Robert Cunningham has logged 30 years of operating Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities equipment in Cordova. He is happiest when at the controls of a grader. Dick Shellhorn photo

While “going out the road” is a favorite Cordova pastime, truth be told, in reality there isn’t much road to travel.  Especially if you consider only state-maintained byways. Add up what’s left of the Copper River Highway (36 miles), plus Power Creek Road (6 miles), Whitshed Road (5 miles) and Orca Road (3 miles), and you come up with a grand total of 50 miles. 

But what a year-round challenge keeping those miles safe and travel-worthy can be, especially with limited staff, budget and equipment at the Mile 13 Department of Transportation (DOT) Station. Don’t forget that crew is also tasked with keeping the Merle “Mudhole” Smith Airport and its 7,000-foot runway open as Priority #1.

Probably the least appreciated public workers in Cordova are the state and city road crews, who especially during the winter log incredible hours battling whatever the elements bring.

One of those dedicated and skilled state operators is retiring after 30 years behind the plows.  By rough calculations, he has plowed and graded his way over 150,000 miles, which is more than six trips around Planet Earth. That’s estimating 30 miles per day, on half the days he worked, which is probably low.   Don’t forget that the roads have to be plowed on both sides.

Can you imagine how many snow drifts, washouts and potholes Robert Cunningham has conquered in his tour of duty?

Just getting his 6-foot-9 inch 350-pound frame into some of the smaller equipment had to be a challenge.  I asked him about it recently, while he paused in a grader on Power Creek Road. He cheerfully replied, “Well, you do what you gotta do.”  

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Surrounded by all kinds of controls, the grader barely had enough room for him to stretch his legs.  

So, imagine being crammed in a brush cutter tilted at a 30-degree angle along the edges of the highway every summer. 

“It would be nice if they had a self-leveling seat,” joked Cunningham.   

Maintaining state roads runs in the family. His dad, Robert II, graduated from Cordova High School in 1955, then spent 28 years at the Mile 13 DOT and rose all the way to become head of the local operation, which includes being the airport manager.

Robert III graduated from Cordova High School in 1981, and tried various jobs before learning to be an equipment operator for Glen Criner, of Criner Construction, which led to his career with the state DOT.

Alaska Department of Transportation operator Robert Cunningham heads around a bend in Power Creek Road in October, leaving a perfectly graded road behind. Dick Shellhorn photo

“At age 14, I started out throwing bags of cement around, and gradually moved on to the equipment”, said Cunningham.

Randy Bruce, who worked as a mechanic at the DOT in Cordova for 25 years, remembered Robert as being a handy guy to have around when moving heavy parts.  “He was always willing, until finally the state supervisors told him to knock it off.”

Bruce also remembered Cunningham’s favorite job. “Put him or Gary Weinrick in a grader, and off they went, out of the office and happy to be plowing away.”

Cordova’s unpaved roads are famous for their potholes, and given all the rain this summer, keeping them smooth has been an unending battle, but walking Power Creek Road on a rare sunny day after Cunningham has graded it gives one a true appreciation of a master at his craft.

Talk about a work of art.

Have plow, will travel.

Indeed.

Thanks, Robert Cunningham.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 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 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at dshorn44@gmail.com.