By Jenny Neyman
Not many Kenai Peninsula residents these days would know, off the top of their head, when the Sterling Highway was completed, much less when it was paved, what those projects entailed, nor what it was like to get from one place to another in those days.
Not many Kenai Peninsula residents are like Soldotna’s Al Hershberger. If one were to design the perfect local historian, Hershberger would be the result. Not only has he been witness to 65 years of development of the area, moving to Kenai in May 1948, he’s been actively involved in some of its highlights, having worked for the Alaska Road Commission and being a radio communications enthusiast. He’s as gregarious as he is curious, leading to decades of collecting information — mostly from simply stopping to chat, either in person or over the radio waves. To boot he’s a pilot and avid photographer, with camera at the ready to document a half century of developments around town.
On Friday, Hershberger shared some of those photos and memories in a slideshow presentation at the George A. Navarre Borough Building, the first of a series of talks sponsored by the KPB Land Management Division.
The answers, by the way, are 1950, 1958, a lot of difficult, alternatively muddy/freezing work, and a lot more time, patience and willingness to deal with frontier conditions than common today.
“That was normal,” he said.
Not long after Hershberger moved to town in 1948 he took his first drive to Seward. The Alaska Road Commission, for which he worked as a shop foreman, sent him to pick up freight along with seeing the dentist for a broken tooth.
“I drove from here to Seward and back and I never met a car going over or coming back,” Hershberger said. “… There were many places that if you met a car one of you had to back up, so I’m glad I didn’t meet a car.”
The trip came with a warning. He was told that just outside Cooper Landing at Fenton’s Lodge, about where the Russian River Ferry is today, “You’ll think you’re not on the road, but you really are,” Hershberger said.
“So I get up there and I drove past Fenton’s and I thought, ‘No, this can’t be it, there’s grass growing in the middle of the road, there’s two little tracks here, this can’t be the road. So I backed up to Fenton’s and there was no other way to go. So they were right,” he said.
Road traffic from the central peninsula to Homer was possible in 1949, when the southern portion of the Sterling Highway was completed. This includes completion of a bridge over the Kasilof River and the first Kenai River bridge in Soldotna.
On Sept. 6, 1950, was a dedication ceremony for the new highway at that Soldotna bridge. Two DC-3s full of dignitaries flew down from Anchorage to Kenai for the event, so Road Commission employees rounded up private vehicles for a procession to the bridge. By virtue of having the newest car in the bunch, Hershberger led the motorcade. Among those in attendance were military generals, Anchorage Mayor Z.J. (Zachariah Joshua) Loussac, Alaska Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening and his wife, and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times, as well as a sizable host of locals.
“Somebody asked me when I showed some of these pictures a long time ago, ‘What kind of a crowd did you have? There weren’t very many people here.’ I replied that, ‘Well, the Road Commission set up tables with free food on them and the homesteaders came out of the woods,’” Hershberger said.
The bridge had been completed just as Hershberger moved to town, so he worked more on the road heading north of Kenai, the Kenai Spur Highway.
“And we didn’t get out too far that first winter (not quite to Salamatof Lake). It was a rough job because it was very cold early that year,” Hershberger said.
So cold that he scheduled a mechanic on a night shift to keep the equipment warmed up and running throughout the night.
“To make sure the equipment started. Because you’d get up in the morning and run out there on the job at 8 o’clock, and nothing would start,” Hershberger said.
“We ran it up until almost December, I think, before we shut it down. Normally all road construction stopped in the winter. … You would be terminated as soon as you saw termination dust (the first snowfall visible on the mountaintops) — that’s where the expression came from,” he said.
Air travel was the other option at the time, and though it was a routine mode of transportation, it presented experiences that are far from routine today. Two airlines served Kenai in the 1950s, Pacific Northern Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
“We had nicknames for them. PNA was ‘peanut airlines’ and Alaska Air was ‘the elastic airlines.’ And later on when I was flying out of McGrath, Northern Consolidated flew out of McGrath, and they called it, affectionately, ‘northern constipated,’” Hershberger said.
On Thanksgiving Day 1949, Hershberger was flying on an almost-empty flight to Anchorage via PNA, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, the same time as an Alaska Airlines flight was headed north. The pilots knew each other and took the opportunity of a nice day and few yet friendly passengers to make the flight a little more interesting.
“(They) agreed to fly formation back to Anchorage. Now in those days the airlines were a lot more relaxed than they are today. Now you wouldn’t fly any airline to Anchorage in formation like this,” Hershberger said, noting the photo on-screen of a close-up view of the pilot’s window and wing strut of the Alaska Airlines plane.
“It was not a telephoto lens so we were very close, as you can see by this picture. We got almost to Moose Point and Dave (the PNA pilot) said, ‘Ah, this is too slow, so he dumped her down and we ran full speed back to Anchorage,’” Hershberger said.
Another photo shows an Alaska Air plane parked on the Cook Inlet beach, with Jeanne Jackinsky, of Ninilchik, and Sig Krogstad, the pilot, holding a fire extinguisher, standing in front of it.
This was Jeanne’s first trip to Alaska, she and George Jackinsky, who grew up in Ninilchik, had just gotten married.
“They got on the plane in Anchorage and took off. They got to Point Possession and the cabin started filling up with smoke. Sig said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a fire.’ So they landed at Point Possession on the beach. Sig grabbed the fire extinguisher, went out, put the fire out … took the picture, and they got back in the airplane and went off. So Jeanne today still talks about her first impression of Alaska,” Hershberger said.
