Cordova Chronicles: It all started with a No. 2 shovel

CHS graduates make their mark on Alaska construction

It’s hard not to notice the mark that contractors and engineers have made on Cordova. Looming to the south are picturesque Mt. Heney and Mt. Eccles, named respectively after the chief contractor and the president of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway Corporation.

Right across the bay is Hawkins Island. Erastus C. Hawkins was the brilliant chief engineer of the amazing railway that brought the copper from the Interior to port at docks located near today’s ferry terminal.

Perhaps lesser known is Sam Murchison, chief of construction, whose namesake is a small waterfall just off the highway at 2.5 Mile. Superintendent of Bridges P.J. O’Brien and bridge engineer A.C. O’Neel garnered no nameplate. They needn’t have. The Million Dollar Bridge stands testimony to their brilliance.

Well, it turns out a century later a pair of Cordova High School graduates are making their mark in Alaska construction and engineering. Both began their careers with locally owned and operated Eagle Contacting, and the first tool they encountered was a No. 2 shovel. The Sjostedt brothers are about as hardworking a duo as you will every meet, and it was Don Sjostedt who started them out with that most fundamental implement of all, and this sage advice: “Learn how to operate this, and then we’ll move you on to the bigger stuff.”

Guess what?  Both his protégés have been in on the bigger stuff, one now superintendent of the current paving and expansion at the Mile 13 airport; the other in engineering projects all around Alaska.

Pruhs Construction Superintendent Marc Lobe, CHS Class of ’95, took me on a tour of their progress at the Cordova Airport last week, and it’s hard to realize the scope of the $6.5 million dollar expansion from behind all those security gates. Perhaps the biggest change air travelers will notice will be the new approach to the passenger gates of the recently remodeled Alaska Airlines terminal.

Remember all those screeching halts on landings, just to barely overshoot the off ramp to the terminal, meaning the Boeing 737 had to turn around and chug back to the turnoff? Well, those will soon be gone. A large apron and off ramp further down the runway will allow the jet to slow down, taxi off the runway, and smoothly glide to a stop at the gates — regardless of whether landing from the east or west. And on departure, no turn around necessary. Just head back out the other taxi way. Cool.

“You know how most airports have taxi ways parallel to the landing strip?” Lobe asked. “It’s for safety and efficiency both, with FAA and state upgrades for that purpose.  So now Cordova will meet those new standards.”

Lobe, who scratched his beard when realizing he just turned 40, worked his way through the ranks to become a project boss. He started with that No. 2 shovel at Eagle Contracting in 1996, and worked there for nine years. A big step in his career came in 1997, when he went to heavy equipment school at West Coast Training in Woodland, Wash., a two-month program that also involved classwork, surveying and the operation of all sorts of equipment. In 2005, he ended up working with Mowat construction on the major project at 52 Mile, raising the fallen span of the Million Dollar Bridge.

It was his first encounter with the handiwork of all those famous early CR&NW engineers. The construction crew stayed in housing on the far banks of the river.  Their predecessors had, by necessity, worked from a huge camp near the site of the present USFS campground and viewing area. Laboring through a long winter, as the railroad builders had, gave Lobe an appreciation for what those early pioneers had done.

“I read Lone Janson’s Copper Spike cover to cover in my spare time, when we couldn’t work because of howling winds,” Lobe said, who ran excavators and operated cranes during the 1.5-year project.

In another unique historical connection, Lobe worked for Swalling Construction out of Anchorage for a while. Founder Al Swalling arrived in Cordova in the late ’20s as a jack-of-all-trades, and before the railway closed down in 1938, he was superintendent of all the facilities along the railway. Swalling Construction struck it big in the building of the Whittier tunnel in WWII, and Lobe ended up working for Swalling’s sons.

“They were great guys, and loved to tell stories about duck hunting in Cordova,” Lobe said.

Lobe has bounced all over central Alaska with Pruhs, a large firm based in Anchorage. He described projects at Whittier, Anchorage, Palmer, Talkeetna and   Soldotna.

“I always wanted to be a foreman, and Pruhs first moved me to that position in a 2.5-year, $22-million road job up the Eagle River valley,” Lobe said. And now he’s back in Cordova.

Meanwhile, Don and Marie Sjostedt’s son Sean, CHS Class of 2006, another No. 2 shovel protege, is now a certified civil engineer, working for PND Engineering in Juneau.

Sean Sjostedt began working with Eagle Contracting right out of high school, and soon selected the University of Idaho for the study of engineering, graduating in December 2010. His background with Eagle paid big dividends, most importantly learning what he proudly described as “the Sjostedt work ethic.”

Sean specializes in what he called geo-technical engineering, involving soil investigation, slope stability, deep foundations, pilings and retaining walls.  After working under supervising engineers for four years and then passing rigorous exams, he received his official certification.

“Now I can put my own stamp on project designs,” Sjostedt said.

His PND Engineering travels have taken him all over Southeast Alaska, including Haines, Ketchikan, Metlakatla, Pelican, Kake and Wrangell. He has also worked at Kodiak, Fairbanks, and even all the way out on St. Paul Island.

Turns out he and Marc worked together for Eagle on the Phase II USCG housing project in Cordova several years ago. And while on the tour with Lobe at Mile 13, he joked about the Sjostedts now working for him, as Eagle is supplying support for the Airport Project.

Old photos show that much of the work on the CR&NW Railway was done by incredible manual labor. A century later both Lobe and Sjostedt agree on one thing. Their careers began with that enduring No. 2 shovel, and lessons learned in 60- to 70-hour workweeks under Don and Dave Sjostedt.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.