When drivers found the Glenn Highway clogged as they headed to work on March 22, there was only one way for them to reach Anchorage.
That route, via the Eagle River Loop Extension to Hiland Road, was pushed through surreptitiously nearly half a century ago. State officials were outraged but unable to find anyone to charge with the crime. Years later, they decided it was a good idea, after all.
We’ll find out “who done it” later, but first let’s look at what happened.
There are 4,530 lane miles of highway in Alaska’s Central Region. More than 200 of those miles were clogged with vehicles that could move only in inches- rather than miles-per-hour yesterday (March 22, 2018), exactly one week after the Ides of March. A truck with a load nearly two feet too high slammed into the South Eagle River overpass the afternoon before, severely damaging the structure and closing the only direct road into Anchorage.
Traffic had to be detoured along the Old Glenn Highway to the Eagle River Loop extension, exiting at Hiland Road.
The single lane escape route helped, but the commute took hours instead of minutes. A make-shift gravel bypass was laid down to help with Friday’s traffic, but fixing the damaged bridge will take considerable time and a couple of million dollars from the cash-strapped state treasury.
During the first hours of the closure, a three-car crash resulted in one patient being air-lifted to Anchorage for treatment. A Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department ambulance had to take another patient to Palmer. A woman stuck in traffic while in labor turned around and went to Palmer where she delivered a healthy little girl at the hospital. Fortunately, there was no loss of life attributed to the delay.
Most drivers made the best of the situation. Children set up coffee stands along the road. One man in a turtle costume showed that he could move faster than the cars whose passengers he entertained. Humor was displayed in social media posts from stranded motorists.
While not a disaster, the incident brought to mind several concerns.
It also raised memories of past proposals that might have brought relief if they had been carried through.
Rep. Dan Saddler pointed out that the proposed Knik Arm Crossing would have provided a link with the Mat-Su Valley. That bridge across Knik Arm would have trimmed the distance by connecting the Knik-Goose Bay Road with downtown Anchorage by way of Government Hill. The plan was discarded because of objections from residents whose property would be affected, plus cost concerns and possible adverse environmental impact.
Many years ago, a proposal was made to extend a road through Eagle River Valley to connect with Girdwood. It would more or less follow the Iditarod Trail of the 1890s. That trail connected the year-round port at Seward with the mining communities of upper Cook Inlet, Knik, Iditarod and Nome. Roadhouses were spaced along the route to accommodate people traveling by dog sled. Again, the plan was considered but discarded.
The plight of Eagle River Valley residents who might be threatened by a wildfire brought more recent attention. The narrow single-lane road that connects residents along a dozen miles of road would be hard-pressed if fire equipment had to compete with residents evacuating the area. Evergreens killed by spruce bark beetle brought a threat of severe fire danger. A solution is still being mulled.
Now let’s look at the story of the life-line that offered the only way to get to Anchorage by car last week.
Back in the mid-Seventies, the Eagle River Improvement Association came up with the idea of extending Eagle River Loop across the river to connect with Hiland Road.
Chief advocate for the project was Danny Bell, whose 160-acre homestead later became the Eaglewood Subdivision. It was bordered by Eagle River Road and a line extending south from Eagle River Loop.
Bell, a Democrat and the developer of another subdivision whose streets are named for famous racehorses, competed with Glenn Briggs. Briggs, a staunch Republican and the community’s first member of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough Assembly, developed subdivisions within the area bounded by Eagle River Loop. Both men installed water systems to serve their subdivisions.
One Monday morning, people on both sides of the river were surprised to see trees cleared from a strip extending southward alongside Bell’s homestead down to the river. On the opposite bank, another newly cleared strip connected with Hiland Road. State highway officials were outraged; they had rejected the idea of such a connection. Also outraged were the fish and game people who feared activity in the stream had damaged the fishery. Angered, too, were the people who had their eyes on putting the river bottom into a state park.
There were two prime suspects who might have done the dirty deed.
Bell was one, but he denied any knowledge; the highway folks didn’t think his D-6 bulldozer could have done that big a job in such a short time, anyway. The other was another ornery cuss, Bernie Stewart, who had built the Ice Palace restaurant and bar on his South Fork homestead. He had a D-9, but when contacted, pointed out the grass which had grown up around it, showing that it had not been moved in many weeks.
Disappointed at not being able to identify the ones responsible for this horrible act, the highway folks nevertheless ordered Bell to restore the vegetation that had been disturbed alongside his homestead. He complied by planting turnips.
Years later, Bell confided to this writer that he had, indeed, been the one who bulldozed the route that eventually became the Hiland Crossing constructed by the State of Alaska. He said he almost let the cat out of the bag when they said his D-6 was not capable of doing the job. That small Caterpillar did just fine, and he wanted the world to know it, but he didn’t dare confess at the time. Still keeping quiet, he took great pleasure in having the route he conceived actually become a state road.
Both Bell and Briggs passed on several years ago.
In one of the great ironies of our time, the bridge erected over the river along the route pioneered by Bell was named the Briggs Bridge.
Danny Bell would be even prouder to know that his idea to build a shortcut to the highway—intended to bypass Briggs’ Eagle River Shopping Center and Parkgate Building—had for a short time been the only link with Anchorage in this incident.
CLARIFICATION: After this column was written, TV station KTVA reported that the bridge actually was several inches lower than the 18.5 inches the State said it was, but still higher than the 17-foot height allowed under the permit issued to the truck that caused the damage.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.