Walter Hickel suggested that a winter ice road be built (an idea mentioned in October 1968). Woodrow Johansen was a District Engineer for the Alaska State Highway Department. He was informed that the Highway Department was going to build a winter ice road (winter haul road) from Livengood to the Yukon River in November 1968.

Segment 11) The Department had no equipment for that type of operation. The crew had to assemble "Go Devils" and put living quarters in trailers; build a mobile generating plant; assemble "Go Devils" to carry oil, fuel; and build a mess hall, bunk house, and cook house. The crew started to construct the winter ice road from Livengood to the Yukon River, while Woody sent a crew to the Yukon River to build an ice bridge. The ice bridge crew traveled to Stevens Village and hired Alaska Natives to build the ice bridge. Woody had hoped by the time his crew built the winter ice-road to the Yukon River and the ice bridge, the contract would be prepared for a contractor to take over.

Segment 12) An ice bridge is a strengthening of the ice so it will carry a heavy load. To build an ice bridge, two snow berms are built and laid parallel across the ice. The two berms are laid 50 feet apart, creating the width of the road. Then, the crew would dig holes through the Yukon River ice, and pump water to thicken the ice between the berms. In addition, the crew laid three rows of spruce trees across the river and berms for strength.

Segment 13) The crew building the winter ice road reached the Yukon River a week before Christmas. Woody had thought his part of the job was complete. The crew waited at the south-bank of the Yukon River for directions from Woody. About the first of the year, Woody received orders from the Governor of Alaska that his crew would build the winter ice road to Sagwon. The crew had to rent and modify equipment to continue the construction of the winter ice road north.

Segment 14) The temperature at the Yukon River was extremely cold. It was 60 - 70 degrees below zero. The crew was immobilized. When the crew picked up an electrical wire to move it, the insulation would fall off. The kerosene froze. The diesel oil was so thick it wouldn't run the engines. Conditions were miserable. Everyday Woody would receive a call from the Alaska Road Commissioner in Juneau, asking why the crew stopped working. Finally, Woody received a call saying if the crew does not move soon, the project would be terminated. Just about that time, the weather warmed up, and the crew headed north. The commissioner called Woody again saying the governor (Walter Hickel) wanted him to shut the construction project down. According to Woody, "Well, I had no radio communication with my crew (at that time), so we couldn't (inform them to) shut it down. The crew kept going. The crew went to Bettles, up the John River, through Anaktuvuk Pass, and into Sagwon. Woody closes by saying, "What an experience. Without the crew that we had, we would never had made it".

project jukebox logo Return to Top | Project Jukebox | UAF Rasmuson Library | © Copyright Information | © 2007 UAF Oral History Department