By Clark Fair
In autumn 1959, when moose-hunting season was about to open on the Kenai Peninsula and exploration and oil-drilling activity were still going full-tilt on the Swanson River Field, the Standard Oil Company of California posted a sign near its peninsula operations that read, “Please don’t shoot horses or men.”
Most hunters at the time were likely aware that the booming oil business on the Kenai National Moose Range meant that men were scattered throughout the area, and they certainly hoped to encounter plenty of moose. But aside from tales of moose and men, few of them must have expected to encounter any horseflesh.
However, the sign was there for a reason.
According to a 1959 article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Western Operations section of Standard Oil was using horses to pull seismic equipment in the moose- and hunter-infested area west of the Swanson River unit.
The horses were necessary because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which controlled the moose range (as it now controls the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), prohibited the use of mechanical vehicles there during the months in which the ground cover was expected to be soft and therefore susceptible to damage.
Standard Oil was allowed to move equipment via helicopters, but the company opted for horse power over chopper power, largely because of the expense and the frequent unavailability of large helicopters when especially heavy or bulky equipment needed to be moved.
The News-Miner said that Standard Oil’s use of horses was the second such effort in Alaska in recent months. The first involved Nikiski-based independent oilman, Mike Halbouty, who had used a horse-drawn rig to haul seismic survey equipment.
Halbouty had covered approximately 20,000 acres with seismic surveys, and he employed three teams of horses to pull rubber-tired wagons filled with recording and drilling equipment. In addition, 10 pack horses hauled cables, geophones and water for drilling.
Although Halbouty’s method meant no tracks of motorized vehicles on the moose range, it certainly meant plenty of horse tracks.
Soldotnans had waited for at least a decade for it, and now there it sat, at what was then the end of Marydale Drive — Soldotna High School, an impressive concrete edifice to education, all $14 million worth.
Soldotna area students and parents were excited. Soldotna Elementary had opened in the fall of 1960. Soldotna Junior High had opened in late winter 1970. And now it was 1980 — time to open another school.
To give the public a little taste of this two-story facility — complete with a photography lab, large areas for wood shop and metal shop, a shiny new gymnasium, huge commons, music rooms and the central peninsula’s first real auditorium — the school district made plans in July to open the school’s new pool for summer swimming activities.
Almost immediately, the pool became immensely popular.
But there was a problem.
As more traffic began to move up and down the narrow, unpaved passage (named Marydale after early homesteader Dick Gerhardt’s wife, Mary), it became apparent to everyone that the road was a disaster waiting to happen.
Just wide enough to allow two buses to bounce by each other, Marydale lacked ditches for proper drainage and was known to be a virtually impassable quagmire during breakup each spring. Access via unpaved Kobuk Street was often equally as bad.
Officials fretted over the safety of bus passengers and over the safety of teenagers walking to school along the sides of the road.
More than fretting, some officials began to blame each other.
Soldotna City Council members wanted to provide adequate roads and public safety, but they claimed that they lacked proper funds to perform repair work on a street scheduled for a real overhaul the following summer, when more than a million state dollars would be riding to the rescue.
Soldotna Mayor Tom Bearup, who would later declare his intention to run for borough mayor, tried to explain the situation in the local newspapers. He said that any repairs done in 1980 would be undone in 1981 when Marydale was scheduled to be torn apart and widened so that city water and sewer lines could be installed, along with a paved surface, storm drains, sidewalks, curbs and gutters. It was going to be a great road, he said, but not until next year.
School board members were displeased.
“I feel very disturbed. Basically we are not going to get those buses into the high school,” said Carolyn Cannava.
“The city has had three years’ lead time when they were aware there would be a need for a road to that school. If nothing else, they could widen and ditch it,” said Jerry Hobart.
“I believe the city has an obligation to maintain the roads to the school,” said Dick Swarner, the district finance director.
And Justin Maile, a retired Department of Highways engineer who would soon be elected as the next mayor of Soldotna, said he thought there was still time to do the upgrades that year.
In the end there was compromise, but not without some stickiness.
With school set to start Sept. 4, Bearup called the Soldotna City Council in for a special meeting, at which it was proposed that the city use $40,000 (more than $104,000 in today’s money) from its fund balance to pay for the temporary fix, which would remove from the existing roadbed all of the “frost-susceptible material” and replace it with gravel to promote improved drainage, and then widen the road by 5 to 10 feet.
Councilman Al Bishop, who was the only council member to vote against the proposal, said that the means of funding constituted an improper use of city finances, but he was outvoted 4-1. Vern Gehrke, Lorraine Knight, Al Pickarsky and Dan LeBlanc voted yes, and the vacationing Dayne Clark was not at the meeting.
Borough Mayor Don Gilman told the press that the borough had offered the city $1,000 to $2,000 for design assistance, but that plan went awry.
“They wanted us to pay the entire design cost of Marydale from the highway, $33,000 for temporary repairs,” Gilman explained. “So we withdrew our offer.”
Consequently, the city went ahead alone. The Band-Aid approach prevailed for the 1980-81 school year, the angst and acrimony faded, and state dollars did the rest the following summer.