A land of ice, snow, and constant challenge: Alaska's pioneering days and the man who made it possible.

Alaska in the first half of the twentieth century was far from a civilized or well-developed possession of the United States. The territory would not even gain statehood until 1959. The remote settlements of the Alaskan frontier were some of the most remote locations anywhere in the U.S. possessions. Travel during the summer months was rough going, and during the winter, nearly death defying over dangerous sled trails in brutal weather conditions. Alaska had gold and oil wealth; both valuable commodities that drove the desires to make travel through the region possible. The early sled trails and military paths would slowly become developed into well maintained roads with bridges crossing over glacial run off, high mountain streams, and cuts passing through mountains and valleys. 
With increased interest in Alaskan development in Washington because of its natural resources wealth, and the expansion and creation of National Parks within Alaska, a railway was built that ensured the passage of large numbers of goods to remote areas that made possible gold mining and the expansion of settlements. Eventually, through the work of the Alaska Road Commission, Alaska would develop dirt and gravel surface roads that would even rival their contemporaries in the lower 48 states of the U.S. The importance of roads in a remote area were far greater than in more urban settings. Roads in Alaska not only marked the passageways through rugged, remote, and dangerous terrain, but also positioned road houses and supply depots along trails and paths necessary for survival in the brutal conditions of the Arctic winters.

In 1913 James Gordon Steese had the good fortune to be assigned to an engineering expedition through Alaska using White Military Trucks 1. The expedition was the first of its kind, utilizing heavy trucks to travel through Alaska; something never before attempted. Undertaken to test the feasible use heavy trucks for transportation and supply into the remote regions of the territory, the expedition proved to be a milestone in motor vehicle travel. White Military Trucks had recently been adopted into military service; the Alaska Trip would be a true test of the endurance of the truck, at and above the rated load capacities on difficult terrain 2. The performance of the Trucks was exceptionally noteworthy in a period just prior to World War I when most militaries of the world were still relying on horse transport, and would continue to do so through the Great War in Europe. 

While traveling and testing the trucks on the rough roads, the engineers also mapped the routes and planned for improvements along the roads that fell under the control of the Alaska Road Commission. The Commission had been formed in 1905, and was the first road commission in the United States; and was challenged by the most remote and difficult terrain in the country to have to maintain. With a cost of $2,500 per mile and annual maintenance charges of $225 per mile, the roads, although dirt, were passable and found to be in well suited for all modes of Alaskan Travel 3. The expedition lasted only a short time but was successful in testing the use of early model trucks on rugged terrain without any serious difficulties. The expedition had also proven for the Alaska Road Commission that using trucks along better-maintained trails as a means of supply was feasible within Alaska. At no time during that trip was it believed that the roads of Alaska would be improved for use by automobiles for touring and travel on a regular basis though. Wagons, sleds, mules, and the horse were still believed to be the main means of transportation; not to be replaced in the near future. However, within a decade, Steese would be back in Alaska changing the concepts of Alaskan transportation; building roads suitable for Automobile touring, not only by rugged military trucks, but also by anyone with a car who wished to see the remote beauty of Alaska’s interior.

In 1920 Steese returned to Alaska to work for the Alaska Road Commission after a brief tour of duty in Europe after WWI. At the time, Alaska was undergoing a revolution in transportation. The Alaska Road Commission had successfully built many well-suited roads, trails, bridges, cabins, and other structures to facilitate travel through the interior of the territory. At the same time, the Alaska Government Railroad was nearing completion and was to ensure a large increase in mining operations and travels to previously considered distant and remote locations within the interior of Alaska. It was within this setting that Steese was assigned to take charge of the Alaska Road Commission from Col. Frederick Mears in 1923. Since his return from a trip to Europe for the military in 1919 Steese had been at work in Alaska on various projects for the Road Commission and Railroad, mainly serving as an advisory engineer. The appointment as President of the Road Commission came as a certain surprise to Col. Mears and did not create feelings of friendship between the two men, especially considering Mears had spent years working to create the Alaska Railroad and so close to its completion he was to be replaced by Steese 4

Steese began to spending summers in Alaska, and winters in Washington attending meetings and hearings. Adventuresome as the work was; Steese was extremely busy regardless of what side of North America he was on. Examples of Steese’s schedule remain in his personal diaries. In 1921 he spent a typical winter on the East Coast of the United States as follows:

Saturday – Jan. 15th
In Carlisle

Sunday – Jan. 16
P.M. to Washington

Monday – Jan. 17th
Corrected Testimony

Tuesday – Jan. 18th
P.M. to Harrisburg

Wednesday – Jan. 19th
P.M. to Washington

Thursday – Jan. 20th
Office Routine

Friday – January 21st
Prepare for visit to city club of Baltimore

Saturday – Jan. 22nd
City Club of Baltimore
P.M. Bacon, Nero, Powall, & Bacon5

Summers in Alaska were no different for Steese’s itinerary except for the means of transportation and attire he had to wear. Although the well-scheduled trains, auto routes, and common transportation on the eastern United States were not present in far Alaska; Steese still found himself traveling extensively by other means; demonstrated in 1921 through his Diary once again.

