Almanac: Highway construction heats up — Early Kenai Peninsula road crew battled blaze, other challenges

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part story concerning the life and accomplishments of Ralph Soberg, a foreman for the Alaska Road Commission who was in charge of building the Sterling Highway from its junction with the Seward Highway near Tern Lake to its terminus in Homer. Part one, last week, introduced Soberg and provided an overview of some early stages in the highway construction. Part two, this week, discusses Soberg’s early personal history and the continuation of the highway project.

Correction: In the caption for a pair of photographs for part one of the Ralph Soberg story last week, the Redoubt Reporter reported incorrectly that the dedication for the Sterling Highway was held in Soldotna in 1949. Actually, the ceremony took place on Sept. 6, 1950.

By Clark Fair

Photos courtesy of Hardscratch Press. Ralph Soberg prepares to dive in Juneau in 1934 at his first bridge-building job.

Photos courtesy of Hardscratch Press. Ralph Soberg prepares to dive in Juneau in 1934 at his first bridge-building job.

Redoubt Reporter

From 1933 to 1963, the federal government ran a prison on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco. Known as “The Rock,” it was foreboding and grim, a difficult place to be stuck for any period of time. In 1947, directly in the heart of this period, a construction crew from the Alaska Road Commission attempting to build the Sterling Highway was blasting its way through a high rock bluff between Hidden and Skilak lakes. During the previous winter, members of the slashing crew that had camped there to clear the trees had dubbed the area “Alcatraz” because they feared they’d never get out.

According to construction foreman Ralph Soberg, the slashing crew had worked in temperatures that sometimes dipped to minus 30 or minus 40.

“They used to tell about the hotcakes they cooked that were frozen by the time they got them on the table,” Soberg wrote in his memoir, “Bridging Alaska.” “The poor fellows finally just quit and went back over to Moose Pass and got on the train for Anchorage.”

(For a time, nearby Rock Lake was also known as Alcatraz Lake.)

Neither clearing a path nor blasting the rock was the biggest obstacle facing the ARC in the summer of 1947, however. That honor went to the forest fire christened the Kenai Burn, which began in early June near the ARC’s Hidden Creek camp and eventually scorched more than 300,000 acres of the central Kenai Peninsula.

“We dodged that thing off and on all summer,” Soberg wrote. “At first we were pretty well protected at Hidden Creek, but four or five days after the fire started, it all at once made a switch and raced up toward the camp. We had about a thousand boxes of dynamite in the middle of our clearing and a supply of fuses and detonator caps about 400 feet away in a smaller clearing. The fire came boiling through so fast that before we could even think, it was crossing the road just below us.”

Since the crew was in camp for lunch, Soberg ordered the men to load one truck with explosives and another with detonator caps, then to drive off rapidly in opposite directions. They were able to save only about half of the dynamite, however, while the rest was consumed by the forest fire, which was so hot, Soberg said, that it melted the windshield on his pickup before burning the vehicle entirely.

“Hot coals were raining all over us,” he wrote. “Several of the crew tents burned up. … (Emil) Shoup, our cook, hustled back and forth with buckets of water from the creek, throwing it over the cook tent and the dining tent to keep them from burning up. By golly, he saved them both.”

The fire was also hot enough to heat the freshwater pipe the crew had installed in Hidden Creek and turn their cold water tap into a hot water faucet.

“That summer the fire jumped the road in many places where we were working,” Soberg wrote. “It went

Alaska Road Commission crews working on road construction on the Kenai Peninsula faced some challenging terrain.

Alaska Road Commission crews working on road construction on the Kenai Peninsula faced some challenging terrain.

underground in moss and roots, and some trees burned for months. Flying sparks burned the seat cushions of the shovels and the dozers as we worked. We had to patrol all the time. The fire wasn’t declared out until a year later.”

Although fire and the terrain presented challenges during the years of highway construction, Soberg kept a steady hand. Accustomed to handling difficult tasks and overcoming adversity, Soberg had spent a lifetime not taking the easy way out while trying to do the job right.

Born as Rolf Mørk Johannessen in Soberg, Norway, on Sept. 10, 1907, he immigrated with his parents and siblings in 1919 to Unga Island, the largest of the Shumagin Islands off the Alaska Peninsula, where they lived and fished out of a settlement they called Hardscratch. It was in Alaska that the family adopted the name of its former home for its new surname.

Also on Unga Island at that time was the Lauritzen family (also formerly of Norway), including young Ruth, who had been born in Unga and who, as a divorcee nearly two decades later in Seward, would reunite with Ralph Soberg and take him to be her second husband.

In those intervening decades, Soberg had a series of adventures before settling into a life building roads and bridges. He left home at age 17 to look for employment, struggled for survival during an attempted three-month trapping adventure with his brother, Fred, and a friend on Montague Island, and for two years in the late 1920s was the skipper of a supply boat for a moonshine bootleg gang (called “the Slippery Four”) that operated out of Juneau.

After fishing commercially in Bristol Bay and working as an engineer on a power barge out of Seattle in 1933, Soberg returned to Juneau the following year and got a job as a diver/rigger-crane operator for the Dishaw Construction Company on the Juneau-Douglas bridge project. “There I found my niche,” he said.

“It was rough work, demanding and dangerous, but I loved it,” he continued. “For 30 years, I learned as I went. Maybe my lack of formal education was an advantage — I didn’t know enough to consider anything impossible.”

From 1934 until 1945, he was a part of bridge and road construction efforts throughout Alaska, from Eklutna and Nizina to the Knik

This photo of catskinner Red Jaynes was taken somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula. He’s using a tracked vehicle to tow a carry-all to a construction site during work on the Sterling Highway project.

This photo of catskinner Red Jaynes was taken somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula. He’s using a tracked vehicle to tow a carry-all to a construction site during work on the Sterling Highway project.

River, from the park near Mount McKinley to Takotna and Big Delta. In 1945, A.F. “Gil” Ghiglione, whom Soberg had befriended back in Juneau, was the chief engineer for the ARC, and he employed Soberg in the rebuilding of the washed-out road from the mainland across Mud Bay to the dock at the end of the Homer Spit.

The Mud Bay job led Soberg to the foreman position on the Sterling Highway construction project, and the completion of the Skilak Lake and Moose River sections of the project led him to the Y junction that would soon become known as Soldotna.

Further reading

Readers interested in greater detail concerning the life of Ralph and Ruth Soberg can find five books available from Hardscratch Press:

  • “Survival on Montague Island” — the first memoir written by Ralph Soberg, detailing in a few dozen pages the adventure he had with his brother and a friend when they attempted to make money trapping in the winter of 1925.
  • “Confessions of an Alaska Bootlegger” — the second memoir by Soberg, chronicling his brief Prohibition-era career as the skipper of a supply ship for an illegal bootlegging gang known in Juneau as “the Slippery Four.”
  • “Bridging Alaska: From the Big Delta to the Kenai” — the third of Soberg’s memoirs, illustrating most of his nearly three decades as a builder of roads and bridges throughout Alaska.
  • “Captain Hardscratch and Others” — the fourth and final memoir by Soberg, featuring several of the author’s recollections of growing up as a Norwegian immigrant on a remote island in Alaska.
  • “Unga Island Girl: Ruth’s Story” — written by Jackie Benson Pels, telling the history of her mother, Ruth, in great detail, loving anecdotes, and a wide assortment of photographs and other graphics.

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