The Yukon was a distant and, sometimes, lonely place for the thousands of American soldiers who were sent north to build the war-time road to Alaska. While convalescing after a vehicle accident in 1942, Carl Lindley - a 21 year-old soldier with Company D, 341st Engineers -wistfully erected a sign to his hometown of Danville, Illinois. This single sign has grown into a "forest" of more than 20,000 signs from cities and towns around the world. This international signpost collection is still growing, as visitors add over 2,000 signs each year.
Welcome to the Sign Post Forest
In 1942, during construction of the Alaska Highway, the army corps of engineers erected mileage posts at their camps that listed places, distances and directions in the Yukon, other Canadian cities, cities within the United States of America and also other parts of the world. One of these posts was erected at the Wye, the corner of the Alaska Highway and the road to the Watson Lake Airport, where the Sign Post Forest stands today. The original post is the only mileage post of its type to survive from the Alaska Highway construction.
Carl Lindley, a homesick soldier, added his hometown sign to the army signpost and started a time-honoured tradition. People from all over the world continue to add their own hometown signs to the Sign Post Forest on a daily basis in the spring, summer and fall.
In 1992, Carl Lindley returned with his wife, Eleanor, to Watson Lake for the first time since his departure in 1943. He was overwhelmed when he saw the size of the Sign Post Forest. At a sign re-enactment ceremony, he replaced the original Danville, Illinois sign that had rotted away long before.
The Sign Post Forest has been protected and nurtured over the years by the ordinary citizens of what became Watson Lake, the Lions Club, the Hippie Club and finally the Town of Watson Lake. The Sign Post Forest is one of the best known attractions along the 2414 kilometre highway from Dawson Creek, BC to Fairbanks, AK. At the end of 2004, signs in the Forest numbered almost 55,000.
Northwest Staging Route
The growth of air travel in the 1930s sparked an interest in creating a "Great Circle Route" to link the Canadian northwest with Alaska, Siberia, and China. In 1935, the Canadian Department of Transport sponsored Dan McLean and the famous bush pilot Punch Dickens to scout an air route to the far east. Based on their recommendations, the federal government authorized the construction of airfields between Edmonton, Alberta and Whitehorse, Yukon as the start of a route to the Orient. In 1940, work began on airfields at Grande Prairie, Alberta; Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, British Columbia; and Watson Lake and Whitehorse in Yukon.
Between these points, emergency airstrips were built as a safety measure. By September 1941, the route was open to aircraft flying visual flight rules. Three months later, the installation of radio beacons made all-weather flying possible.
When Russia entered the war in Europe in 1941, the air route took on a military function. Russia and the United States entered into a lend-lease agreement whereby American fighter planes were flown across northwestern Canada, to Fairbanks, Alaska. From there, Russian pilots flew the aircraft across Siberia to the front lines in the war against Nazi Germany.
Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, made the United States fearful that Alaska and the Aleutians were also potential targets. To expedite the movement of men and supplies through a protected inland route to the Alaskan coast, the airstrips along the Northwest Staging Route were upgraded to handle large bombers. Hangers, workshops, refuelling facilities, and lighting were added to the basic airfields and barracks were built to house airport staff. By July 1943, the Northwest Staging Route was complete and capable of handling military aircraft in all weather.
The construction of the Northwest Staging Route was a major factor in determining a route for the Alaska Highway. A road that linked up the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route would provide a secure supply route, out of range from Japanese attack. The airfields supported and protected highway construction, while the highway, in turn, supplied the system of airfields.