Monday, September 5th

Reached Poorman in forenoon and Mayhan came in about noon. Required rest of day to get lined up for overland trip to Ohpir. Got Joe Ferrils as horse wrangler and Tom Gallagher as guide, two pack horses and one saddle horse.

Tuesday, September 6th

Finally got away about 7:40 a.m., Tom in the lead, Theile and I alternating every half hour between riding saddle horse and dragging pack horse, and Joe in rear with other pack horse. Had gotten horse feed from our chache at the Sulatna River.

Had heavy going across Tundra and up Bonanza Creek. Had to unpack to make a crossing of Flat Creek. Had lunch on Bonanza Creek. Finally reached main divide and camped in the saddle for the night. No shelter except a tarpaulin over head and shoulders.

Wednesday, September 7th

Going on ridge pretty good, but saddles full of timber and tundra. Splendid progress but do not seem to get anywhere. Begin to suspect competency of Gallegher.

Camp at night in saddle suppose to be near end of ridge, after Tom has us drag pack horses to top of every mountain while he is trying to pick route. Leads us out on spur and has to back up. Passed around the wrong side of several other mountains. One pack horse rolls down mountain part way but is rescued.

Thursday, September 8th

Tom leads us a terrible chase over high mountains, and into impassible swamps and is plainly lost though Cripple Mountain is directly in front of us all day. After several fruitless climbs over ridges and cutting our way through alder swamps, we accidentally stumble onto the trail and camp for the night in a creek bottom in the rain.

Friday, September 9th

After cutting our way across one more alder swamp, we finally reach Colorado Creek and turn Tom loose. One operator busy building a cabin.

Follow plain trail over divide into Cripple Creek, follow down a mile according to instructions, catch cross trail over divide into Quartes Creek and follow down to Butte Creek which does not agree with the sketch map given us at Greenstone Creek by Drew French, another alleged authority. However, after some uncertainty, we follow down Butte Creek, pick up an old trail obstructed by windfalls, and finally cross Folger Creek below the junction with Butte Cr. instead of above in accordance with French’s map.

Get rather badly hurt by horse falling on me and jamming me with saddle horn in groin due to his going loco in crossing Butte Cr. Nothing to do but go on after application of 3H horse liniment. 

After some trouble with a beaver dam, we find an old trail across the swamp and cross Dominion Creek, and ascend ridge according to French’s map. We camp in rain in saddle. 6

The journey to Opher would continue over more difficult terrain and they would finally reach their destination on September 13th. Needless to say both examples of Steese travel are typical for any week of any year for his time serving with the Road Commission depending on if he was in Washington D.C. or Alaska. 

In 1923 the state of the Alaska Road Commission was as follows:
Since 1905 the commission had expended $8,000,000 for various road construction and maintenance projects. 1,114 miles of wagon roads, 623 miles of sled road, 4,404 miles of permanent trails and 712 miles of flagged trail had been created for a total of 6,854 miles. The commission was further seeking $10,000,000 as rapidly as possible for other projects. They operated a dozen ferries, an 87 mile tram road with cars driven by dogs, several shorter trams, designed and constructed 20 overhead cable trolleys in span up to 650 feet, and bridges had been designed and constructed in standardized patterns of all types from suspension to all steel highway bridges. To maintain all these routes and structures the commission was in possession of $500,000 worth of all types of machinery, tractors, steam shovels, graters, and other roadwork trucks and equipment 7.

The year 1923 would bring a presidential visit to Alaska by Warren Harding and his wife, who toured the interior on the newly finished Government Railway and viewed the splendor of Mt. McKinley National Park. Another interesting trip occurred in 1922 when Steese was sent to Russia and Japan by official delegation to discuss Fur Seal Rookeries in the Bering Sea. Not specifically held to just the work of the Road Commission, Steese became a strong advocate for all the National Parks and operations of Alaska, often offering and funding projects with Road Commission money when government funds were difficult to obtain from other sources. He also took control of the Alaska National Guard and was commissioned as Brigadier General in its ranks. 

