By Clark Fair
When Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond stood in a driving, late-autumn rain and dutifully participated in the chilly ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge, he may have flashed briefly on the irony that he was out there getting wet only because the weather had been too bad for him to fly on to another engagement in Nome and Kotzebue.
Fortunately, the damp outdoor proceedings in Kenai that day — Oct. 11, 1975 — were mercifully brief. Soon, the proper words had been spoken and the official ribbon had been severed, and then the sizable crowd of participants and onlookers had retired indoors to the new Kenai Courthouse for the bridge dedication ceremony, the obligatory speeches, and, of course, the refreshments.
Although the bridge had been opened to traffic since July 15, the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony had been postponed twice before, and officials seemed determined this time not to allow the delays to continue. After all, the structure had taken two and a half years to complete, had cost more than double the original estimates, and had actually entered the serious discussion stage more than a decade before Hammond’s arrival.
In fact, on Page 1 of the Feb. 2, 1962, Cheechako News, a brief article had announced that a survey had begun for a new bridge over the Kenai River to connect Beaver Loop Road to Kalifornsky Beach Road. In those days, Beaver Loop extended from its current western terminus all the way up to the Spur Highway.
When the bridge was constructed, however, Beaver Loop was truncated, and the connecting ribbon of asphalt from the Spur to Kalifornsky Beach Road was given the innocuous moniker, Bridge Access Road. Seven years after the announcement of the bridge survey, a public hearing was held in Kenai to help Highway Department officials determine which of the proposed routes (or corridors) for the new bridge would be built.
The May 27, 1969, hearing offered these four alternatives:
- Route A: The most expensive proposal, this route was slated to begin at about Mile 14 of Kalifornsky Beach Road and aim almost directly north toward the river mouth, where it would cross just below the mudflats used by nesting gulls and connect to Kenai via a high point on the bluff. Highway officials estimated that it would cost $4 million for this 2.64-mile route that would include by far the longest bridge span, approximately 2,200 feet.
- Route B: This is, ultimately, the route that was selected and the one that is familiar today to area motorists. It was planned to start at Mile 16 of Kalifornsky Beach Road, to cross the river just upstream of Mile 5, and then to connect to a modified version of the western end of Beaver Loop Road. At 3.28 miles, it was almost one and a half times the length of Route A, but the bridge span was only 1,000 feet, and the cost was $1.88 million. It was easily the most direct alternative for reaching the heart of Kenai.
- Route C: The least expensive proposal ($1.74 million), this route was also the second-longest at nearly four miles. The cost savings came from the fact that it featured the shortest bridge span, only about 800 feet. Starting near Mile 17 of Kalifornsky Beach Road — near the current site of KRSM radio — this route would head north into a large river meander and cross at about Mile 6.5, and would then roughly parallel the north side of Beaver Loop Road before connecting to the Spur Highway just west of Kenai Central High School.
- Route D: This was the longest route, and would be the second-most expensive to build. Its starting point was identical to Route A, but it quickly turned to the northeast and crossed the Kenai River just downstream from Mile 4. Continuing its northeasterly direction, it then connected to Beaver Loop Road at almost exactly the same place as Route B. At 4.23 miles, Route D featured a bridge span of 1,200 feet and a cost of $2.08 million.
At the public hearing, which was conducted by Charles Matlock, a district engineer from Anchorage, the Highway Department let it be known that the new bridge, regardless of the route selected, would be a Federal Aid project and would feature a 5-foot sidewalk and 30-foot roadway with a paved surface.
Matlock said he would like to see Kalifornsky Beach Road paved, too, before the bridge was opened. Nearly 20 members of the public spoke at the hearing, and the vast majority favored Route B.
Kenai Mayor Eugene Morin and Kenai City Planning Commission member Ruby Coyle spoke in favor of Route B, with Morin adding a caution against routes A and D. Route A, he said, might obstruct development of the lower river, and Route D was too circuitous. Some claimed that Route C might run through a subdivision near the high school.
One of the few to speak in favor of any route besides B was John Hakala, the manager of the Kenai National Moose Range. Hakala said he favored Route A because it would cause the least disturbance to wildlife, particularly migratory waterfowl.
Prior to the opening of the bridge, anyone living south of the Kenai River had to drive the Kenai Spur Highway in order to reach Kenai. For some residents of Kalifornsky Beach Road, the bridge reduced the length of their Kenai trips by 30 to 40 minutes. For the then-fledgling community college, too, the bridge was important.
Buoyed by the belief that a bridge would one day unite Kalifornsky Beach Road with Kenai made it easier in the next few years for the college — then an itinerant institution centered at KCHS — to select a permanent site near the mouth of Slikok Creek, roughly equidistant between Kenai and Soldotna. At the hearing, Matlock said that a route decision was expected within two months, with construction set to begin at the end of 1970.
The project would take “two seasons” to complete, he said. Despite those best intentions, however, bridge construction did not begin until 1973, and the final cost rose to $4.69 million. The construction of the bridge was a first of its kind for Alaska, since its span was “launched” across the river, rather than being placed there in sections by a crane.
The launching involved the on-site fabrication of the span and then pushing it incrementally into place from one side to the other. Construction was handled jointly for the first two years by Burgess Construction Company and Willamette Construction.
After that, litigation altered the arrangement, and then Burgess became the managing contractor, overseeing the work done by hired sub-contractors. In 1973, about the same time that bridge construction began, 22-year-old Warren Ames, practicing with a friend for the Kenai River Regatta, overturned a canoe in the middle-river rapids and was drowned.
The Kenai man had grown up in the area, was an artist and musician, and was a son of two prominent Kenai residents, Phil and Betty Ames. In March 1974, the Alaska Legislature passed a resolution naming the bridge in his honor.