History Of The Canadian Provost Corps
The Northwest Highway System Provost Detachment
(By Lieutenant Colonel J. D. (Jim) Lumsden)
|In the early 1960's LCol Jim Lumsden was a young Canadian Provost Corps Captain attached to The Northwest Highway System (NWHS) Headquarters, Whitehorse, Yukon Territories where he was the Officer-in-charge of Provost personnel assigned to police the Canadian sector of the NWHS. Based on his knowledge and first hand experience related to this joint Canadian/USA post war military project, LCol Lumsden alludes to the facts leading up to the construction of the highway, including the subsequent policing of the NWHS by members of the Canadian Provost Corps. The adventure associated with the assigned policing duties in the great North is reflected in the many stories told by those former members of the Canadian Provost Corps who were fortunate enough to have been selected for this rather unique task.|
During World War 2 there was a threat of an assault on North America at its closest point to Asia and specifically from the Japanese occupation of several islands in the Aleutian chain. To defend against such a threat it was deemed necessary to provide an overland route to Alaska which heretofore relied primarily upon sea transport up the West Coast from the lower points on the continent.
The Alcan Highway project was launched by the USA in early 1942 to connect Dawson Creek, British Columbia and Fairbanks, Alaska through a no man's-land which was in large measure unmapped and only minimally previously explored. In the Canadian sector the American Army built a series of gravel roads through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. Rapidity of construction was of the essence, thus, the route tended to follow the "line of least resistance" over some formidable country . The general route of the highway was along a line of existing airfields from Edmonton to Fairbanks, but on the ground, the road followed existing winter roads, old Indian trails and rivers. Sometimes routing of the road relied on "sight engineering."The major road in the system was the "Alaska Highway" that wound from Dawson Creek (mile 0). to the Yukon/Alaska (Beaver Creek YT) border, a distance of 1221 miles. In addition, there was the Haines Road (Haines Junction Mile 1016), an overland connection to the seaport at Haines, Alaska, and several airport access roads in northern B.C and the Yukon that formed the overall System.
In April 1946 the Canadian Army assumed responsibility for the operation and maintenance of this road network. That duty continued as a task of the Department of National Defence until 31 March 1964 when responsibility for the road system was transferred to the federal Department of Public Works. It has subsequently been taken over by the British Columbia and Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works.
The Organization and Geography
A military formation, the North West Highway System (NWHS) , with its Headquarters in Whitehorse Yukon Territory, was developed for this purpose. NWHS functioned with the status of an Area Headquarters from 1 April 1946 to 31 March 1964. The Commander NWHS reported to the General Officer Commanding Western Command.
The primary Unit of NWHS was the Highway Maintenance Establishment (HME), Royal Canadian Engineers. Its headquarters was in Whitehorse and HME Maintenance Camps were located every 45 to 50 miles throughout the 1221 miles of the highway. These were generally named and identified with the nearest geographic feature, such as Teslin (Mile 804), after adjacent Teslin Lake. Others christened through the imagination of the personnel assigned names such as Wonowon located at Mile 101 (and officially known as Blueberry). HME not only had the task of maintaining the road system but of upgrading and correcting some of the major hazards. They were also tasked to replace the many hastily constructed primitive bridges speedily installed as dictated by the need for expeditious completion of the Highway. These replacement bridges were constructed as modern steel and concrete structures and stand as a monument to the high calibre and dedication of the members of HME. All of this upgrading was carried out by the Canadian Army.
The Canadian Provost Corps Detachment
The formation included a detachment of the Canadian Provost Corps which grew from its original six NCOs ( Sgt T.O. Foster, L/Cpls R. Oliver, J.R. (Jim) McConnery, M.G. Decker C.V.(Vic) Auburn, and W.J. (Bill) Van Horne) in Whitehorse to 1 Officer and 23 NCOs at three locations. In the initial instance highway patrol operations were based out of Whitehorse until 1954 at which time a Section was opened at the Dawson Creek (Mile 0) Railhead. In 1959 the level of activity dictated a further Provost Section be located at Fort Nelson (Muskwa Garrison at mile 295).
