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Oliver Backlund, Part 1
Oliver Backlund

Oliver Backlund was interviewed on November 21, 2006 by Marie Mitchell at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Oliver talks about his family background; his service in the U.S. Navy; his professional work experience as a surveyor and location engineer with the State of Alaska Department of Highways in 1961; his qualifications as a registered land surveyor and certified photogrammetrist; and a brief history of the Winter Ice Road (known as the Hickel Highway), the hardy crew who built it, and being responsible for monitoring progress and assisting the foreman with location logistics.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-28-07_PT.1

Project: Dalton Highway
Date of Interview: Nov 21, 2006
Narrator(s): Oliver Backlund
Interviewer(s): Marie Mitchell
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
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1) Personal background

2) Coming to Alaska

3) First impressions of Alaska

4) Getting a job with the Public Roads Administration (PRA)

5) Surveying the Seward Highway near Girdwood

6) Responsibilities of the survey crew

7) Staying ahead of the construction crew, and working in the wilderness

8) Designing the road to Cooper Landing, and increased road construction

9) Road construction agencies

10) Moving to Fairbanks and working for the Bureau of Public Roads and the Alaska Department of Highways

11) Getting married and having a family

12) Surveying the route for the winter ice road to the North Slope

13) Following an old mining trail as the route

14) Winter road building, and making a trail wide enough for trucks

15) Designing the road from Livengood to Sagwon

16) Assessing the route

17) Crew members, working conditions, and types of transportation

18) Surviving a helicopter crash

19) Hiring local people from Stevens Village

20) Dealing with cold conditions and mechanical problems

21) Challenges of keeping equipment running in cold weather

22) Challenges with equipment and river crossings

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Section 1: Oliver was born in Holt Minnesota, November 30, 1926. He grew up on a family farm during the depression years. Oliver served in the Navy during World Ward II (WWII) until he was released in 1946. Oliver spent a year at the University of Minnesota. He was not studious, so he moved to Alaska in 1949 with a contract to work for the Public Roads Administration (PRA). PRA constructed roads, bridges, did work in parks and forests, and was the forerunner to the Bureau of Public Roads.
birth place\ birth date\ Great Depression\ farming\ World War II -- navy officer\ University of Minnesota -- brief attendance\ Alaska -- relocated to\ Public Roads Administration (PRA) -- employed with\ PRA -- responsibilities\ Holt, Minnesota -- disappearance of|

Section 2: Oliver attended the University of Minnesota. He heard about road construction work in Alaska from a friend. Oliver thought it was a good opportunity. He met the recruiter, and was hired for the job. A week later, he moved to Alaska. Oliver was studying forestry at the University of Minnesota, which gave him skills applicable to his new job with the PRA.
University of Minnesota -- student\ friend -- job contact\ PRA -- recruiter\ PRA -- interviewed for\ employment with\ studies -- forestry\ mathematics\ skills -- qualified|

Section 3: Oliver did not have the immediate support of his family when he announced that he was leaving for Alaska. When he arrived in Alaska Oliver thought, " I died and went to heaven. Alaska was free of regulation because of few people. People depended on each other, seemed like an innocent time (1949)."
family -- limited support from\ Alaska -- impression of\ Alaska -- relocated to\ population --low\ regulations -- limited\ relocation -- 1949|

Section 4: In February 1949, Oliver traveled to Alaska by plane. He flew Northwest Airlines from Minneapolis to Anchorage in a DC-6. During those days, this flight would continue to the Orient. Oliver arrived in Anchorage and then reported to the Public Roads Administration (PRA) office in Seward. With a new place and a new job, this felt like an adventure to him. He was 22 years old at the time.
Alaska -- relocated to\ Alaska -- 1949\ Anchorage -- traveled to\ Seward -- location of employer\ job -- excitement of\ Alaska -- adventurous|

Section 5: Oliver immediately started survey work in Girdwood, which was a mining town in 1949. The 1964 Alaskan Earthquake changed the dynamics of Girdwood, and destroyed the original town. Oliver was assigned to survey from Mile 58 to Turnagain Arm, which is now part of the highway from Seward to Anchorage.
survey -- roads\ survey crew -- assigned to\ Girdwood -- job location\ Girdwood -- changes in\ 1964 Alaskan Earthquake -- effects of\ Seward Highway -- name of|

