Kennicott River Bridge

Ready to roll!

MCCARTHY, AK— Keith Rowland has a B.S. in Engineering and has designed and built several vehicle and pedestrian bridges, all still in service. Even so, the engineering, building, and installation of the Kennicott River Service Bridge have been a logistical challenge of staggering proportions for one man and a small fleet of equipment.

For the bridge decking, two pre-engineered 90-foot bridge spans were located in central Washington. The spans were trucked to the Seattle waterfront where they were loaded on a barge bound for Valdez. Once they arrived in Valdez, Keith picked them up and trucked them, one by one, to McCarthy, with his father, Ken Rowland, and I driving the pilot cars. Each span was so wide, long, and heavy that the State of Alaska required special over-weight, over- length, and over-width permits for their transport, as well as the two pilot cars. Because of the narrowness and tight corners on the 60 miles of brain cell scrambler known as the McCarthy Road, the longest trailer which Keith could use was 48 feet long, leaving a 35-foot overhang of heavy steel weighing down the rear axles of the trailer.

Once the bridge spans reached our equipment yard in McCarthy, the in-house work began. Roughly 10,000 pounds of structural reinforcing was added to the bridge in accordance with an engineer’s specification to modify the spans for our application. Over 2000 pounds of welding rod were consumed in the process of making structural modifications on the bridge spans and building the bridge piers.

The two piers which support the bridge spans were fabricated using four-foot diameter pipe with one-inch thick steel walls and an enlarged base. These piers were buried 12 – 15 feet deep in the river bed and protected by meticulously placed 6000 – 8000-pound armor rock.

Since 90 feet of steel decking is pretty heavy (55,000 pounds, or so), transporting just one of the spans the roughly one mile from our yard to the bridge site was a big job. With the deck suspended by chains between our loader and rock truck, Keith and his father, Ken, very slowly and carefully eased it along the road leading to the bridge site. It was pretty tricky going—our heavy earth-moving equipment seems so big and beefy, but for this job what we have is painfully inadequate. The machines were maxed to the limit. Our 10-year-old son, David, and Grandpa Ken in the loader had a tense moment when the machine suddenly tipped forward, rear wheels spinning in thin air and front rigging gouging into the road with a bone-jarring crunch! It took all day to carefully maneuver the span into place, but by the end of the day, they had it lying neatly across the river between the two piers.

The next chore—and one of the biggest challenges—was lifting the center span into place without the benefit of a crane. The following is an excerpt from a Rowland family letter detailing the bridge building process: “Question: How do you lift almost half a bridge without an industrial crane? Answer: A little at a time.

“First, Keith made a temporary ramp out of a 40-ft flatbed, which will eventually be one of the bridge spans. Because he didn’t want the heavy flatbed to exert too much lateral pressure on the newly set pier, he hung the ramp on chains from the pier cap.

“Keith drove the loader up his “suspended ramp” and rigged up two sets of chains—one set attaching the bridge to the loader boom, and the other set attaching the bridge to the pier. Then he began lifting the bridge, only a couple feet at a time, resetting the pier anchor chain, then lowering the loader boom, then resetting the loader chain, lifting, resetting, lowering the boom, resetting, lifting… It was a l-o-o-o-n-g, tense day!

“The next day, the suspended ramp was transported to the west pier, and the process began all over again…”

Between this stage of installation and the next, there were weeks’ worth of welding and fabricating to be done. Meanwhile, the Kennicott River was rapidly rising. Soon, another logistical challenge began to present itself—how to install the east span from the west side of the river. To accomplish this feat, Keith used the “piggyback and see-saw” method. From the west side of the river, he literally pushed that 28-ton chunk of steel across the west and central spans, until it hung, precariously balanced between river and sky, on the eastern end of the bridge. Then, using cables and chains for stability, he slowly eased the span past its fulcrum. Ever so gently and carefully, he set the eastern end of the span on the ground, and before the day was done, the east span was properly set and pinned in place.

Now, the bridge was almost ready for use. All that remained was to install highway-grade guard rails and new decking on the west span. With help from some good neighbors, this stage of construction was accomplished in “no time flat.”

Work still to be completed: a solar-powered keypad lock system for the gate (we’re currently using a padlock and handing out keys to those who have bought passes to use the bridge); painting the bridge structure; raising the approaches and east abutment approximately four feet; and installing signage.

Some have asked, “Just how strong is this bridge?” The answer: Very strong. The bridge has been specially engineered to support an 80,000-pound load and to resist a 25-year flood event occurring simultaneously with a Hidden Lake outburst.

The Kennicott River Service Bridge project has been 100% privately funded (cost so far: over $250,000).

In order to recoup some of this cost, the bridge is set up on a fee-for-use basis. The first personal use pass was sold on June 6 to Rick and Bonnie Kenyon, and the first business pass was sold to Doug Miller at McCarthy Ventures, LLC.

Keith and I are very thankful for all the practical help, input, ideas, and encouragement which have come from the McCarthy community. We would like to express special gratefulness to the following people:

To Rick and Bonnie Kenyon and others in the Wednesday night prayer group—for upholding in prayer the permit process and workers’ safety during construction. Herein lies the secret of our success!

To Ken Rowland—for expediting materials, expertise in welding and fabrication, and assistance in bridge construction.

To Doug Miller and Neil Darish at McCarthy Ventures—for unrelenting enthusiasm.

To George Cebula—when Keith took the final permit documents to our local public notary to be notarized, George stamped the papers, and then kindly refused payment.

To McCarthy Area Council—for finding the owner of a key piece of property needed to be acquired for legal bridge access. Because the records at the Chitina Recorder’s Office are not complete, this required some detective work. MAC hired an agent to investigate into the matter. The agent eventually succeeded in locating the owner of this key lot, a woman from New York named Tibby. We then contacted Tibby with an offer to buy her land. As soon as she heard of our plans to build a service bridge, that pleasant little lady got on board! She cheerfully agreed to sell us the property, with the stipulation that we would pay for her round trip from Anchorage accommodations in McCarthy—complete with a personal guided tour of the new bridge—after the project was finished.

To Ed LaChapelle—for all his help and research on the solar-powered keypad lock system.

To Lane Moffitt—for all the grader work done on Freedom Lane which leads to the bridge, for the proudly-waving Freedom Flag, and for coming to the bridge construction site nearly every day to check progress.

To Betty Adams—for beautifying the bridge with her cheery flowers.

The Kennicott River Service Bridge has been well received in our community. Kennicott resident James Sill summed it up best as he drove through the gate and across the bridge for the first time. “FREEDOM AT LAST!” he whooped exultantly.

[VLRC Note: Americans get the job done—without government “help”! This is the way America was built, and the way it will be rebuilt.]