Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Project Jukebox Survey

Help us redesign the Project Jukebox website by taking a very short survey!

Woodrow "Woody" Johansen, Interview 1
Woody Johansen

Woodrow "Woody" Johansen was interviewed on April 17, 1985 by William Schneider and Dan O'Neill in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Woody talks about the history of the Alaska Road Commission, the Bureau of Public Roads and the Alaska State Highway Department, and the development of the Winter Haul Road (Hickel Highway). He shares his personal stories about the building of the Hickel Highway, and his memories of the crew hired to construct it. He also talks about his responsibilities as a District Manager on the Hickel Highway, including project management, engineering, recruitment, logistics, contract negotiations and mediation.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 85-84-01

Project: Dalton Highway
Date of Interview: Apr 17, 1985
Narrator(s): Woodrow "Woody" Johansen
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Dan O'Neill
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


1) His grandfather coming to Alaska

2) His father coming to Alaska and working as a miner, mail carrier, and supply boat operator

3) Growing up in Cordova and memories of the trains near their house in Eyak

4) Working as a railroad engineer, and teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbank

5) Building of roads in Alaska, and establishment of the Alaska Road Commission

6) Influence of the military on road construction in Alaska

7) The role of the Bureau of Public Roads and the Alaska Road Commission in road building and maintenance

8) Establishment of the Alaska State Highway Department after Alaska statehood

9) More about the history of agencies responsible for roads in Alaska

10) Introduction of contract work for building roads

11) Working for the Alaska Road Commission

12) Road standards, route selection, and Right of Way

13) Discovering a graveyard and seeking permission from the local Alaska Native families to move it

14) Reasons for the building of the Denali Highway, and improving the road from Fairbanks to Nenana

15) Building of the Taylor Highway

16) Construction of the road to Livengood

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: grandfather\ Block, Adam\ Virginia\ Civil War\ Alaska purchase\ Sitka\ military\ Alaska -- remained in\ marriage\ creole -- Russian and Aleut\ trader\ Alaska Commercial Company\ travel\ mother -- stories\ fur seal -- skin\ tobbagon\ Kodiak\ Afognak\ Unga\ Seldovia\ business -- purchase\ store\ family|

Section 2: father\ Norway\ Minnesota\ Alaska -- coming to\ gold rush -- Cook Inlet\ miner\ mail carrier\ Seward\ Knik\ fish -- hooligan (smelt)\ boat -- waiting for\ food -- run out of\ survival\ boat -- supply\ Hope\ Sunrise\ Turnagin Arm\ Copper River Railroad\ Cordova\ retirement|

Section 3: Cordova\ birthplace\ Eyak\ railroad -- construction of\ canneries\ land -- purchase\ housing -- employee\ railroad -- buildings\ childhood\ railroad -- roundhouse\ winter\ railroad -- rotary snowplow\ railroad -- pusher engine\ engine -- steam power\ train -- locomotive\ engines -- synchronized\ train -- sound of|

Section 4: 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.

Section 5: 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.

Section 6: 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.

Section 7: 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.

Section 8: 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.

Section 9: 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.

Section 10: 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.

Section 11: 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.

Section 12: 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.

Section 13: document -- environmental impact statement\ Richardson Highway\ Glennallen\ contract work\ document -- plans\ line -- clearing\ graveyard -- Indian\ Alaska Natives\ Cameron, Bill\ grave -- relocation\ permission\ family\ gift giving\ procedures -- changes in|

Section 14: highways -- construction\ roads -- purpose of\ Denali Highway\ pressure -- public\ road -- Mt McKinley National Park\ access -- car\ population -- increase\ Cantwell\ road -- building\ Paxson\ Alaska Road Commission\ Fairbanks\ Nenana\ communities -- connection\ Coghill, Jack\ Alaska Legislature\ funding\ road -- pioneer\ right of way\ road -- quality of\ Ester\ road -- wood\ Polini, Quinto\ wood -- harvesting\ trail\ road -- upgrade|

Section 15: Taylor Highway\ Alaska Road Commission\ camp -- maintenance\ Eagle\ road -- building\ miners\ American Summit\ trails\ transportation -- mining equipment\ Jack Wade\ American Summit\ road -- upgrade\ route\ Alaska Highway\ Chicken|

Section 16: 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.