The Corps Detachment was a sub-unit of Western Command Provost Company, attached for all purposes except discipline and duty, to Headquarters NWHS. The first members of the Corps to serve on the Highway arrived in mid-summer 1946. The last member of the Corps (Captain Jim Lumsden, then serving as Staff Captain"Q"NWHS) departed in early August 1964.
The Military Policeman's Duties on NWHS
The assigned Military Policemen, in addition to patrolling this vast road network, performed the normal Provost tasks of policing static military garrisons. The major difference was of course that the "Garrison" included strips of land (highways) which formed a Defence Establishment approximately 1/4 mile wide and 1472 miles in length; in addition to what we recognise as the three conventional military garrisons ( Camp Takhini, Muskwa Garrison and Dawson Creek Railhead ) mentioned above.
This was a time when extensive oil, gas and other natural resource exploration was being undertaken in Northern Canada. These ventures entailed the movement of large and bulky loads weighing up to 100,000 pounds and measuring from 12 to 20 feet in width. Such traffic, if uncontrolled, would quickly damage the roadbed and the many bridges in the system. The task thus called for extensive road patrols that required the MPs to work a "Shift" which lasted several days instead of the conventional eight hours. During these periods the environmental conditions could invariably be relied upon to be adverse. The varying seasons brought dust, heavy snow or ice, and extreme heat or temperatures of 25 to 40 below.
There were, in addition to the commercial traffic with truck operators who had tight delivery schedules to meet, the recreational travellers who were primarily tourists intent upon enjoying their holiday into the "Land of the Midnight Sun". Their aims and vacation schedules were often disrupted by road washouts, which might last for days or normal road and bridge maintenance. The result was a frustrated public. In such circumstances their first contact with authority was a Military Policeman. The task demanded that members of the Corps assigned to these duties be mature, reliable, tactful, resourceful and patient. All of these are qualities present in most Military Police persons, but the NWHS role in dealing with a public who knew little, and cared less about things military, required the presence of these attributes in higher than average measure.
The most significant period of the year for vehicle load weights was of course the spring as the oil rigs were trying to escape from the bush to avoid the risk of their rigs sinking out of sight in the muskeg at a later time. These grossly overweight overloads were capable of inflicting road damage that could halt traffic for lengthy periods as repairs were carried out. There were only two static weigh stations (Charlie Lake [Mile 49 and Fort Nelson [Mile 300}). The scarcity and positioning of these facilities required that weight checks be carried out with the twin portable weigh scales in their red boxes that were carried in the patrol vehicles. The best that could be hoped for with such equipment was to do "spot checks" of vehicle loads in the hope of a modicum of deterrence. It would not be prudent to speculate on its success or otherwise.
Beyond the man made causes of roadbed damage the forces of nature had a significant effect on the need for control on the highway. This was particularly so during late spring and early summer when washouts were a frequent occurrence which might close sections of he road for days. This road net had no options for detours dictating that the flow of traffic had to be stopped at a location where food and lodging could be obtained. Thus, control points had to be established up to a hundred miles from the site of the washout. This once again placed a further strain on a patrolman's tact and patience in dealing with tourists in particular. These travelers were anxious to continue their long envisaged and carefully planned vacation in the North. They were unfortunately unable to envisage the damage that a mountain-run off can do to the road as well as the hindrance it poses to the repair efforts.
Control of this traffic was being carried out at a time long before modern day traffic radar and photo radar. A speed check commenced by driving two stakes, generally 220 yards apart, and then stringing out field telephones between them so that the MPs at the stake could communicate with each other while clocking the elapsed time and then determining the actual speed by consulting a speed chart. Then the task of apprehending offender had to be addressed. A heavy human resource requirement task. Some difference from today's aim and point hand held radar.
There were no radios in the panel trucks assigned for highway patrols. The patrol was issued with "railway field phones" and a telescopic pole for connecting the phones wires to designated lines of the Canadian National Telecommunication "telephone poles" which were strung out along the highway. Routine communication was confined to fixed block times each day. For instance the Provost Detachment's HQ fixed time to communicate with the Garrisons or a patrol was 1300 -1315 hours daily.
