Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"'From Here to There' Ain't Easy"

September 1950: The official dedication of the Sterling Highway occurs at the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna.


Fame can be a mixed blessing.

“Doc” Macdonald, who earned his nickname because he had studied dentistry before turning to road building, was known to the men of the Alaska Road Commission as a capable worker willing to tackle any job. After a tragic incident during the 1948 construction of the original Kenai River bridge in Soldotna, Macdonald also became known as the only casualty incurred during the building of the Sterling Highway.

“Doc was the first and only man I ever witnessed lost on a bridge site,” said Ralph Soberg, foreman for the highway-building project and a veteran of 26 years of building roads and bridges throughout Alaska.

Soberg, writing about the incident in his memoir Bridging Alaska, said that Macdonald had been jarred off his perch—where he was standing atop a piece of steel and holding onto a cable while attempting to help fit a second piece of steel into place. While wearing a belt weighted with bolts and tools, he plummeted into water about 10 feet deep.

“I yelled for someone to get the boat out, and a couple of fellows did, rushing out as fast as they could with a pike pole,” said Soberg, who had also been on the bridge and had attempted unsuccessfully to reach out and grab Macdonald as he fell. “Doc came up just once. I yelled at him to drop his tool belt, and all he said was, ‘I can’t.’ Back down he went. He never came up again. The boat got over to him just as he went under. I could see from up above that the crook in the pike pole just missed his neck when they tried to hook on to him. Soon he went down so far I couldn’t see him anymore. We looked for him for three days…. The third day we did hook on to Doc and bring him up.”

The incident temporarily stymied production on the bridge, as a number of the construction crewmembers were reluctant to climb out again over the glacier-fed river, but after two days Soberg, who was also grieving, convinced the men that the work had to continue.

Soberg had met Macdonald when they worked together for the ARC in the Interior in the early 1940s. Macdonald had once helped Soberg with a toothache.

“We had no medical benefits or sick leave in those days,” Soberg said, “and I didn’t want to spend the money to go clear to Anchorage or Fairbanks to see a dentist, so Doc said he’d take care of it for me. He had a foot-operated dentist’s drill … and he got some gold dust from someplace. He ground the tooth down—I took a drink of whiskey once in a while when the pain got too bad—and after several sessions, by golly, he got a crown fixed up and fastened on my tooth. It held for years before it had to be replaced.”

Learning to make do with what was available was a vital skill to the road builders in remote parts of the Alaska Territory, and many times during his years on the Kenai Peninsula, Soberg found himself improvising to get a job done.

One such improvisation occurred in Homer in the spring of 1945, the year before the highway project was funded.

Hawley Sterling, the ARC civil engineer after whom the Sterling Highway would eventually be named, sent Soberg to Homer in May 1945 to rebuild the road to the Homer Spit. The road, which allowed local residents to gain access to the dock at the end of the sandy spit, had been washed out by the tide in the area known as Mud Bay. The appellation was well deserved.

“Sterling said they had decided that a foundation of 500 to 1,000 feet of log cribbing would have to be built and filled with mud to support a new section of road,” Soberg said. They decided to hire loggers to fell timber near Halibut Cove across Kachemak Bay, then to hire a large fishing boat to tow the logs to the construction site, where they would have to fill their log cribs with mud in order to prevent high tides from carrying them away.

Despite careful planning, however, problems arose: Equipment bogged down and sank in the mud, requiring hurried rescue efforts before it succumbed to incoming tides. Despite the mud weights, cribbing continued to be uprooted, necessitating the construction of dikes to keep the ocean at a distance. And when the cribbed road was finished, crews struggled to find enough good local gravel to haul in to create the road.

Working on the Kenai Spur Highway, 1950.
While this project was concluding, Hawley Sterling was scheming again. He had mapped out and twice walked a route for a proposed highway to connect the Seward Highway near Tern Lake (then called Mud Lake) with the rest of the western peninsula all the way to Homer. At the end of World War II, veterans were returning home, and the federal government was preparing to make homesteading land available. The new highway would help open up this new land.

In the spring of 1946, Chris Edmunds, the Anchorage district superintendent for the ARC, told Soberg that Congress had come up with $3 million to turn Sterling’s dream into a reality by funding a new highway through the Kenai National Moose Range. “We don’t know how far that [money] will go,” Edmunds said, “but it’s appropriated for the Kenai Peninsula exclusively.”

Soberg was assigned to head up the north-end construction zone, and Claude Rogers was assigned to start work on the highway at the Homer end.

After the war, the ARC had inherited military-surplus equipment scattered throughout Alaska, and Anderson Transportation had been chartered to haul some of it on a barge to Kenai, where Frank Hall of the Civil Aeronautics Administration showed Soberg the river bank on which his agency had unloaded its own equipment. Using a tracked vehicle, ARC crews pushed a ramp up to the barge when it arrived. They then established headquarters camp about two miles east of Kenai (where Walmart is currently located).

Louie Hendricks at the Y in Soldotna, 1949.
Work began on a spur road that would connect the village of Kenai with the main highway at a junction inside a large river meander. This junction, known as “the Y,” lay approximately 10 miles east of Kenai and became the site of Soldotna.

“We realized that the junction and the bridge (over the Kenai River) would inevitably become the location of a city and were satisfied that the expanse of well-drained flat country underlaid with gravel would be a most favorable site,” said a retiring Soberg in a Peninsula Times article from 1962.

By the fall of 1946, an ARC crew was dispatched to begin clearing the spur route, and then continue clearing from the Y to the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. Since a tote road (a roughed-out supply route) had already been established from Cooper Landing to the north bank of the Moose, the road builders started work on a temporary wooden-trestle bridge, using timbers from military salvage structures hauled in from Southeast Alaska.

By Christmas, the temporary bridge was in place, and supplies began flowing across to allow Soberg and the ARC to extend the highway south toward Homer and the crew of Claude Rogers.

The Troublesome Skilak Connection

From 1933 to 1963, the federal government ran a prison on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco. Known as “The Rock,” it was foreboding and grim, a difficult place to be stuck for any period of time. In 1947, directly in the heart of this period, Soberg’s ARC road-construction crew was blasting its way through a high rock bluff between Hidden and Skilak lakes. During the previous winter, members of the slashing crew that had camped there to clear the trees had dubbed the area “Alcatraz” because they feared they’d never get out. (For a time, nearby Rock Lake was also known as Alcatraz Lake.)

According to Soberg, the slashing crew had worked in temperatures that sometimes dipped to 30 or 40 below. “They used to tell about the hotcakes they cooked that were frozen by the time they got them on the table,” Soberg wrote in his memoir. “The poor fellows finally just quit and went back over to Moose Pass and got on the train for Anchorage.”

