By Jenny Neyman
Not many Kenai Peninsula residents these days would know, off the top of their head, when the Sterling Highway was completed, much less when it was paved, what those projects entailed, nor what it was like to get from one place to another in those days.
Not many Kenai Peninsula residents are like Soldotna’s Al Hershberger. If one were to design the perfect local historian, Hershberger would be the result. Not only has he been witness to 65 years of development of the area, moving to Kenai in May 1948, he’s been actively involved in some of its highlights, having worked for the Alaska Road Commission and being a radio communications enthusiast. He’s as gregarious as he is curious, leading to decades of collecting information — mostly from simply stopping to chat, either in person or over the radio waves. To boot he’s a pilot and avid photographer, with camera at the ready to document a half century of developments around town.
On Friday, Hershberger shared some of those photos and memories in a slideshow presentation at the George A. Navarre Borough Building, the first of a series of talks sponsored by the KPB Land Management Division.
The answers, by the way, are 1950, 1958, a lot of difficult, alternatively muddy/freezing work, and a lot more time, patience and willingness to deal with frontier conditions than common today.
“That was normal,” he said.
Not long after Hershberger moved to town in 1948 he took his first drive to Seward. The Alaska Road Commission, for which he worked as a shop foreman, sent him to pick up freight along with seeing the dentist for a broken tooth.
“I drove from here to Seward and back and I never met a car going over or coming back,” Hershberger said. “… There were many places that if you met a car one of you had to back up, so I’m glad I didn’t meet a car.”
The trip came with a warning. He was told that just outside Cooper Landing at Fenton’s Lodge, about where the Russian River Ferry is today, “You’ll think you’re not on the road, but you really are,” Hershberger said.
“So I get up there and I drove past Fenton’s and I thought, ‘No, this can’t be it, there’s grass growing in the middle of the road, there’s two little tracks here, this can’t be the road. So I backed up to Fenton’s and there was no other way to go. So they were right,” he said.
Road traffic from the central peninsula to Homer was possible in 1949, when the southern portion of the Sterling Highway was completed. This includes completion of a bridge over the Kasilof River and the first Kenai River bridge in Soldotna.
On Sept. 6, 1950, was a dedication ceremony for the new highway at that Soldotna bridge. Two DC-3s full of dignitaries flew down from Anchorage to Kenai for the event, so Road Commission employees rounded up private vehicles for a procession to the bridge. By virtue of having the newest car in the bunch, Hershberger led the motorcade. Among those in attendance were military generals, Anchorage Mayor Z.J. (Zachariah Joshua) Loussac, Alaska Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening and his wife, and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times, as well as a sizable host of locals.
“Somebody asked me when I showed some of these pictures a long time ago, ‘What kind of a crowd did you have? There weren’t very many people here.’ I replied that, ‘Well, the Road Commission set up tables with free food on them and the homesteaders came out of the woods,’” Hershberger said.