The tools available to do the job might today well seem to be bordering on the primitive as well as being limited in their availability. Just to make life more enjoyable all this had to be put together while at the same time protecting ones self by swatting mosquitoes and the hordes of other insects that seem to love the North Country.
It is not unusual for Provost Detachments to have been assigned the task of animal control. In most instances this related to the control and licensing of domestic pets. On the NWHS its primary emphasis was on the control of range horses that were attracted to the sources of food found on a military garrison. These horses were for the most part owned by "Outfitters" who utilised them on treks (for profit) through the northern wilderness in mid-summer and then turned them loose around Takhini and Fort Nelson to live off the land for the remainder of the year. It was not unusual to find the horses wandering about PMQ and school areas. To assist in this horse wrangling task it was necessary to qualify on the lariat to undertake this diversion from normal Provost duties offered in the North. Unfortunately, a photo is not available but the most vivid memory of this is S/Sgt "Boom" Cannon and Sgt. Dave "Tiny" Burnett out on a "Round Up" as full fledged horse wranglers. .
Escorting the paymaster is again a task that was assigned to most Provost Detachments. In the North there was a difference which found the paymaster seeking out personnel to pay throughout the length of the road network at the many Highway Maintenance Camps, major work sites and individual persons working on such machinery as road graders or ploughs, wherever they might be encountered. This "Pay Parade" was not the two-hour twice monthly event most soldiers are familiar with, but required a 5 to 8 day trip for the paymaster and the Provost escort paying people as they were encountered. A lengthy but profitable task as it allowed the military policeman to meet those who operated and maintained the Highway in a friendly and informal setting. The dividends in co-operation and understanding on other Provost duties were immeasurable. Click here to view attached photo.
In addition to the domestic tasks the Detachment regularly provided Military Police support for Canadian Army components participating in joint exercises in Alaska. It also was assigned the traffic control task and control of supply points on the Highway in the event of a need arising to evacuate dependents from Alaska and Yukon.
The Patrolman's Perks
In spite of the lengthy duration of patrols, the less than compact vehicles and equipment and the alternating dust and cold seasons there were perks such as being able to pull to the side of a lake and dip a fishing rod for an hour or so before continuing the patrol. In addition, there was the friendship of the residents along the way. One such couple was Jim and Betty Grant at Muncho Lake. They operated Highland Glen Lodge, a tourist and fishing camp at Mile 450. It was one of the best places to overnight on the NWHS. The South / North based patrol out of Mile 0 or 295 and the North /South patrol out of Mile 918 regularly met there. The hospitality was great and the scenery out of this world. (Jim presented my wife with a black bear hide on our final trip down the Highway in August 1964 as a memento of our tour.) Most Corps members who served on the Highway will fondly remember enjoying the Grant's hospitality as part of what made this remote posting more enjoyable.
One also had to be practical as living costs were very high relative to what is referred to by northern residents as the "Outside". Bob Stevens, in company with; Robbie Robertson, recently, (September 2001) revisited their old haunts while serving on the Highway. Bob's report, entitled Northern Odyssey and circulated earlier, recalls patrols to Dawson Creek from Fort Nelson when "the Provost panel was used to transport, on our return trip to Fort Nelson, groceries and any number of items we purchased at local wholesalers. It certainly helped stretch our pay which, even with northern allowances, was not that high."
A similar practical side of Whitehorse to Fort Nelson patrols was known to occur. The difference was in the target of their shopping in the South. In this setting it was agreed that while the cost of "vittles" was very high, the costs of a "two-four" or a "40 pounder" in the Yukon were outrageous. In British Columbia the price of such items was standard, and notably lower, throughout the Province, thus, one paid the same price for such items in Fort Nelson as you would in Vancouver.