Neither clearing a path nor blasting the rock was the biggest obstacle facing the ARC in the summer of 1947, however. That honor went to the forest fire christened the Kenai Burn, which began in early June near the ARC’s Hidden Creek camp—reportedly because of a crewman’s carelessly discarded cigarette—and eventually scorched more than 300,000 acres of the central Kenai Peninsula.

The ARC camp near Kenai--July 4, 1949.
“We dodged that thing off and on all summer,” Soberg wrote. “At first we were pretty well protected at Hidden Creek, but four or five days after the fire started, it all at once made a switch and raced up toward the camp. We had about a thousand boxes of dynamite in the middle of our clearing and a supply of fuses and detonator caps about 400 feet away in a smaller clearing. The fire came boiling through so fast that before we could even think, it was crossing the road just below us.”

Since the crew was in camp for lunch, Soberg ordered the men to load one truck with explosives and another with detonator caps, then to drive off rapidly in opposite directions. They were able save only about half of the dynamite, however, while the rest was consumed by the forest fire, which was so hot, Soberg said, that it melted the windshield on his pickup before burning the vehicle entirely.

“Hot coals were raining all over us,” he wrote. “Several of the crew tents burned up…. (Emil) Shoup, our cook, hustled back and forth with buckets of water from the creek, throwing it over the cook tent and the dining tent to keep them from burning up. By golly, he saved them both.”

The fire was also hot enough to heat the fresh-water pipe the crew had installed in Hidden Creek and turn their cold-water tap into a hot-water faucet.

“That summer the fire jumped the road in many places where were working,” Soberg wrote. “It went underground in moss and roots, and some trees burned for months. Flying sparks burned the seat cushions of the shovels and the dozers as we worked. We had to patrol all the time. The fire wasn’t declared out until a year later.”

Although fire and the terrain presented challenges during the years of highway construction, Soberg kept a steady hand. Accustomed to handling difficult tasks and overcoming adversity, he had spent a lifetime not taking the easy way out while trying to do the job right.

Hardscratch Origins

Born as Rolf Mørk Johannessen in Soberg, Norway, on Sept. 10, 1907, he immigrated with his parents and siblings in 1919 to Unga Island, the largest of the Shumagin Islands off the Alaska Peninsula, where they lived and fished out of a settlement they called Hardscratch. And it was in Alaska that the family adopted the name of its former home for its new surname.

Also on Unga Island at that time was the Lauritzen family (also formerly of Norway), including young Ruth, who had been born in Unga and who, as a divorcee nearly two decades later in Seward, would reunite with Ralph Soberg and take him to be her second husband.

In those intervening decades, Soberg had a series of adventures before settling into a life building roads and bridges.
Ralph Soberg as a bridge diver, 1934.

Soberg left home at age 17 to look for employment, struggled for survival during an attempted three-month trapping adventure with his brother, Fred, and a friend on Montague Island, and for two years in the late 1920s was the skipper of a supply boat for a moonshine bootleg gang (called “the Slippery Four”) that operated out of Juneau.

After fishing commercially in Bristol Bay and working as an engineer on a power barge out of Seattle in 1933, Soberg returned to Juneau the following year and got a job as a diver/rigger-crane operator for the Dishaw Construction Company on the Juneau-Douglas bridge project. “There I found my niche,” he said.

“It was rough work, demanding and dangerous, but I loved it,” he continued. “For 30 years, I learned as I went. Maybe my lack of formal education was an advantage—I didn’t know enough to consider anything impossible.”

From 1934 until 1945, he was a part of bridge and road construction efforts throughout Alaska, from Eklutna and Nizina to the Knik River, from the park near Mount McKinley to Takotna and Big Delta. Then in 1945, Angelo F. “Gil” Ghiglione, his current supervisor and a man whom Soberg had befriended back in Juneau, gave Soberg his big break—rebuilding the washed-out road from the mainland across Mud Bay in Homer.

Bridging the Gaps

At the end of the day, Soberg would remember the biting insects and whose blood they liked best almost as much as he would recall the purpose of his journey.

On that day in the summer of 1947, Soberg and Ghiglione climbed into a skiff near the village of Kenai, cranked the outboard motor into life, and headed upriver to determine the best site for a bridge across the Kenai River. After motoring up to the original survey line (through present-day Soldotna), they measured the distance from river bank to river bank and discovered that a bridge at that location would need to be exactly 250 feet long.

They were pleased by the news—but decidedly displeased by their winged attackers.

“It was the black flies Gil and I had for company that day,” Soberg wrote in his memoir. “When we went ashore, we were practically inhaling them.” To escape the swarms, they opted to have lunch on a gravel island just downstream from the bridge site, hoping that the breeze along the water would disperse the insects. “But all we succeeded in doing,” Soberg said, “was finding out that they liked Italian blood better than Viking blood. After they took a few nips from me, they invited all their friends and went to work on Ghiglione. He got the worst of it by far.”

Maintenance crew at Kenai ARC camp, circa late 1940s.
After lunch, they ran the skiff about three-quarters of a mile farther upstream to the mouth of Soldotna Creek, where they picked out a site for the permanent ARC maintenance headquarters that would eventually control the new highway and its ancillary roads.

A big movement of equipment was required before work on the new bridge began in the early spring of 1948, and by that time Soberg had made a big move in his personal life as well: He had gotten married.

As a young immigrant boy on Unga Island, he had known and teased an even younger girl, Ruth Lauritzen, who had been born on the island but was also the child of Norwegian immigrants. Nearly two full decades after he left the island in search of employment, they found each other again, this time hundreds of miles to the east.

As Ruth Benson and the mother of two young daughters (Jackie and Jerry), she was living in Seward, where Soberg needed to travel frequently for supplies. They got hitched on Ruth’s birthday in December 1947, and the following spring, they all moved to the ARC maintenance camp in Kenai, where they resided in a Quonset hut until a small home was set up for them nearby.

Of course, just getting to Kenai was no easy task, as Ralph’s step-daughter, Jackie Benson Pels, recalls in her book, Unga Island Girl: “Most of the new road across the peninsula was considered merely ‘good-weather road,’ but Ralph was eager to get his bride settled and not easily deterred, not even by an avalanche that kept the truck with most of our belongings on it from getting past Kenai Lake.

Soberg (center) in family portrait in Soldotna.
“Ralph put us—Ruth, Jerry and me—out of the pickup we were all riding in, laughed as he gave us a jaunty wave, and drove alone across the frozen lake with our refrigerator standing in the back of the pickup, and the driver’s door open, ready to jump if the early spring ice should break through. We three hiked over the slide to where the road was clear again, and he picked us up there.”

