Experts detonate historic cache of TNT discovered near Tok

Members of Eielson Air Force Base’s 354th Civil Engineering Squadron Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit excavated 98 blocks of TNT — 49 pounds of explosives — from a September 2023 cache near Tok. (From 354th Civil Engineering Squadron EOD)

Explosives experts from Eielson Air Force Base detonated nearly 100 containers of old TNT recently discovered near Tok. The experts believe the explosives were used by crews building the Alaska Highway, some 80 years ago.

Archaeologists believe the TNT was left over from the construction of the Alaska Highway, completed more than 80 years ago. (From 354th Civil Engineering Squadron EOD)

A team of archaeologists discovered the explosives in September while they were conducting an environmental assessment for an Air Force project. As they were surveying the site, they noticed something buried and began to excavate what turned out to be a box of TNT.

“They observed the case and obviously they saw one of the blocks of TNT that was visible,” said Capt. Christopher Price, the Army Corps of Engineers’ project manager. “Obviously it came as a surprise.”

According to Price, the contractors followed proper safety protocols after the dangerous find.

“They recognized the threat, they retreated back to a safe distance, and then they reported the situation to both local and government authorities,” he said.

Price says Eielson Air Force Base officials dispatched members of its Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. When they got to the site about 10 miles outside Tok, they uncovered 98 half-pound blocks of TNT. Four of the blocks are enough to destroy a small car.

Members of the Eielson EOD unit that responded to the discovery of the old TNT, from left: Senior Airman Jonathan Grey, Staff Sgt. Jason Verhoef, Senior Airman Andrew Payne and Senior Airman Erik Paulson. They’re standing in the crater left over after they detonated and disposed of the old TNT. (From 354th Civil Engineering Squadron EOD)

An Eielson spokesperson said the EOD team determined the blocks could be unstable. Price said the team carefully moved them to a safe place and blew them up.

“I believe they did the demolition and disposal that same day or the following day,” he said.

The Anchorage-based Cultural Resources contractor archaeologists reported the find on Sept. 28. Eielson officials posted information and photos of the explosives on Tuesday. A Corps of Engineers spokesperson said the archaeologists were required to refer all media inquiries to the Corps.

Price said the archaeologists did some investigating about how the TNT got to the site and discovered an old map that showed a road near the survey site was a stretch of the original Alaska Highway, completed in 1942.

“Likely, the TNT was associated with the construction of that highway, back in the World War II era,” Price said.

The U.S. Army and the Corps of Engineers built the Alaska Highway as a backup overland route to supply the territory during World War II, with Black soldiers in segregated units playing a vital role in its construction. The highway begins at Dawson Creek, British Columbia and ends some 1,400 miles to the north, at Delta Junction. Several stretches of the highway have since been rebuilt and realigned, and portions of the old roadway can still be found along the route.

Eielson experts urge anyone who encounters other abandoned explosives to take the following steps:

1. Do not move or disturb anything you suspect is explosive or hazardous.
2. Take a picture if you can do so without placing yourself in harm’s way or disturbing the object.
3. Make note of where exactly you found the item.
4. Mark the area with ribbon or similar material, if available.
5. Immediately leave the area and call 911.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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