Section 6: Oliver was assigned to the survey crew. He wrote the stations on stakes and drove the stakes into the ground (every 100 feet). Survey crews work ahead of construction. The survey crew would walk from one survey site to the next. He worked 9 hours a day, 6 days a week.
survey crew -- assigned to\ stake artist -- type of job\ responsibilities\ survey crew -- schedule\ pre-construction\ transportation -- by foot\ vehicle -- 4-wheel drive\ job -- hours worked\ time-off -- recreation\ rest|

Section 7: The survey team was ahead of construction. Sometimes the team drove four-wheel drive vehicles to move ahead of the road construction crew. While working in the wilderness, Oliver fended off many mosquitoes and witnessed wildlife (mountain goats, black bear, moose, and birds).
survey crew -- pre-construction\ ahead of construction crew\ transportation -- 4-wheel drive\ contractor -- for road\ for bridge\ wilderness -- scenic\ remote\ wildlife -- types of\ mosquitoes -- quantities of\ nuisance\ fish -- leisure|

Section 8: In 1959, Oliver worked on designing a road from Mile 38 to Cooper Landing, the same year as Alaska Statehood. 120,000 people lived in Alaska. It was growing and expanding after World War II. There was a need for additional roads, and that is what drove the economy.
survey crew -- office work\ fieldnotes\ Alaska -- statehood\ population\ World War II\ Cold War\ road construction -- increase in\ reasons for|

Section 9: Expansion of road construction after World War II and during the Cold War, and different agencies had different responsibilities. The PRA built roads in national parks and forests, while the Alaska Road Commission built roads outside of parks and forests. The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was a small, efficient organization that did all their work "in house," including design, construction, and maintenance of roads, bridge and airfields.
road -- construction\ roads -- demand for\ U.S. Army\ PRA -- responsibilities\ Alaska Road Commission (ARC) -- responsibilities\ ARC -- renaming\ cessation\ Bureau of Public Roads -- growth of\ roads -- national parks\ roads -- national forests\ Alaska Road Commission\ road -- design\ road -- maintenance\ agency -- duties of|

Section 10: Oliver worked for the PRA from February 1949 to 1951. He quit and moved to Fairbanks because he wanted to see more of Alaska. Most of his jobs were seasonal until he was hired by the Bureau of Public Roads in Fairbanks in 1957. In 1959, the Bureau of Public Roads was reorganized and renamed the Alaska Department of Highways. Oliver worked for the Alaska Department of Highways until he retired in 1981.
job -- quit\ Fairbanks -- relocation to\ geophysical party -- Barrow\ job -- surveying\ jobs -- seasonal\ Bureau of Public Roads\ Alaska -- statehood\ Alaska Department of Highways\ retirement -- 1981|

Section 11: Marrying Elizabeth "Betty" Tweeden in Fairbanks in 1966,  having two children, and Betty dying from cancer.
Fairbanks\ job -- surveyor\ marriage -- 1966\ Tweeden, Betty\ children\ wife -- death\ cancer\ marriage -- second|

Section 12: In the fall of 1968, there was pressure from oil companies to transport oil drilling supplies to the North Slope, Alaska, where oil was discovered. The Alaska Department of Highways was directed to build a winter ice road to haul supplies north. Oliver was responsible for surveying the route.
oil -- discovery of\ oil -- North Slope, Alaska\ supplies -- oil drilling pipes\ oil related\ Alaska Department of Highways -- Winter Haul Road\ Winter Haul Road -- construction of\ survey\ route\ route -- gold mine trails\ Winter Haul Road -- route description\ Livengood\ Yukon River\ Stevens Village\ Bettles\ Anaktuvuk Pass\ Sagwon|

Section 13: Oliver was the location engineer, gathering field data for the road design. He was responsible for coordinating the route along a winter gold mine trail. Oliver viewed existing U.S. Geological Survey maps, and decided that the gold mining trail was a feasible trail. The winter ice road was never intended to be a permanent road, only a winter trail used to haul equipment.
Livengood -- mining town\ location of\ Manley Hot Springs -- mining town\ location engineer -- hired as\ responsibilities\ data collection\ field survey\ road design\ U.S. Geological Survey maps -- resource\ winter haul road -- route\ gold miners trail\ purpose of\ haul road -- description\ temporary|