Later in the spring of 1948, Soberg and Ed Hollier towed the pile driver that had been used to build the bridge at Moose River to the Kenai River bridge site and rigged it up with a boom for handling steel. Over the rough Spur Road, a barge load of steel was then hauled to the site, and a camp for the construction crew was established there as well.

Once the bridge in Soldotna was complete, ARC crewmen began clearing the survey line south toward the Kasilof River, site of yet another bridge. It took more than a month to open up the route between the rivers, partly because of the many swamps along the way that needed to be covered in corduroy.

By mid-winter of 1948, the road was complete as far south as Clam Gulch, while Claude Rogers’ construction crew had managed to push as far north as Whiskey Gulch. Before the summer of 1949 ended, the two ends were connected, and the new road was complete—albeit not yet passable on a year-round basis.

Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening speaks at the highway dedication.
The ARC spent the next year upgrading what had amounted to a tote road into a graveled highway, and at the Soldotna bridge on Sept. 6, 1950, dignitaries and local residents showed up for the official dedication of the Sterling Highway, named for civil engineer Hawley Sterling.
Gruening provides sourenirs to kids.

Crowd at the bridge listens to dignitaries during highway dedication.
Included among the bigwigs were Gen. William E. Kepner, top military commander in Alaska; Ernest Gruening, governor of the territory; Col. John Noyes, head of the ARC; and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times—all delivered to the site that day by Al Hershberger in his shiny new Studebaker. There was a stage and bunting, a ribbon cutting and plenty of speeches.

Soon, Soberg was placed in charge of all highways on the Kenai Peninsula. He oversaw the building of numerous key roads, the construction of the permanent ARC camp at Soldotna Creek in 1956, the paving of the Sterling Highway in 1958, and the management changeover to the Alaska Division of Highways after statehood.

When the Peninsula Times reported on his retirement and his career in its Sept. 17, 1962, edition, Soberg had been building roads and bridges in Alaska for more than a quarter-century. Ralph and Ruth were departing from their Soldotna Creek living quarters—now the refurbished home of the Kenai Watershed Forum—and they were preparing to travel and spend time with family.
Soberg, 1964.

Ralph, who had had no public education beyond the fourth grade in Norway, also returned briefly to commercial fishing. Then he took on a foreman job in Southeast Alaska and later re-retired with a full 30 years. But even in his later years, he found it difficult to take it too easy, so he spent time authoring four brief memoirs.
Soberg, circa 1992.

At the end of Bridging Alaska, he summed his successful career:

In the beginning: “Construction work was new to me. But my rigging and splicing skills gave me a good start, and having a certain amount of Norwegian persistence didn’t seem to hurt.”

Many years later, after Soberg had had to fire a crewman, a power shovel operator, from a bridge job at Big Delta: “Before he left, he came up to me pretty mad and said, ‘Do you know why they didn’t draft you into the military, you no-good S.O.B. Norwegian?’ ‘No,’ I said. I thought I’d let him go ahead and get rid of some steam. He said, ‘Your square head wouldn’t fit into the round helmet!’ ‘OK,’ I said. ‘We’ll let it go at that.’”

For More Information

Readers interested in greater detail concerning the life of Ralph and Ruth Soberg can find five books available from Hardscratch Press:

One of Soberg's four memoirs.
·         Survival on Montague Island—the first memoir written by Ralph Soberg, detailing in a few dozen pages the adventure he had with his brother and a friend when they attempted to make money trapping in the winter of 1925.

·         Confessions of an Alaska Bootlegger—the second memoir by Soberg, chronicling his brief Prohibition-era career as the skipper of a supply ship for an illegal bootlegging gang known in Juneau as “the Slippery Four.”

·         Bridging Alaska: From the Big Delta to the Kenai—the third of Soberg’s memoirs, illustrating most of his nearly three decades as a builder of roads and bridges throughout Alaska.

·         Captain Hardscratch and Others—the fourth and final memoir by Soberg, featuring several of the author’s recollections of growing up as a Norwegian immigrant on a remote island in Alaska.

·         Unga Island Girl: Ruth’s Story—written by Jackie Benson Pels, telling the history of her mother, Ruth, in great detail, loving anecdotes, and a wide assortment of photographs and other graphics.

Naming the Sterling Highway

In September 1948, the Juneau Alaska Sunday Press eulogized Hawley Sterling, the civil engineer who had surveyed the route for the highway between the Cooper Landing area and Homer:

“The death of Hawley Sterling early this month removed from the Alaska scene one of the men who, in his professional career, was outstanding and … did as much as any other to make possible Alaska’s development. He ranked high as a civil engineer. His earlier work as an engineer on the Alaska-Yukon Boundary survey paved the way for his later career on the Alaskan Engineering Commission as a locating engineer … and finally as assistant chief engineer on the Alaska Road Commission.

“It was on the ARC that he achieved some of his best work. He knew Alaska’s few roads like the palm of his hand…. His work in the field, year after year, kept him even ahead of developments and enabled him to envision where the most needed roads would be located. The outstanding project of his ARC career was the Glenn Highway, linking Gulkana and Anchorage. Its construction cost still stands as a record. Today it is probably the most used road in Alaska. Today engineers and construction men marvel at what he accomplished with so little money with which to work. Word comes to us that his ashes are to be scattered over this highway. It is a fitting tribute.

“We have highways named after a number of engineers formerly with the Alaska Road Commission—Richardson, Steese, Elliott, and Glenn. Why not name one for Hawley Sterling in recognition of his brilliant and efficient services?”

Two years later, the Juneau editor got his wish, and the Sterling Highway was named in tribute of the man who had engineered its design.

A Brief Chronology of the Building of the Sterling Highway

Early May 1945—The replacement of the washed-out road to the Homer Spit wasn’t officially part of the Sterling Highway project, but it involved Ralph Soberg and served as a sort of preface for the work that began the following year.

Late summer 1945—Civil engineer Hawley Sterling comes through the Kenai Peninsula a second time, working on a preliminary survey to create a highway from Seward to Kenai and points further south. With the end of World War II, returning veterans are looking for housing and land opportunities, and the peninsula is about open up to homesteading. The new highway, which will eventually be named after Sterling, will help.

Springtime 1946—Chris Edmunds, Anchorage district superintendent for the Alaska Road Commission, informs Soberg that Congress has set aside $3 million for a highway from Mud (now Tern) Lake through the Kenai National Moose Range to Homer. Soberg heads up the north-end construction zone; Claude Rogers is assigned to start highway work at the Homer end.

