The Bridges Of Copper River Country – And The Rest Of Alaska – Are In Constant Need Of Repair

COPPER RIVER COUNTRY JOURNAL  COMMENTARY  Easter Sunday, March 31st, 2024  Collapse Of A Major Bridge Linking The Entire East Coast of Ameri...


Easter Sunday, March 31st, 2024 

Collapse Of A Major Bridge Linking The Entire East Coast of America Reveals Something About Alaska's Bridges 

"This is not just about Maryland."
– Maryland Governor Wes Moore 

In the wake of a major national transportation corridor disaster – a spectacular bridge collapse in Baltimore, which is along a densely populated part of America's road corridor – the Governor of Maryland has sounded an alarm to the rest of the nation. It's not just about Maryland, he said. It's about all of us. 

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, one of many thousands around America, was both vulnerable and essential. This past week, the Key Bridge was struck down by a foreign cargo vessel full of containers. The bridge collapsed in seconds, leaving Baltimore  and much of the busy East Coast severely crippled. 

Yet all bridges, including the ones that link the entire flimsy road system of Alaska, are vital to everyday life. Even Anchorage has only one road into the city and one road out. And both of those roads have bridges, all along their routes. The Copper Valley is riddled with bridges. We are a watery, river-crossed place. And there are no side roads here or in much of the entire state. 

Bridges are a problem in America today. Many of them date back into the years after World War II. They are not up to standard. They weren't made for the modern world of heavy trucking. And, basically, they're worn out. That's true in America overall, and also in Alaska.

Stagecoach on sled runners prepares to leave Valdez. (Postcard) 


In the Copper Valley, bridges were a relatively recent improvement. Originally, even after the Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail and the Valdez-to-Eagle Trail were put in, there were few bridges. 

Back then, our bridges were made of ice. The world of the Copper Valley was a world of winter travel. The stagecoaches of the Orr Stage Line, which had a station on the banks of the Gulkana River, were not wheeled. Stagecoaches were placed on sleds. The frozen ice “bridges" across our many rivers, streams and tributaries of the Copper River and the glaciers that ring the valley could not be crossed except in the dead of winter. 

Paxson Lodge with trail sleds, mother and baby in the winter of 1915

This was far from perfect. Overflow, open water and impending warm weather were always an additional problem to the extreme hazards of traveling our winter trails. Hundreds of river and stream crossings were an added challenge to the already terrible issues of getting lost, overturning the sled, and freezing to death at 50 below out on the trails, with travelers' dead bodies to be found later, wrapped up in blankets and still on the sleds.  

Every March, the ice crossings were on the way out to their inevitable destruction, and there was a rush to get to safety and off the trails up in Fairbanks before the ice melted. 

Because almost all travel in those days was in the winter,  most of the roadhouses (unlike today) were winter roadhouses, and did not operate in the summer months. 


In the very old days, right up into relatively modern times, Ahtna people crossed the summer rivers in boats. 

DOC BILLUM: The famous Ahtna elder, Doc Billum, even ran a ferry for miners. 

Robert Marshall (File Photo Taken By Copper River Country Journal) 

ROBERT MARSHALL: Within the memories of now-gone elders, Ahtna people used moosehide canoes. In 2014, Robert Marshall of Tazlina told the Copper River Country Journal that his grandfather used a moosehide boat. 

"I rode in it," Robert Marshall said. "Grandpa – he used it all the time. Back and forth across the river."

FRED EWAN: In 2013, Fred Ewan of Gulkana explained to the Journal: "The moosehide boats were made of three moose hides." 

Fred had made those boats himself when he was young, he said. They were the kind of boats that the Ahtna used to go down the river to what is now Cordova in the summer, Fred said. It was a harrowing trip then, too, of course. Open rivers are even more dangerous than traveling over winter ice.

Had Fred ever gone to Cordova this way? 

He answered: "Of course not." 

Fred Ewan (File Photo Taken By Copper River Country Journal) 

In the winter in the old days, before First Contact, Ahtna people typically walked the ice down to the coast near Cordova, using the winter ice as a trail and dragging goods on sleds or with pack dogs to trade with the coastal Natives. 


When the roadhouses began to spring up, there were small ferry crossings, including at Gakona Lodge, to get across the rivers. 

But when bridges did come, they weren't that sturdy, or able to stand the power of our wilderness torrents. (We saw this only a few years ago, when small bridges north of Paxson failed, triggering a massive response from DOT. Even the loss of a single small bridge only 20 feet long can lead to hundreds of miles of detour). 

One bridge, the Tazlina River bridge, was destroyed as early as 1909, not long after it was built, due to "an outburst flood" on the Tazlina Glacier. That flooding continues to this day.  Even now, the Tazlina Bridge is repeatedly endangered and has to be closely monitored. 

There are other examples of bridges that have been destroyed by flooding in the Copper Valley, including the one at Kennicott, built in 1974 and destroyed a year later, which had to be replaced with a trolley until a structurally sound footbridge was built. 

The hand-pulled trolley was scenic, but not particularly handy. Kennicott Glacier Lodge had to ferry its many propane tanks using the device from one side of the river to the other. 

And in 1995, the talented members of the Fairbanks Arctic Chamber Orchestra were stressed out as they gingerly moved precious instruments over the river to McCarthy for a unique wilderness performance: 

At around the time the above photo was taken by the Copper River Country Journal in 1995, there were plans for a new bridge across the river. 

 Local people didn't want a full-sized bridge, though. They wanted a "footbridge" as shown in this story in the Copper River Country Journal. And a footbridge was eventually built:




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