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Last Update: August 5, 2008 5:32 AM

Photo by Paul Souders / Daily News archive

The Million Dollar Bridge, built in 1909-10 for hauling Kennicott copper to Cordova, spans the Copper River near Childs Glacier.

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Million Dollar Bridge on pace to be repaired by spring 2005

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When Alaska stopped shaking after the Good Friday earthquake in 1964, a 1,700-ton piece of history rested on the bottom of the silty Copper River.

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One span of the Million Dollar Bridge, an engineering and construction marvel erected in 1909-10 for hauling Kennicott copper to Cordova, had slipped its foundations and slumped into the water.

It was never repaired because there was no need. The railroad for which the bridge was built had closed 26 years earlier. Efforts to construct a new highway, pioneer road or trail from the north had failed under the weight of controversy. Temporary fixes allowed vehicles to cross the bridge, though the road ended in an alder thicket just a few miles beyond.

The road upriver still leads no place in particular. But the famed bridge is, nevertheless, undergoing a $17 million repair. Construction crews will lift the 405-foot-long steel span off the river bottom, rebuild a massive concrete foundation pier in the fast-running Copper River, then reattach the span and pave it.

This has some observers scratching their heads, even in Cordova, where the bridge has been a part of life for nearly a century.

"I don't get it," said former Cordova Mayor Kelly Weaverling. "I hear we're going to have cut old folks homes and start taxing people in this state, and we're blowing millions of dollars on a bridge that's going to go nowhere. I think it's an incredible waste of money."

Other people in the town of 2,400 are largely indifferent, said current Mayor Tim Joyce. "Granted, it's a lot of money," he said, but the federal government is footing 80 percent of the bill. Residents seem more concerned about losing their big salmon cannery and the fate of the fishing industry, he said.

Perhaps the best reason to repair the bridge is to make a pre-emptive strike, Joyce said. Eventually a flood will pitch the rest of the crippled span into the river, he said.

"And more than likely it'll be deposited right in front of Childs Glacier," a highlight of Cordova's fledgling tourism industry, Joyce said. "It would cost us millions of dollars to get it out of there."

Indeed, the state wants to cut its losses, said Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation in Fairbanks. Although the bridge had been stable since 1964, flooding in September 1995 prompted officials to reconsider their hands-off policy.

The flood, she said, "caused enough damage that structural engineers said this bridge will go into the river, maybe not tomorrow but someday. It's going to be a lot more expensive to do an emergency removal" than repair it now, she added. And because of the Copper River salmon runs, she said, "we definitely would have to remove it."

Repair planning began shortly after the 1995 flood report. It took several years to round up funding, perform the environmental assessment and design the project. A Seattle-based firm, Mowat Construction, won the construction bid. Work began this fall and should be complete by June 2005, McCarthy said.

The state's share of the cost will be about $3 million.

The original structure was called the Miles Glacier Bridge because it crossed the Copper River in a narrow gap between Miles and Childs glaciers. With an original construction cost of $1.4 million -- the equivalent of $28 million in 2002 -- it was soon tabbed the Million Dollar Bridge.

It took 13 months to build, as workers battled river currents and floodwaters. Giant chunks of ice calved off the glaciers, sending big waves rolling across the river, and then floated down on the project like battering rams. Just as hazardous were the wind and cold. The Copper River gorge, cutting through the eastern reach of the Chugach Mountains, is one of few passes between Alaska's eastern Interior and the ocean.

"It blows 70, 80, 90, 100 miles an hour pretty regularly," Joyce said. Winter winds bring Arctic temperatures. "I don't know how they can work," he said of the bridge workers then and now. "They've got to be iron men."

The bridge is almost 1,600 feet long and is held above the river by three house-sized concrete foundations, or piers. When the northernmost pier shifted and split during the 1964 quake, the northernmost of the bridge's four spans dropped 50 feet into the river.

For the repair job, crews will use hydraulic jacks to lift the broken bridge on both sides of the pier, then remove hundreds of tons of 96-year-old concrete, said state design manager Tim Woster.

To ensure that the replacement pier doesn't shift in the next big earthquake, crews will drive five 6-foot-diameter steel tubes more than 120 feet into the river bed as a foundation. The new concrete pier goes on top.

Then workers can reattach the spans to the pier and replace portions of the steel bridge that were bent and twisted by the earthquake or subsequent floods.

The new steel and concrete will match the old to ensure the Million Dollar Bridge doesn't lose its vintage look, Woster said. It was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 2000.

Work will keep the bridge closed much of next summer, Woster said, which could be a headache for Cordova subsistence fishermen and Copper River rafters. The contractor must allow cars across several hours at a time, four days a week, including weekends, but there could be two-day stretches when it's closed, he said. The schedule will be posted in Cordova, Chitina and McCarthy.

"The goal is to let the people that need to cross the bridge know when it will be open so they can schedule their trips accordingly," Woster said.

The bridge should open for good in May or June 2005.

People can drive, as they have, the 49 miles from Cordova to the bridge, then keep going. But they'll still be stopped within a few miles by brush or washed-out culverts, according to Cordova residents familiar with the Copper River Highway.

Skeptics wonder whether the $17 million bridge work is a prelude to something grander, such as a road upriver toward Chitina and the Interior highway system.

"I'm not really sure what's the purpose of fixing that, unless there's a plan to put a road in," said Mark Hoover, vice president of the Cordova-based Native Village of Eyak.

Local residents have been split -- in opinions and in official votes -- on the road question for many years.

Former mayor Weaverling doubts anyone would want to raise the road issue again after all the previous battles. But repairing the bridge seems like a potential first step, he said.

"The whole thing has been a stealthy project, and when something is done as stealthily and secretly as all this, it makes a person wonder why," he said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski, who campaigned on a pledge of building roads to promote economic development, doesn't have a Cordova road on his project list, said John MacKinnon, deputy transportation commissioner.

"But that doesn't mean that it couldn't be," MacKinnon said. "Anytime you mention roads, he says he'd love to see one there."

First, Cordova residents would have to reach consensus on the issue, MacKinnon said, though support could improve as Cordova adjusts to the loss of its major fish processor, he added.

On the other hand, the state is assigning one of its new $34 million fast ferries to Cordova, and daily ferry service could undermine demand for a road link. The ferry should begin running about the time the bridge opens.

There are people who see the bridge project in a different light, with no eye toward the future or economic development or cost effectiveness. Lone Janson, who wrote about the bridge in her 1975 book "The Copper Spike," said last week she is glad to hear the historic structure is getting some attention.

"Of course there are a lot of bridges beyond, but that big one was really good," she said from her Anchorage home last week. "It was really beautiful. It's something magic almost."

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310.

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