Section 14: At the time, roads were not built during the summer due to the terrain being too boggy and marshy. Supplies and workers were needed north for oil companies, so Oliver decided to widen an existing winter gold mining trail. Oliver tells a story of a vehicle that cleared a trail wide enough for truck traffic.
winter -- transportation\ summer -- problematic\ limited transportation\ terrain -- description\ oil -- supplies\ workers\ need for\ machinery -- story of\ trail -- widening\ truck traffic|

Section 15: When Oliver started work with the Alaska Department of Highways, the department was directed to build a road from Livengood to the Yukon River (from Governor Hickel). Then, from Livengood to Sagwon, the trail would be built by contractors. There were too many problems in finding a contractor due to the complicated bidding process, so the decision was made for the department to design and build the road from Livengood to Sagwon.
winter -- travel\ benefits of\ truck load -- heavy\ summer -- travel\ moist terrain\ difficulties of\ Alaska Department of Highways -- design\ construct\ winter haul road\ contractors -- bidding process\ difficulties with\ winter haul road -- planned route|

Section 16: The winter ice road used a gold miners' trail as the route. Fall 1968, Oliver chartered an airplane and viewed the terrain. He decided to follow the goldmine trail, but the route diverts along the John River. The project manager for the project was Elmer Parkinson.
winter haul road -- gold miners' trail\ transportation -- airplane\ winter haul road -- route\ assessment\ diversion\ reroute\ Parkinson, Elmer -- project manager

Section 17: The crew included a cook, mechanics, and machine operators. The crew was responsible for widening the gold miners' trail. Oliver traveled between the campsites along the route - as a surveyor, he worked ahead of the construction crew. He chartered a helicopter to view the route.
sleeping quarters -- description of\ cook house\ crew -- job titles\ responsibilities\ caterpillar story -- mechanical problems\ solution\ transportation -- type of\ surveyor -- worked ahead of crew\ mobility|

Section 18: Oliver describes a helicopter accident that he was involved in. View a photo of the helicopter after the crash.
helicopter -- story of\ accident\ weather -- extreme cold\ helicopter -- mechanical problems\ cold weather -- problems with\ pilot -- continued on\ Backlund, Oliver -- apprehensive\ helicopter -- accident\ injuries\ transmission -- mechanical failure\ camp-site -- hiked to|

Section 19: The Alaska Department of Highways hired a number of local villagers from Stevens Village to assist in construction of the winter crossing (ice bridge) over the Yukon River. Local villagers worked to cut and lay timber over the frozen river ice, which was then sprayed with water to thicken the ice to create a bridge.
surveyor -- responsibilities of\ hired as\ route -- assessment of\ conditions\ elevation\ Stevens Village -- fuel storage provisions\ fuel -- airplane\ Stevens village -- laborers\ ice bridge -- construction of\ process of\ location|

Section 20: There were a dozen men working on road construction. The coldest weather the crew experienced occurred from Livengood to the Yukon River. The temperature dropped to 70 degrees below zero.
crews -- number of\ weather -- story of\ extreme\ effects of\ equipment -- left running\ mechanical problems\ hoses -- breakage\ steel -- cracking\ temperature -- 70 degrees below zero|

Section 21: Oliver describes the problems with keeping equipment running during extreme weather conditions, like the hydraulic hoses breaking and the engine fluids solidifying. The mechanics could not wear heavy mittens, only monkey face gloves to work with the equipment.
mechanical problems\ equipment -- running\ mechanics -- quality of\ gloves -- types of\ Copp, Walter -- tough mechanic\ hoses\ hydraulic fluid -- improvements|

Section 22: The equipment was not engineered for extreme cold weather conditions. Mechanics managed to modify the equipment to keep it running. Challenges for the crew were trying to cross the Yukon River and the John River. Oliver thought when the crew arrived at the summit near Anaktuvuk Pass, construction would move quickly. However, at Anaktuvuk Pass the crew experienced drifting snow and heavy winds.
equipment -- problems\ problems -- mechanical\ cold weather -- effects\ mechanics -- equipment\ modifications\ management\ challenges -- river crossing\ Yukon River\ John River\ Anaktuvuk Pass