By Jenny Neyman
The Funny River block in the statehood anniversary quilt project represents a scene Patsy Bird remembers well, but not with the comfy coziness a rendering in colorful material and thread would suggest.
The block depicts Bird and her family crossing the Kenai River in their homemade cable car, standing on a 6-foot, open-air platform that was hauled back and forth above the frigid, fast-moving waters of the Kenai by hand-strung cables and a motor from a meat grinder. In the quilt, their fabric replicas look serene and hearty. In reality, the trip was anything but serene for Bird.
“It worked. But I don’t like heights. I wasn’t very crazy about the cable car,” she said. “I liked the barge better than the cable car. The barge was down on the water.”
A call went out for Alaska quilters to design and create quilt blocks representing their communities, with those blocks being sewn into quilts to be displayed as part of the celebration of Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood. The quilts are on display this month at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center.
In Funny River, the call was answered by the Thread Benders quilting group, which decided to work off of a photo showing how the area’s original homesteaders crossed the river before Funny River Road was put in. The photo is of Glen and Bertha Moore, Pat Bird’s parents, but the quilt block design shows Pat and her husband, Elmer, and a baby riding the cable car. Bird’s family built the cable car in 1960.
The Moores moved to Alaska in 1951 with the intention of homesteading on the Kenai Peninsula, but a fire destroyed all their belongings shortly after they got to Anchorage.
“It took them another seven years to get enough together to go ahead and come down,” Bird said.
By then it was 1958. Bird had finished high school in Anchorage and married Elmer. She and Elmer, her parents and her two brothers — the younger one with his wife — all filed on homesteads in the Funny River area. They had an idea of what the land looked like, having frequently fished from Jack and Ruby Bradford’s homestead off Scout Lake Loop Road in Sterling, which is across the river from what ended up being their Funny River homesteads. But the land was not easily accessible.
At first, boats or a barge got them to and from their homesteads.
“We used an 8-foot boat to cross the river. Sometimes when we went there was slush in the river and you just had to push through the slush and get across,” Bird said. “And the barge, I liked the barge. It was easier for the women, as far as I was concerned. But you had to know how you ran it, too. Depending on how you tied the ropes, the current carried it across the river.”
Elmer Bird said they built the barge by banding together oil drums and guided it by a cable strung across the river.
“You’d angle it against the river and let the current push it across, and when you got ready to go back you angled it the other way and the current carried it back. We took everything across that barge — people, supplies, livestock, buildings. I can tell you, cows didn’t like to ride on it,” Elmer said.
In the summer, Elmer could use his boat to get across the river to go to work — in the Swanson River Oil Field, among other jobs. In the winter, the river crossing was even easier. They drove across the ice.
“We loved it when it got cold and the river froze over early because we had transportation across the river,” Bird said.
But in the spring and fall when the river got icy, the family decided to build something that was up and out of the water. Glen Moore came up with the concept of the cable car.
“My dad, although he had hardly any education, was brilliant as far as it came to engineering things like that,” Bird said.
Elmer said they strung cable across the 300 feet of the river and anchored it on either side. They had a commercial-grade meat grinder that they put a sprocket on to run a chain drive to a drive wheel. Elmer rigged a switch so it would run forward and backward, sending the car across the river, then bringing it back. It wasn’t a speedy trip, but it worked.
“It was commercial gear reduction drive on that motor so the thing is it took seven minutes to cross the river because that motor had a reduction on it. It was geared down so low it had power to move it. A regular motor didn’t have the power to move it,” Elmer said.
The control was on the Funny River side at the Moores’ homestead, so the rule was to leave the car on that side. If someone needed to get across, Bertha Moore, or whoever else was nearby, would flip the switch, sending the car across the river to the Sterling side, and reverse it to bring the passengers and cargo back across.
Bird is not one to complain about her early days in Funny River, since she loved being able to homestead there. But if she were to work up a gripe about something, it would be that cable car. It was an open-air, 6-foot platform, at minimum 5 feet above the water, with nothing but the cables to hold onto during the trip across the river. She and Elmer would sit their two kids in the middle.
“It’s a great community, and it’s been a great thing living here. I’ve never regretted being over here,” Bird said. “But maybe we were young enough we just didn’t realize how dangerous it was. That may have been an advantage; we were so young we didn’t know any better. Now I would die to get up there and crawl on a little 6-foot square and put my kids on it and go across the river. Especially in the winter, when it was icy, and we had to go hand over hand.”
The cable car was used for two or three years before Funny River Road was put in, Bird said. Although, calling that first tract a road may be a stretch.
“It was a CAT trail. It was built with $25,000 all the way from where Spenard Builder’s (at the intersection with the Sterling Highway in Soldotna) is all the way out to Funny River. So, you can imagine, it was a CAT trail,” Bird said.
The twisty, turny route wasn’t officially surveyed, Bird said. With limited resources, they just improved on what Mother Nature gave them. Elmer took two state engineers on horseback from their house 12 miles toward Soldotna to the airport. He followed the ridgeline and brought a shovel to check spots for a solid road base.
“I’d stop and dig a test hole. If I found gravel. I’d flag it. If I didn’t, I’d move over until I found gravel. So when they built it, that’s why it was as crooked as it was. The road went from one gravel source to the other to the next one, and it was only one car wide with pullouts,” Elmer said.
The engineers, never having ridden horseback before, were a little sore from the journey. One had to take a day off from work, the other two days because they were so stoved up, Elmer said.
Bird said that when the road went in, 12 miles from the Birds’ home to the airport, it used to take 45 minutes to an hour to get to town, in good conditions. During breakup or other wet times of the year, it could be a much longer trip.
“At one time I can remember we had to have seven different vehicles stationed along the road because the road washed out in that many places. Between us and our folks we had just enough cars to leave them at all the washouts. We’d just have to wade across and trade cars and wade across and take another car,” Bird said. “But it was such a blessing to have the road and not have to cross the river.”
The family maintained the road themselves for two or three years, Bird said, until a school bus started heading out to Funny River and the state took over snowplowing and road work. The road was upgraded and paved around 2000. Before that it was gravel and not always popular with those in the community, Bird said. She never minded it, though.
“I never really complained too much about it because I wanted to homestead and I thought it was great. A lot of the people who came later, especially the women, really complained a lot about it. I drove a school bus on it for years and it was fine. In 12 years, I think I got stuck once,” she said.
The Birds now operate Bird Homestead Golf Course in Funny River. Bird’s parents’ homestead is now owned by the state of Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The remnants of the cable car are relegated to history. The old cable car motor went back to its intended purpose as a meat grinder, and there’s a photo of it at the Soldotna Historical Society museum, Bird said. And now the era is immortalized in fabric as part of the statehood anniversary quilt project.
Bird said it’s an honor to have the quilt block depict her family’s history as the first homesteaders in the area, and that the piece turned out beautifully.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic, and I think that JoAnn Biegel did such a fantastic job on it. I had started a block for that quilt, and when I saw hers I just quit because it is awesome,” Bird said.
Biegel, of the Thread Benders, said the cable car is an important part of the area’s history and the quilting group thought it was an appropriate subject for the quilt block.
“We knew about the history of coming across here. We gave the picture to Steve Hielman, and he drew up a pattern of what he thought we could do,” Biegel said. “It took a lot of time, and in order to get the depth and detail in there it took some thinking and trying and some different techniques to get the block to show exactly what was going on in the picture.”
The block has a border of seagulls, spruce trees and spawning salmon. There’s also a replica of the Funny River community sign that stood on the road for years.
“Everybody would recognize that sign from Funny River,” Biegel said. “People thought it was great. They thought it was very well-representative of this area.”