Million Dollar Bridge in danger

Local lodge owner at Million Dollar Bridge worried about future of historic landmark

Damage to an icebreaker in front of the Million Dollar Bridge on the Copper River Highway has the owner of Child’s Glacier Lodge worried about the future of the bridge, his business, and potential adverse impact to salmon habitat critical to the local economy.

There are few options available to solve the dilemma, says Lucas “Luke” Borer, who built and operates the lodge on the banks of the Copper River near the bridge.

They are, he said, to do nothing and wait for the bridge to get knocked into the river and spend more than $100 million taking it out of the river, or to rebuild the icebreaker.

Borer voiced his concerns in a recent letter to Alaska Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken. DOT has agreed to send out bridge inspectors to access the damage.

“Until we have more information, we don’t know what the next step will be,” Meadow Bailey, DOT’s public information officer.

Damage occurred to the icebreaker in front of the Million Dollar Bridge in August. Photo by Lucas Borer/For The Cordova Times
Damage occurred to the icebreaker in front of the Million Dollar Bridge in August.
Photo by Lucas Borer/For The Cordova Times

The icebreaker in question was built to break up large icebergs coming down the Copper River from Miles Glacier to the Million Dollar Bridge at 49.5 Mile.

The damage, Borer told Luiken, occurred in August, when a large iceberg impacted the icebreaker protecting pier one of the Million Dollar Bridge, breaking the icebreaker into at least three pieces, and moving it from its original position protecting the first pier.

Potential impacts of the bridge falling into the Copper River, said Borer, include hazards to navigation, loss of public and private lands and facilities, pollution of anadromous waters, a change of Copper River salmon monitoring methods and subsequent impacts to the commercial Copper River salmon fishery.  It would also mark the loss of a significant visitor attraction.  The Million Dollar Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

Then too, Borer acknowledged, “if the bridge collapses and deflects the river to the north bank, there’s a good probability that it will wash away everything I have.”

And just below the bridge on both the north and south banks are the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s fish sonar monitoring stations, those fish count is critical to the commercial drift gillnet fishery, a primary revenue generator for Cordova.

Bridge sections falling into the river would change the flow and bottom contour, which  would result in a change in fish behavior, which would impact the baseline data relied upon by ADF&G to determine when the commercial fishermen can fish, and possibly require relocating the sonar sites, Borer said.

And the paint used on the bridge, if exposed to the fast moving, sediment-rich waters, would be sandblasted off and enter the water column, he said.

There is also a question of the impact of the bridge falling into the river on navigation for fish harvesters, including subsistence users and including the tourism industry.

“The bridge falling into the river would prevent navigation by those entities in the area, which could amount to a substantial width of the river,” Borer said.

While the Million Dollar Bridge, built in the early 1900s and completed in 1910, is an historic landmark, it’s been inaccessible by cars and trucks since 2011.

Bridge 339 at Mile 37 was closed in 2011 by DOT due to unsafe conditions.

Shortly after the closure, the Copper River eroded enough of the support piers and a large portion of Bridge 339 collapsed.

This stopped any further vehicle traffic past that point and literally made the Copper River Highway a road to nowhere.

Still DOT inspects the bridge regularly, with the latest inspection completed in August.

That inspection was simply an asset inventory inspection to verify the general condition,” Bailey said.

Meanwhile the Million Dollar Bridge, a tourist attraction since 1910, and Miles and Child’s Glaciers are essentially cutoff from anyone without boat access, unless they want to pay $75-$150 for a guided jet-boat ride to get there.

The Copper River and North Western Railway ran excursion trains with a stop at the Million Dollar Bridge from 1910 to 1938, Borer said.

“Numerous photographers throughout the years have used the Million Dollar Bridge as focal point of their art. In the 1940s, it was converted to a highway bridge and thousands of people have visited the bridge every year since. Three of the top five Cordova activities on Trip Advisor include a visit to the Million Dollar Bridge,” Borer said.

How much time is left before the bridge might collapse?

Borer said that’s the million-dollar question.

Icebreakers stationed in front the of the bridge are intended to break up icebergs floating downriver from Miles Glacier, from hitting the bridge’s piers. Photo by Lucas Borer/For The Cordova Times
Icebreakers stationed in front the of the bridge are intended to break up icebergs floating downriver from Miles Glacier, from hitting the bridge’s piers.
Photo by Lucas Borer/For The Cordova Times

In his opinion, the massive iceberg that damaged the icebreaker in August is common.

“The icebreakers were positioned on the shallowest spots in the river so that the riverbed would assist in deflecting the icebergs. The time when the risk for damage is the highest is at high water, when the water depth allows larger icebergs to access the icebreaker areas where the water is the shallowest. When the icebreaker is moved completely out of the way next summer, it is only a matter of time before the bridge comes down.

“It might be a year, it might be 10 years. It might take one big iceberg to knock it down or 100 chipping away a little at a time. And, once the pier starts getting hit, it will most probably have to be replaced too, as it will be weakened from impacts,” he said.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said he has reviewed Borer’s letter to the DOT commissioner and Borer’s photos of the damaged icebreaker.

Koplin says he has brought the issue to the city council’s attention, and will advocate for a resolution in support of bridge repairs.

Such a resolution, if drafted, would emphasize the economic impacts that damaging the Copper River salmon fishery and/or tourism, and access to the area, would impose on the community. The resolution would also seek state support and federal financial assistance to repair or replace the function of the icebreakers.

“The bridge itself is an historic monument and a piece of Cordova’s history,” Koplin said. “More importantly, it is a large piece of infrastructure that could cause disastrous impacts if allowed to be bludgeoned and toppled into the river by icebergs,” he said.

The mayor acknowledged that he had heard, anecdotally, that there’s little that can be done with state budgets, but said more needs to be done to get state support at least for framing the problem and advocating for repairs.

Borer, meanwhile, remains worried.

“Something needs to be done soon to prevent a disaster that is sure to occur. If the ice breaker had not been there and the iceberg that damaged the ice breaker had hit the bridge pier, the bridge probably would already be in the river,” he said.

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She’s been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She’s lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.