Summer 1946—The ARC inherits WWII-vintage military-surplus equipment for road building and charters Anderson Transportation to haul it on a barge to Kenai. An ARC headquarters and maintenance camp is established about two miles east of Kenai.

Summer/Fall 1946—ARC concentrates on clearing what would become the Kenai Spur, from the village of Kenai toward a junction to be established inside a meander of the Kenai River (where Soldotna would later develop). From the Y, ARC crew members clear and grade on a survey line out to the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. A tote road is constructed from Cooper Landing to the Moose River.

By Christmas 1946—Work finishes up on the first Moose River bridge.
Construction of the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula.

Springtime 1947—Soberg establishes a camp near the junction of Seward and Sterling highways. Supplies are brought in via the railroad at Moose Pass. Soberg later establishes a camp at Hidden Creek as the highway is originally routed over what is now Skilak Lake Road.

Early June 1947—Kenai Burn begins. Over the summer, the forest fire scorches more than 300,000 acres and increases the difficulty of road building.

Summer 1947—Soberg and his boss, Angelo F. “Gil” Ghiglione, run a skiff up the Kenai River to look for a bridge site. Later that same day, they also motor a bit farther upstream and locate a site for a permanent ARC maintenance camp at Soldotna Creek.

Late fall 1947—Soberg moves his construction camp from the Skilak area all the way to the Moose River via a road in the process of being graveled.

Early spring 1948—Soberg and Ed Hollier tow the ARC pile driver from the Moose River down to the Kenai River bridge site (in what is now Soldotna); there, they rig it up with a boom for handling steel. Over the Spur Road, a barge load of steel that had been delivered to Kenai is hauled to the new bridge-building camp.

Late spring 1948—Doc Macdonald falls off the bridge while working and drowns.

Troubles at Deep Creek, circa 1953-54.
Summer 1948—Kenai River bridge is completed. A log-cutting crew begins clearing timber along Hawley Sterling’s survey line south to the Kasilof River, where another bridge then goes into construction. Clearing-crew foreman, Mel Carlson, spends more than a month opening up this route and laying down corduroy over swampy areas. Earlier in the year, a power barge out of Seattle is hired to ship up all the steel necessary for the Kasilof span.

By mid-winter 1948—The road is complete as far south as Clam Gulch, about 15 miles south of Kasilof. Claude Rogers’ crew, working out of Homer and needing to cross almost innumerable swamps, has bridged the Anchor River and extended the road about as far as Whiskey Gulch, just north of Anchor Point.

Before summer 1949—The north and south ends of the highway connect between Anchor Point and Clam Gulch.

The rest of 1949 and into 1950—The ARC expands and upgrades and gravels the highway.

Caterpillar refueling station, Cohoe spur road.
Sept. 6, 1950—The opening of the Sterling Highway. Although the highway has been in use for many months, the ARC hosts an official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Soldotna bridge, attended by the head of military in Alaska, and by Alaska territorial governor Ernest Gruening. Next on the ARC docket: Start regular highway maintenance, and build farm roads for the homesteaders. Eventually, the ARC will also build and gravel about 150 miles of local roads to connect fishing sites north of Kenai with the cannery near the village.

1956—The permanent ARC camp is constructed at Soldotna Creek.

1958—The Sterling Highway is paved.


"Reincarnation of an Old Cat"


MARCH 2011

David Thornton stood in the widow’s yard in Moose Pass and examined the ancient tractor she no longer wanted any part of.

Vegetation had woven into and around the base of the machine—a 1928 Caterpillar tractor—and now, on a cold February day in 2000, the dead blades of grass poked up through the snow or curled limply over the metal tracks. In the eyes of most, the tractor was a ruin, a rusty vestige of its former self, and even to the nearly 70-year-old Thornton, who hoped to restore it, the Cat was in sorry shape.

“It was a seething pile of rust, full of crud and gunk,” he said. “The engine was froze and busted. It was a mess because it’d been sitting down there for years with the stack uncovered and water running in it.”

The incoming water had frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed, and the inner workings had been demolished by the actions of the seasons.

“The engine, forget about it,” Thornton said, “but the rest of it I could see was workable. It was preserved in grease and oil and yuck, but it was something that was there and was workable. The engine was the primary thing that had to go. It had to be replaced. The cylinders were busted. The jugs were busted. It wouldn’t hold water, and the pistons were seized. It would never run again.”

Beyond the engine, however, Thornton spied hope.

He also spied a piece of Alaska history.

Thornton had become acquainted with long-time Moose Pass resident, Edward Estes, who had told him that the Cat had arrived in the port of Seward in 1928—when it was a new machine, when it was still painted in original Caterpillar battleship grey with red trim, and when the now-world famous Caterpillar name was a trademark less than 20 years old.

The 10,000-pound, 30-horsepower tractor, complete with a specially ordered set of ice tracks, had been purchased by Alaska’s Bureau of Public Roads as the primary machine with which to maintain the main road out of town.

In the 1920s, the former wagon road between Seward and Hope had been upgraded to support automobile traffic; however, until the late 1930s, passage along that road was interrupted at about Mile 18, where the Snow River entered the upper end of Kenai Lake. At that point, until the road bridge was constructed and the 10-mile highway “missing link” completed, vehicles were loaded onto rail cars and hauled down the tracks to Moose Pass (at about Mile 29). From Moose Pass, vehicle owners could drive on to Hope.

Consequently, the 1928 Caterpillar made its road-maintenance debut between Seward and Kenai Lake, and about a decade later expanded its territory to the fuller length of highway between Seward and Moose Pass.

Road maintenance consisted of towing a non-motorized road grader—essentially a large steel blade suspended between two pairs of steel wheels rolling beneath a platform on which sat an operator who made all necessary adjustments to the angle and the bite of the blade. The grader’s long towing tongue connected to the back of the Caterpillar, on which sat a second operator, controlling speed and direction and braking.

Since the top-end speed of the Cat was 2.62 miles per hour—and likely even slower when towing the heavy grader—road maintenance in those days was likely a one-way, all-day affair, with operators starting at one end, overnighting at the other, and then returning home the following day.

Eventually, the ’28 Cat became outmoded or obsolete and was replaced with more modern equipment. The tractor was then sold to a man who used it in some of the mines around the area, such as Crown Point or Falls Creek. It was also used for dragging big logs down out of the mountains for lumber-making in local sawmills.

