Truckers Beat Feds in the Great Richardson Highway Toll War

By Stephen Haycox

For Alaskans who pride themselves on their independence, America’s own Independence Day can induce some ambivalent feelings. Patriotism is tempered with a suspicion of the power wielded by the federal government.  There are many Alaskans who depend on federal funding, jobs, and programs–a largess that on a per capita basis far outstrips that of any other state, but there are other Alaskans who nurture a self-image of personal independence and rugged individualism.

Independent Alaskans’ resentment of federal laws and regulations drafted a continent away has long standing.  Today that theme plays itself out in debates about subsistence, the type of access allowed to certain federal lands, and development of oil and forests.   Victory of state interests over national legislators and regulators rarely comes quickly, if at all.  Stephen Haycox, Professor of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage, recounts one instance–small as it might be–in which Alaskans managed to flaunt and ultimately defeat federal regulators.
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There are still truckers in Alaska who remember the Great Richardson Highway Toll War of the 1930s, and if you find one, he’ll tell you an improbably but true tale of guerrilla encounters deep in the Alaskan bush.

The “war” had its origins in the demands of a depression-weary Congress that the failing Alaska Railroad find a way to pay its way.  Because it was reliable, most freight headed for Alaska’s interior went over the railroad from Seward.   But rates for hauling goods by truck out of Valdez over the Richardson Highway were much lower–only 25 percent of the rail rates–and enough tonnage went by taht route to cause worry for railroad manager Otto Ohlson.  It seemed contradictory to Ohlson and other federal officials that the federally maintained highway should take business away from the federally maintained railroad, which was losing money.

The Interior Department was the parent agency of both the railway and the Alaska Road Commission, which maintained the highway.  Interior’s solution was to reduce freight rates on the railroad a little bit, but at the same time to charge common carriers on the highway an annual license fee, and to collect tolls from all trucks on a price-per-ton basis.  The toll would be collected at the road commission ferry at Big Delta, where the highway crossed the Tanana River.

Truckers, of course, thought the toll was ridiculous.  If the railroad couldn’t pay its way, that was the railroad’s problem.  It was hard enough to make a living in Alaska without adding arbitrary, unfair federal charges.  Besides, didn’t the government have the obligation to provide pioneer roads to open up the new country?   The government, of course, said “No.”

When the truckers realized that virtually every citizen along the highway opposed the tolls, they decided to answer back.  Initially, they tried to circumvent the new system; then, with some help from a sympathetic U.S. Marshal, they sabotaged it.

First, several trucking companies using the highway brought in a scow which they set up very near the Tanana River ferry landing.  Trucks off-loaded their cargoes onto the scow, which carried the loads across the river, while the empty trucks took the ferry across, and then reloaded.  Later one company brought in a boat big enough to ferry the trucks across while fully loaded.

Before that, however, the truckers got some help from the marshal who was stationed at the ferry to collect the tolls.  The ferry only operated during the day, so when the ferryman went home for the night, he conveniently left the ferry unlocked.   The truckers were only too happy to help themselves to the government’s boat during the night.

It didn’t help when the marshal’s superiors told him to do better or start looking for other work.  When he padlocked the boat for the night, the truckers just brought along their hacksaws.

Then one trucker decided to test the constitutionality of the tolls.  In order to get himself arrested, he blocked the entrance to the ferry by parking his loaded truck in the middle of the road so no one could get around, and went happily off to jail in Fairbanks.  Federal officials were shocked when the Fairbanks jury refused to convict the driver of anything.

Next, the government tried stationing armed deputy marshals at the ferry crossing.  But that didn’t work either.  The deputy lawmen were probably on the side of the truckers, and in any case, the government didn’t really want to start a shooting war.

The government thought it might have better luck by collecting the toll at a bridge farther up the road, where they had a gate put in.  But the truckers simply snuck in by night and tore it out.

The final score in this war of will and nerves favored the truckers, for the government never did figure out how to make the toll system work.  During World War II there was more than enough military freight to generate handsome profits for the railroad, and the tolls were removed, never to be replaced.