Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part story concerning the life and accomplishments of Ralph Soberg, a general foreman for the Alaska Road Commission who was in charge of building the Sterling Highway. The first two parts introduced Soberg and provided a description of some early stages in the highway construction. Part three continues the discussion of Soberg’s life and the completion of the highway.
By Clark Fair
At the end of the day, Ralph Soberg would remember the biting insects and whose blood they liked best almost as much as he would recall the purpose of his journey.
On that day in the summer of 1947, the Norwegian-born Soberg and his longtime mentor and boss, Angelo F. “Gil” Ghiglione, climbed into a skiff near the village of Kenai, cranked the outboard motor into life, and headed upriver to determine the best site for a bridge across the Kenai River.
After motoring up to the original survey line (through present-day Soldotna), they measured the distance from riverbank to riverbank and discovered that a bridge at that location would need to be exactly 250 feet long.
They were pleased by the news — but decidedly displeased by their winged attackers.
“It was the black flies Gil and I had for company that day,” Soberg wrote in his memoir, “Bridging Alaska.” “When we went ashore, we were practically inhaling them.”
To escape the swarms, they opted to have lunch on a gravel island just downstream from the bridge site, hoping that the breeze along the water would disperse the insects. “But all we succeeded in doing,” Soberg said, “was finding out that they liked Italian blood better than Viking blood. After they took a few nips from me, they invited all their friends and went to work on Ghiglione. He got the worst of it by far.”
After lunch, they ran the skiff about three-quarters of a mile farther upstream to the mouth of Soldotna Creek, where they picked out a site for the permanent Alaska Road Commission maintenance headquarters that would eventually control the new highway and its ancillary roads.
A big movement of equipment was required before work on the new bridge began in the early spring of 1948, and by that time Soberg had made a big move in his personal life, as well — he had gotten married.
As a young immigrant boy on Unga Island, he had known and teased an even younger girl, Ruth Lauritzen, who had been born on the island but was also the child of Norwegian immigrants. Nearly two full decades after he left the island in search of employment, they found each other again, this time hundreds of miles to the east.
As Ruth Benson and the mother of two young daughters (Jackie and Jerry), she was living in Seward, where Soberg needed to travel frequently for supplies. They got hitched on Ruth’s birthday in December 1947, and the following spring, they all moved to the ARC maintenance camp in Kenai, where they lived in a Quonset hut until a small home was set up for them nearby.
Of course, just getting to Kenai was no easy task, as Ralph’s stepdaughter Jackie Benson Pels, recalls in her book, “Unga Island Girl:” “Most of the new road across the peninsula was considered merely ‘good-weather road,’ but Ralph was eager to get his bride settled and not easily deterred, not even by an avalanche that kept the truck with most of our belongings on it from getting past Kenai Lake.
“Ralph put us — Ruth, Jerry and me — out of the pickup we were all riding in, laughed as he gave us a jaunty wave, and drove alone across the frozen lake with our refrigerator standing in the back of the pickup, and the driver’s door open, ready to jump if the early spring ice should break through. We three hiked over the slide to where the road was clear again, and he picked us up there.”
Later in the spring of 1948, Soberg and Ed Hollier towed the pile driver that had been used to build the bridge at Moose River to the Kenai River bridge site and rigged it up with a boom for handling steel. Over the rough Spur Road, a barge load of steel was then hauled to the site, and a camp for the construction crew was established there, as well.
Once the bridge in Soldotna was complete, ARC crewmen began clearing the survey line south toward the Kasilof River,
site of yet another bridge. It took more than a month to open up the route between the rivers, partly because of the many swamps along the way that needed to be covered in corduroy.
By midwinter of 1948, the road was complete as far south as Clam Gulch, while another construction crew that had begun in Homer had managed to push as far north as Whiskey Gulch. Before the summer of 1949 ended, the two ends had been connected, and the new road was complete — albeit not yet passable on a year-round basis.
The ARC would spend the next year upgrading what had amounted to a tote road into a graveled highway. And at the Soldotna bridge on Sept. 6, 1950, dignitaries and local residents showed up for the official dedication of the Sterling Highway, named for civil engineer Hawley Sterling, who plotted and twice walked the entire route.
Included among the bigwigs were Gen. William E. Kepner, top military commander in Alaska; Ernest Gruening, governor of the territory; Col. John Noyes, head of the ARC; and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times — all delivered to the site that day by Al Hershberger in his shiny new Studebaker. There was a stage and bunting, a ribbon-cutting and plenty of speeches.
Soon, Soberg was placed in charge of all highways on the Kenai Peninsula. He oversaw the building of numerous key roads, the construction of the permanent ARC camp at Soldotna Creek in 1956, the paving of the Sterling Highway in 1958, and the management changeover to the Alaska Division of Highways after statehood.
When the retirement article hit the Peninsula Times on Sept. 17, 1962, Soberg had been building roads and bridges in
Alaska for more than a quarter-century. Ralph and Ruth were departing from their Soldotna Creek living quarters — now the refurbished home of the Kenai Watershed Forum — and they were preparing to travel and spend time with family.
Ralph, who had had no public education beyond the fourth grade in Norway, also returned briefly to commercial fishing, which he’d done as a boy. Then, he took on a foreman job in Southeast Alaska and later re-retired with a full 30 years. But even in his later years, he found it difficult to take it too easy, so he spent time authoring four brief memoirs.
At the end of “Bridging Alaska,” he summed his successful career:
In the beginning: “Construction work was new to me. But my rigging and splicing skills gave me a good start, and having a certain amount of Norwegian persistence didn’t seem to hurt.”
Many years later Soberg had had to fire a crewman, a power shovel operator, from a bridge job at Big Delta. “Before he left, he came up to me pretty mad and said, ‘Do you know why they didn’t draft you into the military, you no-good S.O.B. Norwegian?’ ‘No,’ I said. I thought I’d let him go ahead and get rid of some steam. He said, ‘Your square head wouldn’t fit into the round helmet!’ ‘OK,’ I said. ‘We’ll let it go at that.’”
Naming of the Sterling Highway
In September 1948, the Juneau Alaska Sunday Press eulogized Hawley Sterling, the civil engineer who had surveyed the route for the highway between the Cooper Landing area and Homer:
“The death of Hawley Sterling early this month removed from the Alaska scene one of the men who, in his professional career, was outstanding and … did as much as any other to make possible Alaska’s development. He ranked high as a civil engineer. His earlier work as an engineer on the Alaska-Yukon Boundary survey paved the way for his later career on the Alaskan Engineering Commission as a locating engineer … and finally as assistant chief engineer on the Alaska Road Commission.
“It was on the ARC that he achieved some of his best work. He knew Alaska’s few roads like the palm of his hand…. His work in the field, year after year, kept him even ahead of developments and enabled him to envision where the most needed roads would be located. The outstanding project of his ARC career was the Glenn Highway, linking Gulkana and Anchorage. Its construction cost still stands as a record. Today it is probably the most used road in Alaska. Today engineers and construction men marvel at what he accomplished with so little money with which to work. Word comes to us that his ashes are to be scattered over this highway. It is a fitting tribute.
“We have highways named after a number of engineers formerly with the Alaska Road Commission — Richardson, Steese, Elliott, and Glenn. Why not name one for Hawley Sterling in recognition of his brilliant and efficient services?”
Two years later, the Juneau editor got his wish, and the Sterling Highway was named in tribute of the man who had engineered its design.