At some point during all this time, the entire machine was repainted with “Hi-Way Safety Yellow,” which had become the Caterpillar standard in December 1931, when the company began taking on more and more highway construction projects. Today that color is known as “Caterpillar yellow.”

Finally, the Cat wound up in the hands of two mechanics, both of whom lived in Moose Pass and dreamed of one day returning it to like-new condition.

The mechanics were Don Smith and Bob Wood. Smith worked during the week as a diesel mechanic for Bud Dye’s Kenai company, Mukluk Freight Lines, and then returned home on the weekends. Wood, the brother of Kenai’s Betty Ames, had a wrecker and owned an automotive-repair shop in Moose Pass.

David Thornton and the rusting hulk that remains of the old Cat engine.
“I had the impression that (restoring the Cat) was one of them back-burner projects that you keep pushing back to the back burner,” said Thornton, who’d met Smith because Thornton’s wife, Mary, worked as the bookkeeper for Mukluk Freight Lines.

Thornton, now 80, had been mechanically inclined as far back as he could remember, and he had a natural affinity for others who were talented with machines. He also had seen the old Cat years earlier when it had been sitting in another yard near Ptarmigan Creek by the community of Crown Point. Even then, he had wondered about buying it, had dreamed of the possibilities of renovation.

When he later connected the Cat to Smith, he enquired about purchasing it, but Smith and Wood were uninterested.

Later, the Cat was moved to Smith’s yard, where it sat, ravaged by weather and the passage of time, awaiting a reincarnation that would never arrive.

Instead, Smith suffered a heart attack and died, while Wood suffered ailments of his own. Smith’s widow, Shirley, looked out of her window into the yard and saw beyond the rusting metal. She saw a reminder that her husband was gone. “It brings anguish to my heart,” Thornton said Smith once told him.

So Shirley Smith “put the bite on Bob Wood,” Thornton said. She told Wood: “If you want that old tractor, get it out of my yard.” He told her that, since he had retired, he no longer owned a truck big enough to haul it away, and besides, he lacked the energy to do the work.

Wood talked to Thornton: It was time to let the tractor go. If Thornton still wanted the Cat, he was ready to strike a deal.

Thornton paused. He asked whether Wood was absolutely certain that he didn’t want to attempt the restoration himself. “No, David, I’m too old,” he said.

Thornton paid Wood $250 and promised to find a way to remove the Cat from Shirley Smith’s yard. A piece of Alaska history was about to get a facelift.

A New Life

When 80-year-old David Thornton climbs—with some difficulty these days—onto the seat of his restored Caterpillar tractor, he rests his backside on the seat of a machine born two years before he was. And yet this former Moose Pass rust pile owes its renewed life to the skilled hands and patience of a man who loves a challenge, knows history when he sees it, and, in this case, found a way to give this particular history a few more chapters.

Diminutive by today’s standards, the 1928 Cat was built only three years after the creation of Caterpillar Inc., now the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, and industrial turbines.

Caterpillar Inc. began as the result of a 1925 merger between the Holt Manufacturing Company, which had invented the “crawler tractor,” and the C.L. Best Tractor Company. But the origin of track vehicles dates back to the late 1890s when competitors Daniel Best and Benjamin Holt were experimenting in the orchards of central California.

The problem was traction. The steam tractors in the San Joaquin Valley tore up the ground because their great weight caused their wheels to sink deep into the soft soil. After many attempts to solve the problem—wider wheels, the laying of temporary plank roads—Holt had a breakthrough, replacing the tractor wheels in the early 1900s with a set of wooden tracks held together with chains. The crawling motion of this tractor was termed “caterpillar-like,” and its name arose from that observation.

Holt trademarked the name Caterpillar in 1910, and in the next few years hundreds of crawler tractors were sent to work in the agricultural regions of England, France and Russia. When World War I erupted, however, the tractors were sent to the front and employed in hauling artillery and supplies. Their power and usefulness was one of the direct inspirations for the development of the military tank.

During the war, Holt vastly increased his production, but the end of the war left his company in dire financial straits—with too many large machines unsuitable for the agricultural uses of peacetime. Best, however, had spent the war using government money to forge impressive inroads into the production of hiw own crawler tractors specifically for U.S. farming.

After numerous lawsuits and about $1.5 million in combined legal fees, Holt and Best ended the battle with a union of the two companies and almost immediate success.

So when the grey-and-red 1928 Caterpillar came off the assembly line and was sold and shipped to the Bureau of Public Roads in Alaska, it was the culmination of three decades of acrimonious sparring.

The tractor’s life in Seward was arduous—road grading, and then mining and logging—and eventually neglect and decay. “It was just a piece of junk,” said Thornton. Despite its sorry condition, though, Thornton—whose innate mechanical aptitude had landed him a company mechanic’s job in the Army, had helped him run cranes for Amoco for nearly 20 years, and had led him to a hobby of restoring old engines and vehicles over his lifetime—saw promise.

Thornton examines the bell housing of the old Cat.
He hired “Wild Bill” Richardson for about $400 to pluck the old machine from the Moose Pass lawn and haul it over to Kenai, where Thornton planned to work on it out behind his Brown Bear Gun Shop and Museum. Once he had the Cat in place, however, an unexpected problem emerged.

The early Caterpillar tractors were outfitted with heavy steel fenders that prevented operators from being splattered with mud and kept the churning tracks away orchard trees and other objects. But because those fenders often ran into large objects, they tended to bend into the tracks; consequently, most operators took a cutting torch to the back flap of the fenders—thereby removing the brass plate on the left fender that contained the Cat’s serial number and other manufacturer information.

Without the fender flap, Thornton could not be certain what he had. As he called around the country for replacement parts, he was continually confronted by parts dealers who were perturbed by his lack of knowledge. To combat his ignorance, he performed considerable research in books and catalogs and manuals, and he finally determined the date of origin. Still, he took some flak.

“I called up big outfits in Anchorage and California, some big ones in Oregon and Washington, to tell ‘em I needed some parts for a 30-horsepower gasoline Cat,” Thornton said. “’Well, what model is it?’ ‘Well, it was made, sir, in 1928.’ ‘Well, what’s the serial number on it?’ ‘Well, sir, I’m sorry. I don’t know the serial number.’ It seemed like you could just feel a feeling over the telephone: ‘Hey, Joe, this dumbshit wants to order some parts and he don’t even know the serial number of the tractor.’

“One guy was utterly stumped. First off, you got an 80-year-old tractor and you got a 30-year-old parts man. He has no touch of reality about what you’re really talking about—other than it’s made by Caterpillar and it’s painted yellow. A lot of that I had to learn by talking to other old men on the telephone and picking their brains a little bit. And so it was an ongoing process.”

