First on the Yellowknife Highway

In the late 1950s, an all-weather road was built to connect the south shore of Great Slave Lake with the north shore and the city of Yellowknife. Although trees were cleared by the summer of 1958, the highway was not complete in the spring of 1959, when John and Janet Anderson-Thomson were the first to drive Northwest Territories Highway 3.

John Anderson-Thomson was a well-known northern surveyor, and he and his wife Janet had lived in Yellowknife since 1944. He had been the commander of “Operation Bulldog,” successfully defending Yellowknife during the mock military exercises in 1955. They had spent much of the late winter and early spring of 1959 in Montana and intended to head back to Yellowknife before the winter road across Great Slave Lake thawed. They had driven their British-built Land Rover to Edmonton, where they had arranged to join a convoy of cars travelling north on the winter road to Yellowknife, the last of the season.

Business in Edmonton delayed their start for several days, causing them to miss joining this convoy. The winter road to Hay River had closed before they managed to leave Edmonton. The prospect of spending the summer in Yellowknife without the vehicle he relied on for his work had the couple scrambling for an alternate plan. They would drive the 500-kilometre ‘under construction’ highway! Knowing the conditions 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, a search plane would be sent out, and John and Janet would have to pay for their rescue. 

The going was very slow, usually between three and five miles per hour. John and Janet spent the next four days repairing tires punctured by spear-like stumps left over on the right-of-way. 

They eventually made it 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. Travelling on the partially constructed road east of Behchoko was much easier though it still took a day to navigate the enormous piles of cleared brush and trees and to cross creeks without bridges. 

John and Janet Anderson-Thomson arrived in Yellowknife in the early morning hours of their sixth day of travel on the Yellowknife Highway, just in time to prevent an ‘air search and rescue operation’ that would have cost them dearly. The Mackenzie Highway to Yellowknife finally opened to traffic in September 1960. The ferry crossing at Fort Providence allowed for a consistent flow of goods and services to the growing community of Yellowknife.