The Professional Tourist: Mackenzie Highway
by Jim Park
Grimshaw, Alberta may not be the centre of the trucking universe today, but there was a time when everything moving north of 60 went through there. In case you've never had the pleasure, Grimshaw is located a few miles south of Peace River or about 250 miles northwest of Edmonton as the crow flies.
The town is officially designated as Mile "0" on the Mackenzie Highway, and it's also the home of the Mile "0" Museum - a tribute to some of the men and machines who opened up Canada's north to the rest of the world. The museum is owned and operated by a 71-year old semi-retired trucker, Fred Lorenzen, and his wife Bernice. He helped build the highway, and spent 50 years running freight between Grimshaw and the Northwest Territories.
Lorenzen did his first of such trips in 1942 at the age of 14. "I was too smart to go to school and too young to go to war," he jokes. Those early days, and its trucks, left an impression so strong that he eventually built the museum to celebrate their fascinating history.
Prior to 1900, not much moved in the north that couldn't fit into a canoe or be strapped to a mule. By 1915, a lot of the territory in northwestern Alberta had been surveyed, and an extensive network of pack trails had evolved from the old fur-trading routes. The first telegraph between Peace River and the rest of the north wasn't installed until 1929. Then, gold was discovered near Yellowknife in the winter of 1935, and the push to develop a link to the north started in earnest.
It was, however, the U.S. Army that really got the ball rolling in 1940 when fears of a Japanese attack on the oil-supply corridor along the west coast prompted the Canol Project - a pipeline between the oil reserves at Norman Wells, NWT, and a planned refinery at Whitehorse, YK. Nary a gallon of oil ever moved through the pipeline, and the U.S. Army returned after the war and tore the whole thing out again. Nonetheless, the effort to move men and supplies to the remote area succeeded in completing the Alaska and Mackenzie highways.
They were mere goat trails at the time - nearly impassable in summer due to mud and insects, and frozen solid in winter. In the winter the frozen rivers were ideal for the "cat trains" to proceed north, far beyond the reach of trucks. Then, the roads were cut out of the bush and the trucks were soon to follow. One can only imagine what a 600-mile trip in the dead of winter, on an ancient bulldozer lugging several sleighs, must have been like.
"Each cat train had a crew of perhaps 15. The day crew would clear the road and the night crew would bring the whole outfit up. We navigated by sun in the day and by the north star at night. We worried especially about air pockets under the good ice. Open water that froze late would make a sort of a dome, which we learned to avoid." - Lois Stranaghan
Throughout the early to mid-1940s, crews continued to push north with supplies for the pipeline. Mining activity had cooled due to the war, but as improvements to the road continued, plans were being drawn to make the road an all-season affair. Summer passage was difficult because bridges were almost non-existent. To cross a river, crews often had to travel miles out of their way, whereas in winter they just drove across the ice.
Crews labored to construct bridges and pilings out of locally available timber, but that supply often had to be dragged for miles through muskeg and swamp to get close to where the bridge was to be built. Crews found that horses did a better job than the cats at dragging timber through the bush, but it was still a terribly slow process.
During that time, much of the freight traffic between Edmonton and the far north traveled by barge from Ft. McMurray to Ft. Fitzgeralds. Freight then had to be loaded onto trucks and hauled around the Pellican Rapids, a distance of 18 miles, then reloaded onto barges for the trip into Great Slave Lake and on down the Mackenzie River. And that was still considered more convenient than trying to navigate the emerging Mackenzie highway.
"Construction was very difficult due to the wet terrain, and a great deal of dragline work had to be done. We had worked all winter on one particular section of muskeg, about three miles long. We dozed every available tree into the centre, then trucked material in and covered it to a depth of about four feet. We had built what appeared to be a good grade, but by spring it had settled to the point where much of the work had vanished entirely."- W.C.F. Beattie
On March 3, 1945, the federal and provincial governments reached an agreement to proceed with the construction of the all-weather road, and by 1946 the serious work had begun. But the winter of 1946-47 turned out to be one of the coldest on record, with the mercury seldom creeping above -60 degrees F. Still, the bridge at Hay River had been finished, only to be washed out in April due to run-off caused by a faster than usual spring thaw.
The road was completed in October of 1948, at a cost of several lives and $4.3 million. It was then officially named the Mackenzie Highway, but it wasn't officially opened until 1998. Apparently, opening ceremonies had been planned way back then, but at the time, according to Bernice, rain had reduced the highway to a bog. There was also the threat of a polio outbreak in the area so government officials were nowhere to be found.
But in August of 1998, Fred and Bernice organized a reunion of the surviving members of the construction crews as well as a cavalcade of trucks and RVs to travel the route from Grimshaw to the Alberta/Northwest Territories border. There, they attended celebrations marking - finally - the official opening of the Mackenzie Highway.
Mile "0" Museum
Fred Lorenzen grew up on a farm near Grimshaw but trucking 'captured' him in 1942. The demand for trucks was so great in the the 1940s that almost anything with wheels found work - and money. Hauling for the Canol project was paying $0.25 per ton per mile!
"You could make $300 to $400 for a week's work back then," Lorenzen says, grinning. "That was some money in those days."
He bought his first truck - a 2-ton 1940 Ford - when he was just 16 and never looked back. "Two years later, my dad and his brother bought a 1947 KBS7 International, 3-ton, brand new, for $3919," he says.
Lorenzen was then hauling freight for Sheck Brothers from Grimshaw to Hay River, NWT, and bringing fish from Great Slave Lake, in non-refrigerated trucks, back to Grimshaw and Edmonton. Over the years he pulled a variety of freight up and down the highway, but he says it was mostly the gravel used for the top layer of the road. He figures he hauled gravel to literally every mile of the highway during its construction.
In the mid-1960s, he began working the oilpatch and soon formed his own company, Lorenzen Gravel and Water Services, to haul drilling water to the rigs working in remote areas. "Water is a vital part of the drilling process, so there never was a shortage of work," he says.
Lorenzen retired temporarily in 1994 when he sold his 16-truck operation to his son, but he didn't sit still for long, often begging to spell a driver who needed a little time off. His fondness for the old days led him to begin restoring some of the trucks used to build the highway, especially 1940s vintage Internationals. The hobby eventually became an enterprise when he and Bernice opened the Mile "0" Museum at the foot of the famed highway.
His collection of trucks includes the complete line of K-model Internationals dating from 1940 through 1948, a collection he believes is unique in the world. There are a few GMs, a Ford, and a couple of the old Cats, but mostly he collects the K-models. He has 12 restored at present, and three more in the shop. He even has a truck, a 1-ton International KB48, that his uncle bought new in 1948, but that's as close as he gets to a truck that he actually drove in the old days. And when he says restored, he means restored.
"They all run," he says. "I'd drive them any place."
His trucks are the museum's centerpiece, but his collection of memorabilia and first-hand accounts of life on the road continues to grow. There's an interpretive center as well as a 32-ft mural of the highway, done by a local artist. Fred and Bernice organized the 50th anniversary celebration, but they also created the Black Gold Truck Rodeo, which was held in Grimshaw for the first time in 1999. The event attracted about 400 people and trucks, and is the largest truck rodeo held in western Canada. The Lorenzens say they hope to make the event an annual affair.
If Grimshaw isn't on your itinerary at the moment, plan to make a brief stop some time soon. Take in some of the history, and if you're lucky, Fred Lorenzen himself may grace you with his story about frozen fish leaking out of the back of his truck all the way down from Great Slave Lake. One way or another, you'll be entertained.