After the quake: Opening the road to the Kenai

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 23:00

On the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake, the historical society submitted the following to run instead of Down Memory Lane column.


The newspaper notice was published some weeks after the earthquake, saying that the road to the Kenai Peninsula from points north would open— but travel would be by convoy only. The first group of cars had to be on the Seward Highway past Indian by early evening to take advantage of the low tide. Bridges along the route were now—like the quake—history. They had crossed rivers whose snowmelt waters were gushing fro the mountains to meet this tidal arm of the sea. They had washed out when Turnagain Arm had been shaken during the upheaval, a misnomer, since the area had dropped considerably. So how were we to cross when the land was lower than it had been, and with the bridges out, too?

We should have been at our fish camp out of Kenai several weeks before, getting ready for Cook Inlet’s salmon runs about to begin, thus it was with both hope and uncertainty that we started off from near Anchorage that May 25 on the first convoy. In the 1954 Ford station wagon we’d crammed diapers, bottles and much of our summer stuff, and climbed in; me, my husband Red and our children, an excitable 3-year-old and a babe in arms. We had snacks, drinks, the car radio. As for fording rivers, we figured to have about ten inches of “freeboard.”

What is now a bike trail over a new section of highway ended then in a hill leading down to the flats at Girdwood. There we waited until the road crew decided the tide was almost at its lowest, and the convoy of about 40 to 50 vehicles moved out—almost as if it were a wagon train from a century before.

My memory of the slow trip is somewhat hazy after all these years. I seem to recall a Bailey Bridge was put in sometime by the Army, but it sure wasn’t over Twentymile River, which we reached by the time the night was at its darkest. We were instructed to put her into neutral and slide down the slope into the water, and what choice had we by then? Yet before we had a chance to get stuck, a big Cat was nudging us up and out of the river, and we were off to Portage.

The old gas station, where we’d been many times delighted by the owner’s pet peacock—truly!—was now well below the roadway and the railroad tracks; they’d been raised three or four feet in the weeks following the quake. Portage had hardly been a robust community in the past, yet now it was sd to see it, after two months of tides, filling with mud.

With the wait for other cars ahead of us, it was about 2 or 3 a.m. when we approached the Placer River, a healthy stream in the best of times. Yikes! We could make out about 75 yards of water, with a car tipped halfway over in it. Great! We’d seen a fellow in a new International Scout towing cars across on where he supposed the roadway to be. Red asked him to do the same for us but he’d had enough, and shaking his head said, “This is a brand new vehicle; I just can’t do it.”

So it was off with the shoes and into the hip boots.

“I’m going to wade first,” said my fisherman and did, while I began to wonder what we’d do with the two little kids and a ruined car filled with a summer’s worth of sopping wet goods. But back he came and said we’d try it, even though the water almost reached the top of his boots. Thank goodness, we passed the tipped car and successfully got through, fast enough to keep the water out.

Lesson learned? Not to worry. But remember as you scoot along from Girdwood to Portage and on to the mountains at 65 mph or, more likely, 75 mph, that once it took us a long night to make it. And for sure, if we occasionally burn our bridges behind us, we don’t take the ones ahead for granted.

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