By Clark Fair
As far as Rudy Johnson was concerned, crossing the river had always been at best an inconvenience and at worst a dangerous maneuver, but when his wife nearly drowned in 1967, that was the last straw. It was time to make this problem go away.
In his home on the Buckskin Ranch across the Fraser River from Williams Lake, British Columbia, Johnson began searching for a solution. Nearly a thousand miles away in rural Southcentral Alaska, he found one.
Thus began a series of logistical migraines. But Johnson was a man accustomed to overcoming obstacles.
Just after World War II, Rudy and Helen Johnson had moved to the plateau between the Fraser River canyon and the Cariboo Mountains in central British Columbia. They started ranching and running a sawmill on Buckskin Creek on the west side of the river, about six miles downstream from Soda Creek, where a cable-operated ferry comprised the nearest available mode of transportation to the river’s eastern bank.
Other similar ferries were available farther north at Alexandra and Marguerite; otherwise, only two bridges spanned the river in a nearly 75-mile stretch between the east-side cities of Williams Lake and Quesnel. Consequently, west-side residents, bearing loads large or small, suffered the inconvenience of driving tens of miles out of their way, or else they confronted the potential risks of the ferry crossings.
In the early days, the Johnsons usually hauled loads of logs to town via the Soda Creek Ferry, a means they preferred over driving the long way on what were often rut-filled, swampy roads.
In winter, when ice choked the Fraser River, west-side residents wishing to gain the other side at Soda Creek had to pull themselves across in a hanging metal cage. In 1948, according to a 2004 Sage Birchwater story in the Williams Lake Tribune, Rudy brought his pregnant wife to the Williams Lake hospital using the Soda Creek cage. Worried that she might give birth during the crossing, Rudy used bailing twine to tie together the bottoms of Helen’s coveralls. They crossed successfully, and Helen gave birth to twins later that day.
But Helen courted disaster in May 1967 when she attempted to help the ferryman at Soda Creek dislodge a log that was blocking the landing.
“She was swept under the ferry but fortunately was able to grab a branch on the other side, and the ferryman pulled her out,” Birchwater wrote. “But this was too much for the rancher.”
Determined to erect a bridge across the Fraser — and do it by himself, if necessary — Rudy went into action.
He developed a plan, made preliminary drawings, selected a site and began a broad search for a used bridge for sale. At the time, according to Irene Stangoe’s book, Looking Back at the “Cariboo-Chilcotin,” the Fraser River was not considered a navigable waterway at the time, so Johnson was able to avoid the need for a permit to build.
Months later, through some American contacts, Johnson learned of a bridge in Alaska in which he might be interested. The 200-ton, 300-foot-long bridge, owned by a junk dealer, lay in sections on a gravel lot in Crown Point, near Moose Pass, on the Kenai Peninsula, and it could be his for the low, low price of 40,000 American dollars. (In 1968, $40,000 had the same buying power as about $270,000 does in 2013.)
Manufactured by the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, the bridge had originally been purchased and erected in 1948 by the Alaska Road Commission when it was building a new highway along the western Kenai Peninsula. On Sept. 6, 1950, its Soldotna location over the Kenai River had been the site of the official dedication of the Sterling Highway.
In 1965, the state Division of Highways replaced the two-lane bridge with a four-lane span to match its plans to widen the highway through town, thus avoiding a bottleneck at the crossing. Also, the wooden decking of the old bridge was deemed not sturdy enough to withstand the increasing amount of heavy freight-hauling traffic on the Sterling Highway.
According to Melvin Tachick, who began living at Mile 11 of Funny River Road in 1962, the old bridge used to vibrate terribly in the years before it was replaced. “I could hear the bridge rattling when the trucks went across it,” he recalled. “That was our old GPS system in those days. You knew which way town was.”
After the old bridge was broken down into small sections, it was stored in the gravel construction yard of
Tachick’s father, Paul, a former ARC employee. Paul Tachick, who owned the property immediately across the river from Soldotna, leased a portion of his yard to the Juneau-based bridge-building company of Cole & Paddock.
After a few years, Cole & Paddock, which had installed the replacement bridge in Soldotna, moved the old bridge sections to a gravel lot near the railroad tracks in Crown Point, where it lay until Rudy Johnson shelled out $40,000.
After Johnson bought the bridge, he hired three men to accompany him in February 1968 to Crown Point, where they spent a week disassembling and labeling all 3,300 pieces (not including bolts, according to Johnson). The men piled all the parts into four rail cars and had them hauled into Seward, where they were loaded onto a barge that would cruise the Inside Passage to the British Columbia port of Prince Rupert. From there, the bridge parts would travel overland to Prince George and on to Williams Lake.
Johnson, who was born in northern Sweden and had little formal education, found some shareholders to help him with the finances and hired Victoria-based engineer Howard Elder to help him erect the bridge properly. They spent six months and $200,000 completing the project. By November 1968, the river had been spanned. Johnson attempted to convince the provincial government to pay for and take control of the bridge, but he was rebuffed.
To recoup some of his investment, he began charging a toll to commercial vehicles, while allowing private vehicles to pass freely. Ten years later, the province opted to purchase the bridge and assume control of its maintenance. Despite the official takeover, however, the bridge never lost its identity as the Rudy Johnson Bridge.
Now bright orange, the bridge is a tourist attraction, and passers-by have been known to occasionally spot Rudy, now age 90, nearby.
In 2004, Williams Lake documentary filmmaker, Barb Grossman, released a film about Johnson’s bridge-building efforts. Grossman also succeeded in convincing officials in the Cariboo Regional District to classify the bridge as an engineering heritage site.
“I’ve never regretted doing it,” Johnson said in Stangoe’s book. He maintained that the bridge-building project could not be accomplished today. “Too much red tape and bureaucracy,” he said.