The Peace River Bridge Detour
The most significant incident affecting the flow of traffic on the System occurred in late 1957 when the Peace River Bridge collapsed. ( Click to view attached photo). It was immediately apparent that this was to be a long term disruption. The first response was the use of a ferry. Control of this was effected by a section of infantry from 2 PPCLI under the direction of two Provost NCOs. (In early 1958 the infantry section was replaced with members of the C Pro C.) The ferry was replaced in December 57 with an existing trestle on the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGER) [now the British Columbia Railway (BCR)] trestle. Reaching this river crossing site from the Highway required travelling a nine mile detour, including an RCE Bailey Bridge over the Pine River. This approach road had of necessity been hastily constructed, and was fraught with many hazards in itself. The trestle was 100 feet above the River and 3330 feet in length. It had been modified with a deck that had a width of 11 feet 3 inches and a protective railing 4 feet 6 inches in height. The defile was a formidable sight for the unsuspecting motorist, however, while a few declined the thrill, most, buoyed by the quiet confident assurances of the Military Policeman who controlled the operation, undertook the crossing. The attached photo of the replacement Peace River Railroad Bridge (Trestle), Click here to view, will give you an idea of the immediate daunting impression of the defile.
In April 1958 the stress of the task was compounded when the PGER commenced its rail service to Fort St John B.C., thus, the traffic control problem became more complex as the MPs controlling the span now had to concern themselves with unscheduled rail traffic as well as the vehicles crossing the River. An example of this can be seen on the occasion that L Cpl John Collins was assisting a timid driver, who was a bit overwhelmed by the drive across when the vehicle concerned and train met on the bridge. John got out and after some conversation with the engineer of the PGER train all agreed that it would be easier for the train to back up. This one incident is testimony to the negotiating skills and courteous approach of the Military Policemen assigned to this task. In spite of the many hazards and the adverse environment members of the Canadian Provost Corps operated this defile without major mishap until the new Peace River Bridge was completed in 1960.
The Yukon Approach
One of the striking features on the NWHS was the low frequency of crime. Life in the North required both a lonely existence for some and a good deal of travel. The Yukon Order of Pioneers adopted the Golden Rule as their motto. "Do onto others as you would be done to". The acceptance of this creed and the mutual trust of each other by the great majority became quickly apparent to the members of the Provost Corps assigned to the NWHS. It is probably best exemplified in the story of the MP who was seeking out members of the Canadian Rangers, a reserve component of the Canadian Army. In response to an invitation to "Come on in" the MP found the door not only unlocked but also not even on hinges. The occupant explained that his doors were not meant to keep people out but rather they were handy to break the strong winter winds. He had never been the victim of a theft and firmly believed in the Pioneers creed. (A lesson we might all do well to revisit in this day as we isolate our self with physical and high technology barriers to ensure our security).
The Order Changes
On 1 April 1964 the operation and maintenance of the NWHS was handed over from the Canadian Army to the Department of Public Works Canada. The performance of Provost duties on the NWHS had many rewards, however, one of the best is the respect of the persons served. Such respect is summed up in an editorial in the Fort Nelson News at the time of the decision to replace the military with a civilian organization: " We will miss from the scene the Provost Corps that have so long rendered a service to all residents and tourists. Hell! They may have nicked you now and again and in doing so only made it safer for the rest of the pilgrims heading up or down the track".
That praise was well earned by every member of the Corps who served on the "Highway".
Addendum To This Historic Article
( On The construction Of The Temporary Bridge )
Former member of the Canadian Provost Corps, retired WO Mike Mulvihill of Pembroke,
ON advises that his late father, along with three of his brothers and a brother-in-law, all worked on the building
of the Alaskan Highway (NWHS). Mike states that the first bridge was destroyed by ice jams caused by a
Chinook weather condition and that is father had helped to build the approaches to this bridge site.
Mike submitted some photos that were take during that era that he had acquired from his family album, explaining, that in one photo an American soldier can be seen guarding the Bridge and in another photo what appears to be a steam engine on the tracks over the bridge is actually a mobile pile driver. Both the pile driver and a couple of excavation mechanical shovels used on the project were all operated by steam.
One of the photos that Mike forwarded depicts a Canadian and an American Military Policeman conducting a disciplinary foot patrol of the town of Fort Nelson, BC. The photos can be viewed by clicking on the link below.
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