Thornton began the restoration project by removing the engine. To lift it from the chassis, he had to bolt a large I-beam into the ceiling in the backroom of his gun shop and hoist the engine with a heavy pulley-and-chain system. He replaced the engine with a used model out of California.

“The man I ordered it from told me he used this engine years ago driving an irrigation pump, and he was five miles from the Pacific Ocean. Any tractor that’s sitting five miles from the Pacific Ocean in California has not ever been froze and busted, so I took a chance, even though it was an old engine.”

He scavenged the best parts from the two engines to construct a single unit and then reconnected it to the transmission.

Thornton required more than a year to track down information and parts, to disassemble and reassemble the engine, to grind and scrape and blast and wire-brush off old grease and paint and rust to get all the other parts of the Cat down to bare metal again.

He replaced the old gas tank—it was “probably full of rust and yucky-poo”—with one he built himself. He rebuilt the air-intake system to accommodate a modern air filter, added angle-iron supports wherever necessary for stability, strengthened and rebuilt the operator’s seat, and repainted everything by hand.

Thornton poses with the completed Cat, which he stores behind his museum.
In 2003, after returning from a trip overseas, Thornton felt lousy enough to go to his doctor, who ran him through a battery of tests and informed him that he needed a pacemaker. After the procedure to install the device, Thornton found hand-cranking the old tractor into life was simply too difficult for him. Not to be deterred, he improvised once again.

He located and measured the spline shaft in the transmission and then incorporated a spline-shaft coupling, a piece of steel shaft, a Chevrolet starter, and the flywheel from an old Chevy V-8 engine to create an electric starter that he could initiate with the push of a black button near the steering levers.

Clearly, rebuilding the Cat was a labor of love.

“My work would’ve been worth about 50 cents an hour,” Thornton said. “You don’t even begin to count the hours. You’re doing a job, and you work at it until you complete it. Time means nothing.”

Since completing the restoration, Thornton has also purchased an old tri-axle house trailer and reconfigured it with descending ramps in order to haul his tractor. Several times, he has ridden atop the tractor, fastened atop the trailer, in Kenai’s Fourth of July parade.

He also has fielded an offer or two for tractor and trailer, but he hasn’t sold yet because he’s holding fast to his asking price of $10,000 for the pair.

He’s still proud of the old machine, but these days he requires a stepstool to even climb into the seat. So he’s ready to let it go, with the knowledge that his hard work has given one old Cat another of its many lives.

Thornton rides atop his Cat in the Kenai Fourth of July parade.





Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Our Sunday Best"

Kenai's Russian Orthodox Church in winter--early 1980s.


MAY 2013

Today, celebrating the Sabbath is a commonplace occurrence. As is the case across the United States, churches dot the landscape of the central Kenai Peninsula, and a considerable number of peninsula residents attend regular services.

Peering into the history books to find the local origins of such a phenomenon reveals that those who first brought Christianity to the Kenai were also the first to write any history here at all. The local Natives had no written history at that time. The Russians introduced their new belief system, and they kept meticulous records in the process.

The Russian Orthodox Church established the first Christian presence in the form of 34-year-old missionary, Father Juvenaly, who arrived in Kenai in 1795 and began baptizing local inhabitants. He spent the winter of 1795-96 at Fort St. Nicholas (the first area Russian fur-trading outpost, established in 1795 by the Lebedev-Lastochin Company) and at the nearby village of Shk’ituk’t.

Juvenaly, who was part of a group of eight monks organized in 1793 in a Russia monastery and charged with preaching the Word of God to Alaska Natives, ran into trouble, however, after leaving Kenai in 1796. Although reports are conflicting, it appears that as he continued his missionary work westward he was killed by a group of Yupik villagers he was attempting to convert.

After Juvenaly’s death, the peninsula faithful settled for four decades of limited church involvement. Until 1840, Kenai was visited by missionaries from the Kodiak parish only every two to three years.

Then, in 1841, Father Nicholas (Igumen Nicholai) arranged the construction of the first Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. Three years later, Kenai was officially established as an enormous parish. Father Nicholas’s 1859 diary noted that he needed two years to make the rounds of the villages in his care. Without benefit of any road system, he traveled from Kenai north as far as Knik, south to the tip of the peninsula, and east to the site of present-day Valdez. Typically, he traveled by bidarka, usually accompanied by an interpreter, an assistant, and his oarsmen.

The United States purchased Alaska in 1867, around the same time that Father Nicholas died. Over the next quarter-century, he was succeeded by Father Nikita, who had the church remodeled in 1883, Father Mitropolsky, and then Father Alexander Yaroshevich, who advocated successfully for the construction of a new church.

In April 1894, Russian Orthodox parishioners in Kenai received word that their construction petition had been approved
Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, circa 1900.
by the Holy Ruling Synod in Russia. To help fund the project, the Alaskan Ecclesiastical Administration had sent along $400.

 Since the parishioners had detailed in their petition their expected expenses and listed all the materials they would need to complete the project, they wasted little time celebrating and got right to work. Under the guidance of Father Yaroshevich, construction began on a site just south of the rectory.

Each church family was required to donate five hand-hewn logs to the new church. The plan called for six-by-six-inch logs, bladed flat on each side (to form smooth walls and allow for easier stacking), and for dove-tails where the logs met to form perpendicular adjoining walls.

Construction supervisor Alexander Demidov’s inventory of expenses included $49.50 for 16,500 shingles, $57 for several kegs of nails, $8 for two wide-headed axes and a new hand-drill, and $50 for paint. Also included in the budget was $420 for four months of labor at $3.50 a day. The grand total was expected to be $916.31—more than $21,000 in today’s money.

The project proceeded as planned, and, in an October 1895 letter, Father Yaroshevich announced that the church was complete. In the spring of 1896—after Yaroshevich was transferred to Juneau—Kenai’s shiny new church was consecrated to God under the guidance of a new priest, Father Ionn Bortnovsky.

Domes on Kenai's Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1900, at a cost of an additional $300, the church was expanded westward and a belfry was erected over the new addition. At the same time, a white picket fence was constructed around the perimeter of the church grounds. After those renovations, the Kenai church remained virtually unchanged—except for repairs, repainting, and the installation of a concrete-block foundation—for the next century.

Father Bortnovsky returned to Russia in 1906, and Father Paul Shadura took over the following year. He remained in place until about 1950, and some long-time Kenai residents still remember him.

It was, however, during Shadura’s tenure that other Christian influences began to appear on the Kenai.

