1959 First on the Yellowknife Highway

In the late 1950s an all-weather road connecting the south shore of Great Slave Lake with the north shore, and the city of Yellowknife, was under construction. By the end of the construction season in the autumn of 1958 there was still a large area south of Rae (map) where the right-of-way had been cleared of trees but no highway had been built. The highway officially opened late the following year.

In the spring of 1959 John and Janet Anderson-Thomson were forced, by circumstances beyond their control, to be the first to drive this highway, a highway that was a long way from being opened to the public!

John Anderson-Thomson was a well-known northern surveyor and he and his wife had lived in Yellowknife since 1944. They had spent much of the late winter and early spring of 1959 in Montana and were heading back to Yellowknife before the winter road across Great Slave Lake thawed. They had driven their British-built Land Rover north to Edmonton where they had arranged to join a convoy of cars, the last of the season, travelling north on the winter road to Yellowknife.

Business in Edmonton delayed their start for several days, they missed joining this convoy and by the time they were able to drive from Edmonton to Hay River the winter road had closed and John was faced with the prospect of spending the summer in Yellowknife without the vehicle he needed to do his work.

John then came up with an alternate plan, he and his wife would drive the 500 kilometer‘under construction’ highway! Knowing the condition ahead, the Fort Providence RCMP only reluctantly allowed them to proceed and told them that if they didn’t report to the RCMP in Yellowknife in five days then a search plane would be sent out and John and Janet would have to pay for their own rescue!

The going was very slow, usually between three and five mile per hour, and any breaks John and Janet took over the next four days were spent repairing tires that had been punctured by the spear-like stumps left over from the clearing of the right-of-way.

They eventually made it through to the construction camp south of Mosquito Creek, much to the surprise of the construction crew, who thought that travel on the right-of-way was impossible in the spring. Travel on the partially constructed road east of Rae was much easier though it still took a day to navigate around the huge piles of cleared brush and trees and to cross creeks without bridges.
John and Janet Anderson-Thomson’s arrival in Yellowknife, in the early morning hours of their sixth day of travel on the Yellowknife Highway, was just in time to prevent an ‘air search and rescue’ operation that would have cost them dearly!

Timeline Link: 1948 Mackenzie Highway