Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
More than a century after their heyday, covered bridges today inspire waves of romantic nostalgia, conjuring images of quaint, shaded passages over bubbly brooks. No two covered bridges were precisely alike, reflecting local materials and landscape. Yet, their rustic appearance hides their inherent practicality, that covered wooden bridges last around five times longer than uncovered wooden ones.
At their early 20th-century peak, there were around 14,000 covered bridges in the United States. Unfortunately, most of the covered bridges are gone, many of them victims of rot, disaster, and modern replacements. There are only several hundred left standing today, but none in Alaska. Indeed, perhaps the most surprising fact about covered bridges is that there were once several such examples in Alaska, though they are largely forgotten today, decades after the last one collapsed.
In all, there were seven known Alaska covered bridges. Alaskans are very familiar with boom-and-bust cycles, and the Alaska covered bridge boom was from 1921 to 1929, when all seven were built. The Nine Mile Bridge, or Salmon River Bridge, north of Hyder, was the first covered bridge in Alaska. It was built in 1921 and replaced with a sturdier steel structure around 1937.
The most picturesque covered bridge in Alaska was easily the Upper Mendenhall River Bridge, also known as the Mendenhall Back Loop Bridge, near Juneau. Crossing the river near the terminus of Mendenhall Glacier, the bridge’s open sides offered a spectacular view, making it a foremost tourist destination. The bridge was built in 1926, utilizing large Douglas fir timbers shipped from Seattle with smaller lumber sourced locally. It was torn down in favor of a modern replacement circa 1948.
The Afognak Island Bridge — appropriately on Afognak Island north of Kodiak Island — stretched across the Afognak River near its mouth. It was built in 1929 and destroyed by a tsunami caused by the March 27, 1964 Good Friday earthquake. After it was washed away, an Alaska Highway Department engineer said the bridge had been a “link to some gosh darn good elk hunting country” but was too unnecessary to be rebuilt.
Betha Digree described the area as idyllic in a 1959 Kodiak Mirror article. Wrote Digree, “At last we anchored in lovely Afognak Bay at Litnik where we went ashore. There we climbed into a rumbling truck that carried us along the road to a covered bridge across the river. A halt was made while salmon, flashing like silver in the brilliant sunlight and fighting furiously, were taken from the stream.”
The Seward Twin Bridges were completed in 1928, a few miles north of Seward. Though both were planned as covered bridges, one was left uncovered, an error later corrected. Both bridges were replaced sometime in 1952 or 1953.
The Schooner Bend Bridge on the Sterling Highway spanned the Kenai River west of Cooper Landing. Built in 1929, it was the northernmost covered bridge in America. Immediately after the roof was installed, a mail carrier mushed up to its entrance. He looked at the snowless crossing and began firing the choicest curse words at the construction crew. Less to make him happy than to make him leave, the workers hauled snow into the bridge and spread it out so the mailman could mush through.
The Schooner Bend Bridge was less remote than the Afognak and Hyder bridges and more private than the open-sided Upper Mendenhall River Bridge. Alaska traffic was also a smidge less heavy in the 1930s than today. Covered bridges are sometimes called kissing bridges for a good reason: they offer accessible privacy in a romantic setting. This bridge had an earned reputation for amorous rendezvous. To the dismay of local lovers, the bridge was replaced with a less romantically convenient option circa 1956.
The Texas Creek Bridge was built in 1928, three miles north of the North Mile Bridge. Due to its proximity to the border, Canadian hunters sometimes crossed over into the Texas Creek area in pursuit of game. In its early years, the Texas Creek Bridge was often plastered with warnings for foreign hunters to obtain licenses first.
By the mid-1960s, the bridge was still standing but shaky from flood and avalanche damage. It was also the last of the Alaska covered bridges. In the late 1960s, Hyder residents and covered bridge enthusiasts initiated a campaign to rescue the bridge, the Save Our Bridge (S.O.B.) committee. News releases were titled S.O.B. stories. For a single dollar, donors received a membership certificate with the S.O.B. designation in large letters. Additional text noted the certificate was a perfect “gift to your mother-in-law.”
Jokes aside, there were some small attempts to repair the bridge in the early 1970s. However, the road access was washed out in 1970, increasing the difficulty of restoration efforts. In the winter of 1978 to 1979, it finally collapsed.
While not truly covered, one bridge is close enough in style to deserve mention, especially as it still exists. The settler discovery of coal in the Matanuska-Susitna region led directly to the Chickaloon mine that opened in 1906 and the creation of the Alaska Railroad. On Oct. 24, 1917, a spur from the railroad reached Chickaloon. As in several other Alaska Native villages, like Susitna and Talkeetna, the sudden influx of laborers brought disease, in this case, a wave of influenza that killed most of the area Ahtna residents.
The Chickaloon coal was primarily intended for the U.S. Navy. However, the coal was of poorer quality and expensive to mine and transport. The construction of the Alaska Railroad also coincided with the Navy’s transition from coal to oil-burning ships, rendering the entire endeavor ultimately pointless. On May 1, 1922, mining operations were suspended indefinitely. By the end of 1923, Chickaloon was a ghost town. The buildings were soon torn down or relocated elsewhere while the railroad tracks were pulled out in the 1930s. As Katherine Wade notes in Chickaloon Spirit, “When they dismantled the houses in Chickaloon, they left most of the flooring and junk.” Some of the building materials ended up in Anchorage, where they were used for new construction in Government Hill.
Apart from some debris, one notable relic remained, the Chickaloon River railroad bridge. The 121-foot-long truss bridge was built in 1917. After the railroad left, planks were added to convert the bridge for highway usage. It remained in service until 1981, when it was deemed unsafe. In 1982, it was relocated to a cleared area along the Chickaloon River Branch Road, near its original site. A roof was added a few years, making the old truss bridge look remarkably like a covered bridge. This hidden gem of Alaska history is still there, just off the Glenn Highway.
Special thanks go to the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges. Without their assistance and previous scholarship, this article would have been impossible.
“Alaska’s Only Covered Bridge Threatened; Committee Seeks Donations from Citizens.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, December 19, 1969, 7.
Bauer, Mary Cracroft, and Victoria A. Cole. A History of Coal-Mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon Area Prior to WWII. Sutton: Alpine Historical Society, 1985.
Conwill, Joseph. “Hidden Bridges: The Covered Bridge in Alaska.” Covered Bridge topics, Winter 1978, 3.
Digree, Betha. “Of This and That.” Kodiak Mirror, June 27, 1959, 10.
“Dogs, Elk Once Harried Bridge Builders.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 8, 1954, 9.
Hayes, Glenn D. and Joseph D. Conwill. “Covered Bridges From Alaska’s Past.” Connecticut River Valley Covered Bridge Society Bulletin, Spring 1980, 2-8.
“Last Covered Bridge Lost at Afognak.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 29, 1964, 2.
Mitchell, Robin A. “The Railroad Bridge at Chickaloon, Alaska.” National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges Newsletter, Fall 2017, 12-13.
“Northern Lights.” Seward Daily Gateway, December 7, 1932, 3.
Pierce, Philip C., et al. Covered Bridge Manual. Turner-Fairbanks Highway Research Center, 2005.
Wade, Katherine. Chickaloon Spirit: The Life and Times of Katherine Wickersham Wade. Chickaloon: Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, 2002-2004.