According to the scrapbook of Kasilof teacher Enid McLane, the Rev. Martin Ramsey (who was living at the home of Clayton and Lucy Pollard) in July 1938 presided at the “first Divine service” for the Kasilof School. More than a decade later, Lucy Pollard, who had been a missionary with a Baptist orphanage in Kodiak, became a matron for the Kasilof Community Church.

In 1939, Walter Covich, a young missionary with the Slavic Gospel Association, visited Kenai and held special services in the village.

According to the SGA’s official website, the Slavic Gospel Association traces its history back to 1934 and the city of Chicago. Its founder, the Rev. Peter Deyneka, who had come to the United States from Belarus at the age of 15, believed that he had a life mission to share his newfound Christian views with the people of his homeland, and his ministry had sprouted from this belief.

In 1925, he had traveled and preached extensively in Belarus. While there, he had established a relationship with the churches of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. But in the early 1930s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had intensified persecution of the churches, making it impossible for Deyneka to travel to his homeland. Convinced that he could still help Belarusian churches from the United States, he and a small group of Chicago-area businessmen met in the back of a shoe store and founded the Russian Gospel Association, later renamed the Slavic Gospel Association.

Throughout the 1940s, SGA missionaries (and some missionaries from other faiths) served the Kenai area.

On Aug. 22, 1945, Olga Erickson and Violet Able were flown in an SGA missionary plane to Kenai, where they occupied the old two-story George Pederson home that had been purchased by the SGA and remodeled (under the supervision of Covich, working as a missionary in Port Graham) to include a chapel meeting room downstairs and an apartment upstairs.

This building later became the Kenai Bible Chapel, the first Protestant place of worship in Kenai.
The Kenai Bible Chapel sometime in the 1950s.

In 1947, SGA missionaries Gladys Erdman and Florence Dalbow began directing Kasilof Community Church meetings in the homes of parishioners. Meanwhile, Erickson and Able served in Kenai until 1948, when they were transferred to other villages. They were replaced by Walter and Eldy Covich, who took charge of the expanding missionary work at Kenai Bible Chapel and remained in Kenai until 1955.

As the second half of the 20th century began, Christian-based churches were expanding rapidly, becoming considerably more varied and frenetic.

The Catholic Presence

A photograph from Once Upon the Kenai depicts an odd-looking Catholic mass from June 1955 in Kenai. The words in the ceremony may have been the usual fare, but the setting certainly was not: The scene was the Western Corral Bar, where an altar had been erected from two oil drums, a sheet of plywood, and an old white bedspread.

Father Thompson presided as parishioners arrayed themselves around the outside of the counter. On the wall behind the congregation were alcohol-related posters, and drink-mixing implements could be seen behind the bar.

Life was more primitive for the Catholic faithful in the early days—and, truth be told, such was life for the congregations of many early churches on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Catholic services on the central peninsula began in 1951in the home of Frank and Marge Mullen, who had moved out of their 14x16-foot cabin when Marge became pregnant with their third child and were temporarily renting a place near the Soldotna bridge from the brothers Alex and Marcus Bodnar.

The Mullens, who had lived briefly in Anchorage in the mid-1940s and had remained in contact with the Catholic hierarchy there, had been informed that if they arranged a place of worship, an itinerant priest from Seward could make regular monthly visits to the area once the roads were passable in the spring. Thus did Father Arnold Custer, whom Marge called “a great old Jesuit,” bring mass to the masses on the western Kenai.

Later, the parishioners determined that Catholic services should be moved closer to the population center, so the meeting place was moved to Kenai, with Louisa Miller arranging the locale wherever space was available—from her own café to Kenai Joe’s bar, from the old Territorial School to the Carpenters Hall. They even met sometimes at Wildwood Army Station, when a Catholic chaplain was flown down from Anchorage to hold services in the Quonset hut that served a base chapel.

Marge Mullen remembers that many of the church venues had their own peculiarities: Mass in the café, for instance, might be enhanced by the smell of freshly baked bread, while the smells in the bar might include ashtrays and the vestiges of old beer.

During 1955 and 1956, area Catholics employed volunteer labor to build their first church in Kenai, constructing it with logs purchased from Fred House’s sawmill. On Sundays during the cold months, according to Once Upon the Kenai, the church was heated by an oil stove lighted early in the morning by Lillian Hakkinen “in hopes of removing the chill before time for services. Often it would fail to do so, and sometimes the priest would have to say mass in gloves and boots.”

In 1956, the peninsula was accepted as a mission parish by an Oregon-based Redemptorist order, which sent four priests to tend to the various congregations. The priests served primarily as pastors, but they also began St. Theresa’s Camp near Sterling and furthered the construction of new churches, including a larger Kenai facility, Our Lady of the Angels, which was finished in 1969.
The Catholic Church in Soldotna, circa 1962.

Another of the new churches was Soldotna’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which was mostly completed by the end of 1962 on property donated by homesteader Marvin Smith. The church included the work of a half-dozen recently transplanted (and previously unemployed) Irish stonemasons who had been living in Anchorage at the time.

Under the direction of the first pastor, James Van Hommisen, the Irishmen drove a truck out Snug Harbor Road in Cooper Landing and then climbed into the mountains to find just the right rounded stones to employ in the construction of the front and back walls of the church.

While their work on the structure was greatly appreciated, according to Mullen, their participation in the church’s first midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1962 was not so highly regarded.

Parishioners on that sloppy wet night began arriving at about 11:30, and the stonemasons were on hand with flashlights to guide the congregation into parking spaces; however, Mullen said, the Irishmen had been doing some early Christmas celebrating and therefore did more staggering and stumbling than accurate direction-giving.

Indoors, where poinsettias had been arrayed to add beauty to an unfinished construction site, the Irishmen strolled in and extinguished their cigarettes in the holy water fountain. They sat backwards on the kneeling benches instead of forward in the pews, and when Jean Bardelli (now Brockel), who was wearing the lace stockings she had just received from her mother, went forward to play the organ, they directed wolf-whistles at her.

“At least the electricity was on, and the heat was working,” Mullen said.

The Growing Protestant Influence

Elsewhere on the central peninsula, church activities may have been somewhat less rollicking but were definitely on the rise.

In 1950, the First Baptist Church of Kenai, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, was formed but soon disbanded.

Also during that time, Carl Zehrung and his family moved to the peninsula to establish a Church of Christ. For the first year, they rented space each Sunday in an old log building that was used as a dance hall, a theater and a candy store during the rest of the week.

That structure is believed to have been the second-oldest building (after the Russian Orthodox Church) in Kenai. It was originally the Interlocked Moose Horn Club, thought to have been constructed from logs held together with wooden pegs at least as far back as 1890, possibly by hunting guide Andrew Berg.

