|September 1950: The official dedication of the Sterling Highway occurs at the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna.|
‘FROM HERE TO THERE’ AIN’T EASY
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.
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.
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.