This historic bridge from the 1930s stands next to a temporary bridge constructed in 2003 over the Iliamna River. - Courtesy of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Send this article to Promobot

State offering $30K to deal with a bridge

September 16th 3:32 pm | Laurel Andrews, Alaska Dispatch News Print this article   Email this article   Create a Shortlink for this article

On a narrow gravel road nearly 200 miles from Anchorage, an 80-year-old bridge spans the Iliamna River. And if you want it, it's all yours.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is offering $30,000 for anyone up for removing and maintaining the historic bridge before construction on a new structure begins in 2018.

"The bridge is in a remote location and is available as-is," the DOT wrote in a public notice announcing the offer.

The 181-foot-long, steel-truss bridge spans the Iliamna River, about 3 miles from Pile Bay, said Ray Williams, owner of Pile Bay Fuel.

As in much of the state, no roads connect the communities on Iliamna Lake to the main highway system. But the 15-mile road connecting Pile Bay to the coastline is a hugely important shortcut for both communities in the region and Bristol Bay.

Fishing vessels come from Homer, crossing Cook Inlet and landing in Williamsport, where they travel along the road to Pile Bay. From Pile Bay, they travel across Iliamna Lake, then down a river that connects to commercial fisheries at Bristol Bay.

With this roughly 320-mile route, boats bypass what would be a 1,000-mile journey around the Alaska Peninsula, according to Williams.

Pile Bay isn't really a settlement, Williams said — it's just his family, and only during the summer. Carl Williams, Ray's father, moved there in 1934, and Ray Williams, 65, said he has lived in the area his entire life.

During the summer months, Williams usually hauls fishing boats along the 15-mile road once a day. The road is in need of maintenance, he said, and it's more dirt than gravel. It's slow going, and more than two hours round-trip.

Williams knows the bridge well. At one point, he knew its exact measurements, necessary to evaluate whether fishing boats would be able to fit through, he said.

A plaque near the bridge outlines some of his family's history. Sometimes, the river floods the road, covering the bridge decking, he said.

The bridge was built in the 1930s but there are discrepancies in its exact history. The DOT's archaeological survey says that it was first built in 1934 to cross Eagle River, in Southcentral Alaska, and was moved to the Iliamna River in 1946.

But the book "Bridging Alaska" by Ralph Soberg describes Soberg's first-hand account of building the bridge over the Iliamna River in 1936.

In 2003, the DOT set up a temporary bridge next to the old one. But in a few years, the state plans to replace it with a structure that has a greater weight capacity, to accommodate the freight and fishing vessels. The total cost for construction will be about $5 million, 90 percent of which is federal funding, said DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow.

The free-bridge offer isn't optional for the state — federal law mandates it.

"Because it's such an old structure, it's eligible for a historic listing," Woodrow said. "Before we destroy the historical structure we have to provide the opportunity for someone to preserve (it)."

Sometimes bridges are offered for free and sometimes they come with a monetary incentive, Woodrow said. A similar offer in Haines — offered without reimbursement — came up short recently, and that bridge will be demolished once a new one is constructed, he said.

Although he was unsure how the state came to the $30,000 figure, Woodrow said that removing the bridge will cost the state money either way. If someone takes them up on the offer, it may actually save the department some cash.

These days, the old red bridge is used occasionally by snowmachiners or bikers, Williams said.

But, "for the most part, it's the bears that use it," Williams said. Bears don't walk across the temporary bridge's metal grating, preferring the timber decking of the historic structure.

Over its long life, the bridge has undergone multiple modifications. To take the bridge apart and put it together again would be extremely difficult, Woodrow said. Anyone interested in doing so needs to be aware of the challenge involved, he said.

With bridge projects like these, interested parties usually realize the costs and effort involved and walk away, Woodrow said.

Williams agreed that moving the bridge would be a huge challenge.

"I just really don't understand how they would do it. It's somebody else's headache," he said.

So has Williams heard of anyone interested?

"Not a one," he said.

This story first appeared in Alaska Dispatch News and is reprinted here with permission.

 

Copyright 2016 The Arctic Sounder is a publication of Alaska Media, LLC. This article is © 2016 and limited reproduction rights for personal use are granted for this printing only. This article, in any form, may not be further reproduced without written permission of the publisher and owner, including duplication for not-for-profit purposes. Portions of this article may belong to other agencies; those sections are reproduced here with permission and Alaska Media, LLC makes no provisions for further distribution.