Accomplishments made in Alaska were exemplary for the time, construction methods, budget available, and consideration that the elements of nature were again the construction parties building in the territory. When the first motor truck party traveled the interior of Alaska in 1913 there was no prediction of automobile travel on a regular basis through Alaska. Only ten years later, Steese himself would be writing articles for various magazines stating the wonderful condition of Alaska Roads, and proposed trips anyone could take to tour the territory with the use of their own private vehicle. In a single decade the vast untamed expanses of Alaska had been mapped, marked, and made passable by the automobile. Winter travel was still relegated to the dogsled over dangerous snow covered trails marked by wooden rails and posts. However, summers in Alaska had all the conveniences a traveler could ask for. Bridges of both wood and steel had been erected. Road surfaces graveled and graded. Roadhouses well stocked and hospitable, many staffed by local settlers who provided home cooked hot meals for a small fee. The allure of the Northern Lights, Glaciers, McKinley National Park, and adventures to secluded inlets or remote gold mines drew adventure seekers and tourists alike.

For his accomplishments in Alaska a portion of highway from Fairbanks to Circle was named in Steese’s honor. His name still is highly regarded among the inhabitants of Alaska that realize it was the early engineers and Alaskan Pioneers like Steese that developed the once wild territory into developed State. When compared to the difficulties and challenges Alaska provided the tasks presented were daunting, and yet all were accomplished with military precision. Only Steese’s own experiences working years before on the Panama Canal could have prepared him for the hardships of Alaska. In both projects the tasks presented seemed impossible, the climate and terrain were against the engineers, and the necessity for construction made the projects necessary to complete. Panama became Steese’s practical training ground for large ambitious projects. However, the Alaska projects he undertook became the legacy he left to his country. Steese retired from service in 1927 after a severe injury to his leg while bobsledding. Nonetheless, in the four years he was president of the Road Commission he ensured the success of Alaskan travel. The accomplishments of Steese extend to the roads of Alaska, several towns that developed from old road camps where the workers lived while constructing trails, the construction and maintenance of the Alaska Railroad, monetary, administrative, and maintenance assistance to McKinley National Park, development of Alaskan defense projects, establishment of several airfields and improvements to Alaskan Harbors, monetary assistance to Sitka National Park, and countless other minor projects he gave his expertise and aide to that cause the inhabitance to still appreciate his devotion to the improvements of the territory to this day 8

Ironically, the experiences of Alaska would later assist Steese to once again work in Panama, just the same as experiences in Panama had ensured his successes in Alaska. Already mentioned was the experiences gained in Panama and how such work had helped Steese accomplish so much in Alaska. In 1941 though, just before the United States entered World War II, Steese would be called upon by the U.S. Government to travel back to Panama and undertake an executive role as the Executive Assistant to the Engineer of Maintenance and later Assistant to the Governor. Both positions were granted to Steese based upon his prior involvements on the Canal project early in his life, and also from his executive experience in Alaska that brought him the knowledge and abilities to organize and run departments efficiently under extreme circumstances. It can only be suggested that Steese’s life experience was then ironically circular from Panama to Alaska and finally back to Panama. However, it is certainly suggestible that the experience of both Panama and Alaska were key elements to shape and determine the path of Steese’s life. At no single point in his life were the projects he undertook miniscule, in fact most projects were viewed during the period as impossible. The remaining records of his life suggest Steese simply undertook a project and moved on. He rarely contemplated the feasibility or impossibility of a project, and instead simply got the jobs done. While in Alaska Steese brought progress to the remote territory. He never attempted to change the ways of life of the people, establish civilized manners among the remote outposts of civilization, or use his military experience to forcefully gain change. Instead he assimilated into the culture, and although never a native Alaskan, was accepted as a true Alaskan Pioneer by the people of the territory. His legacy became the infrastructure for development that he created, building railways, trails, roads, bridges, and harbors for future generations to use for development. Fittingly, the Steese Highway that bears his name still runs through some of the most remote portions of Alaska, a rugged road established with military precision to connect a modern section of the state to some of the most remote regions of the United States in memory of a man who began his career in Panama, as far from Alaska as the mind could conceive, and yet came to Alaska with the visions of improvement and succeeded in all the tasks presented to him in an extremely short amount of time. 


End Notes and Bibliography