The building had been moved on skids to its location on Cook Avenue in 1940 by the Monfor family for commercial purposes. After the Zehrungs built their own chapel in Kenai in 1951, the old building was used again by another congregation just a few years later.

In 1956, the Rev. Carl Glick, Sr., and his wife Betty arrived in Alaska from Palmstown, Penn., as missionaries for the Assemblies of God. In 1957, they purchased the entire Interlocked Moose Horn Club building and had it jacked up so that a basement and a new foundation could be installed.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in Soldotna, the Methodists were marshalling their energies.

The first Methodist church in Soldotna, 1956.
Both of the first two Methodist churches in Soldotna were hauled from the Kasilof area and brought whole across the Kenai River bridge. During both of these moves, adjustments had to be made because the smaller church sat a little too high, while the larger church sat a little too low.

The earliest Methodist church on the western Kenai Peninsula was the first church structure in all of Soldotna. It was originally known as the Kasilof Methodist Church, and it pre-dated the now more established Methodist church in Kenai. According to information in the photo archive at Kenai Peninsula College, the one-story, one-room building—complete with greenish exterior walls, white-painted door and window trim, and a red roof—was moved out of Kasilof once a greater Methodist population grew in Soldotna.

Probably in late 1951, church members agreed to move onto property donated by homesteader Maxine Lee at Mile 0.5 of the Kenai Spur Highway, and they hired Homer Freight Lines to jack up and haul the structure. At the bridge, they realized that the top of the building would strike the overhead steel supports, so they had to partially deflate the tires on the trailer in order to create the proper clearance.

Rev. Gene Elliott with Methodist church youth, 1952.
A photograph taken in April 1952 shows a small group of Methodist children posing with itinerant Moose Pass minister, Gene Elliott, in front of the new church, which, with its small oil stove and thin walls, was difficult to heat in the winter months. Area Methodists used this church until the mid-1950s when a new, and much larger, church was built in Kenai.

On Jan. 15, 1955, Pastor Quincy Murphree mailed two postcards to every boxholder in Kenai. The first card read: “Dear People: If you are interested in a Methodist Church in Kenai, fill in the attached postcard and return it to me at once. Do not fail to register your interest in one of the provided places.” The second card read: “I am interested in a Methodist Church in Kenai and will (A) become a member ____, (B) I do not care to become a member, but will attend regularly ____, (C) most of the time ____, (D) occasionally ____.  My name is ____________________.”

Based on the results of this survey, the Kenai Methodist Church was born, with the first service being held on Feb. 13 in the Civic Center with 37 people in attendance. Although someone had tampered with the furnace, leaving the indoor temperature at 33 degrees, the faithful were not deterred. In fact, on Easter Sunday a few weeks later, 77 people showed up to worship.

The following week, 19 individuals joined the church on Charter Membership Day. Two years later, a large new church, constructed with nearly 2,000 hours of volunteer labor and located next to the Kenai School, was consecrated. The tiny Soldotna church was abandoned and transformed into an office building for the Coastal Drilling Company.

By 1965, however, Soldotna Methodists, tired of the weekly commute to Kenai, wanted their building back. Coastal Drilling complied. The old church—now renamed Soldat Kriste (“Soldier of Christ”)—was picked up and hauled again, this time to a wooded lot just north of town, where it served the congregation until 1968, when a new two-story Methodist parsonage was built nearby, and services were held in the much more spacious parsonage basement.

Meanwhile, moves were afoot to create even more room and a real church. Property on Binkley Street was purchased, and a merger between the congregations of Soldotna and Kasilof was formed.

The building about to become Soldotna United Methodist Church passes over the Kenai River bridge in early August 1968.
Built next to the Tustumena School in the mid-1960s under the direction of Pastor John Shaffer, the Tustumena Church of Christ the Victor, with its striking diamond shape and sky-piercing sanctuary, was jacked up on Aug. 2, 1968, placed on a flatbed freight hauler preceded by a truck bearing a sign, “EX-WIDE LOAD,” and aimed toward Soldotna.

The church was so wide that the movers decided to transport the building only between the hours of 4 and 6:30 a.m., a time they determined when traffic would be lightest. The 15-mile journey took two days and was slowed at the river because the entire structure had to be jacked up so that its bottom could pass over the top railings of the new bridge that had replaced the old steel-girder assembly.

The first worship service at the new location, now called Soldotna United Methodist Church, was held on Aug. 18.

Peninsula Church Miscellany

In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, several other area churches also got their starts, including the Kasilof Community Church (organized in parishioners’ homes starting in about 1947, in an official church building by 1958), Soldotna Baptist Church (1959), the First Baptist Church of Kenai (started in 1950 and disbanded, reorganized in 1965), and, in Soldotna, the Christ Lutheran Church (1962), the Church of the Nazarene (1962), the Church of God (1962), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1968).

The Soldotna Methodist Church, despite its start back in the early 1950s, was not even close to being the first Methodist church on the peninsula. That honor goes to the Seward Methodist Episcopal Church, which was constructed in 1907 by its first pastor, Louis H. Pedersen, who had arrived in town two years earlier.

Seward had a number of churches that began nearly or more than a century ago. Among them are: the Christian Science church (now defunct), which began in the community library in about 1915; the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which was begun by Father Phillip Turnell after his arrival in June 1905; St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, in which the first services were held by the Rev. F.C. Taylor on June 12, 1904; and the Seward Lutheran Church, the members of which began meeting occasionally starting in 1917.

The first pastor of Soldotna’s Christ Lutheran Church was Richard J. Tuff. During the construction of the church in 1962, a small white sign nailed to a birch tree next to the main church sign announced in block letters: “TEMPORARILY MEETING IN SOLDATNA THEATER.” Built originally in the shape of a cross, the church has been known for decades for the fine acoustics in its sanctuary.

When the First Baptist Church of Kenai was reorganized in 1965, it began with 10 members who met initially in the National Guard Armory on Forest Drive. The Rev. Kelly Dickson became the first pastor, and soon thereafter a two-story church building was erected at the corner of 2nd and Birch streets.

The Rev. Ray Mainwaring, an early pastor for the Kasilof Community Church, was also a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fellowship, which started Solid Rock Bible Camp near Soldotna in 1958. He left his pastorate in 1966 to become the first manager of KRSM (K-Solid Rock Ministries) Radio.

A search through a recent telephone directory indicates the presence of dozens of churches throughout the Kenai Peninsula, including perhaps two dozen each in both Kenai and Soldotna.