If you’re travelling the Alaska Highway north through Canada en route to Alaska, you’ll see the imposing front ranges of the Canadian Rocky Mountains to the west soon after setting out from Mile “0” at Dawson Creek.
Fort Nelson, at Milepost 300, is the gateway to the Northern Rockies, an area of unsurpassed natural beauty. The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum is situated just west of the Alaska Highway and it makes a great early stopping place on your road trip.
According to the museum’s official website at fortnelsonmuseum.ca, it’s operated by the Fort Nelson Historical Society:
The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum has a number of collections. The theme of the museum is “Transportation” because the collection that started it all was an antique car and truck collection put together by a man named Marl Brown. Marl has become one of Fort Nelson’s most identifiable and beloved citizens. Since his retirement he has taken on the role of curator of the museum, for the most part a volunteer role.
The collections now consist of more than just antique cars and trucks. Hundreds of license plates donated by locals, travelers, truckers and from “junkers” adorn the walls in the car display building. Antique heavy equipment primarily used in the building of the Alcan (Alaska) Highway is an ever increasing collection.
There are historic buildings here, including log cabins, an old Northwestel building (used by local telephone operators) and an early 20th Century Hudson’s Bay Company house. In addition to the heritage buildings, there are diesel generators used to power Fort Nelson’s first electrical service and there’s an early oil derrick (used to drill oil and gas wells).
There are also plenty of artifacts (including the heavy machinery already mentioned above) from the construction of the Alaska Highway by the US Army in 1942. The American soldiers (with help from many Canadians) built the route to protect the northwest coast of the continent against further attack and occupation by the surprisingly stealth Japanese, who had recently bombed Pearl Harbour (unannounced) and occupied two Aleutian Islands before the US could get there. There’s a film you can watch at the museum that chronicles the Alaska Highway construction within the context of the war effort.
The museum’s main building houses smaller collections. You’ll find mineral samples and antique tools as well as wildlife displays courtesy of the region’s hunters, trappers, taxidermists and curators. The collection even includes a stuffed albino moose, if you can believe that!
If nothing else, take a stroll through the museum grounds to stretch your legs. You’ll find monuments and memorials to the people who built the Alaska Highway and details about the tough times they had “taming the wilderness” (or, at least, a narrow strip of dirt and gravel running through it.*)
*The Alaska Highway was constructed in less than a year by the US Army, its soldiers thrashing through dense forest, followed by a convoy of heavy machinery. Although it resembled a dirt rollercoaster at the time, it is now recognized as a world class paved highway that provides access to an immense area of otherwise relatively untamed wilds.