Beach landings, minus the fire, weren’t all that uncommon, Hershberger said.
“If it was a nice day and the tide was right, they were flying back and had plenty of time and the passengers didn’t object, the pilot would land on the beach by a set-netter friend of his. They’d stop in, have a cup of coffee, visit and then take off. This was normal,” Hershberger said.
Finding a decent landing spot inland, by contrast, was not as normal.
A 1952 aerial photo shows a narrow, treeless strip along a bend of the Kenai River in Soldotna, about where the “Y” is now.
“This airstrip was Frank and Marge Mullen’s airstrip. I asked Marge one day if I could use the airstrip. She said, ‘Well, you can use it if you can get in and out.’ We didn’t have an airstrip in Soldotna then. I had my little (Piper J-3 Cub), underpowered. I’d get in and out, but if I had somebody heavy with me … we took a couple of the treetops out coming in and going out.”
An airstrip was built in Soldotna about 1955, where Wilson Lane is today. That Mullen airstrip eventually became Lingonberry Lane.
In other evolutions, 1951 saw the beginning phase of construction for what would become the reason for a large influx of population to the Kenai area — Wildwood, at first a military station bringing personnel and their families to town, and later turned into the prison that it is today.
It was the largest facility built in the area at the time, but it started under a secretive shroud.
The Road Commission did maintenance work for any governmental agents that came through town — FBI, military, etc. And Hershberger being a shop foreman, often interacted with the visitors. In 1949 an Army captain by the name of Nolan and eight enlisted men from Fairbanks came to town and rented a house across from where the American Legion is now in Kenai.
“And they strung up a real weird antenna in the front yard. It looked like two big sausages,” Hershberger said.
Being a self-described radio nut, Hershberger couldn’t resist a visit.
“They were doing something upstairs. They wouldn’t let me go upstairs, but they said that they were sitting there 24 hours a day and receiving code over the radio,” he said.
They’d put on headphones and type out what they were listening to, and every 30 days Capt. Nolan would pack all the typed papers in a locked briefcase, fly back to his headquarters in Virginia right outside of Washington, D.C., and turn the papers in for analysis.
The most he got out of them was how far away the stations were to which they were listening, but not locations or content.
“And they told me they were so many thousand miles away, but they wouldn’t tell me where they were. Well, in 1949, you didn’t have to be from the deep end of the gene pool to figure out that they came from Russia, and that’s what they were doing. And they told me that they were going all over Alaska looking for the best radio reception spots to receive signals from somewhere,” Hershberger said.
Later, after leaving Kenai, the crew also tested reception in Kodiak. Later on Hershberger saw Capt. Nolan again in Kenai and asked what he’d been up to. This time he was more forthcoming.
“He said, ‘We are going to build an installation. And it’s going to be either in Kenai area or on a location on Kodiak Island, the decision is up to me. I’m right now inclined to put it in Kenai because the fishing is better here than it is in our place in Kodiak.’ That’s why we have Wildwood station,” Hershberger said.
Hershberger put the Kenai’s radio reception to the test immediately following the Good Friday Earthquake on March 27, 1964.
By that time he had his own radio and TV repair shop in Soldotna, near where Peninsula Center Mall is today. At about 5:30 p.m. the day of the quake, “I decided to kick back and stop for the day. I was tired of fixing TVs,” he said.
He sat back in his chair and turned on his TV to watch a rerun of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
“And we were five minutes into this and there was a little shaking, and then the TV was on a stand and it started rolling around. Then the TV went out, the power went out and the shaking kept on and on and on and on,” Hershberger said.
Next door at Ken’s Hardware, a stack of 24-foot pipe cut loose, crashing with “ding-dong chime sounds as they fell down. The trees were bending over hitting the ground, the power line was whipping up and down. A car had stopped in front of my place, it was going up and down and the guy was in there shaking his head,” Hershberger said.
The shaking stopped.
“Finally,” he said. “So I was wondering, ‘How widespread is this?’”
He had a battery-operated radio, which he fired up and tuned to the various aviation stations in the area, which regularly broadcast the current conditions and weather forecast.
“So I turned on Kenai, it’s dead. I turned on Anchorage, it’s dead. I turned on Homer, it’s dead,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘This is widespread. This is bad.’”
He tried the HAM band and heard a voice he recognized, coming from Valdez.
“He was yelling ‘mayday’ in Valdez. Now I had never heard anyone yell ‘mayday’ on the HAM band before. So when I found out everything was dead — Anchorage and all around and the peninsula and the whole thing — and Valdez was yelling ‘mayday,’ you can imagine what went through my mind,” Hershberger said.
“So I went down to the bowling alley,” he said.
That was a general community gathering place at the time, and the owner, Burton Carver, was the mayor of Soldotna. He also had a generator, which was fired up by the time Hershberger arrived.
“He said, ‘Bring your communications gear down here and set them up,’” Hershberger said.
He did, along with Ed Back.
“And we passed communications all night long. Mostly in Alaska at the time. The next morning I went back to my place, I had a bigger antenna and had power then. I spent about two days sending messages to the Lower 48,” he said.
A few days after the quake the demand for assuring the world that the Kenai, at least, was still mostly intact, let up and Hershberger flew over to Cooper Landing. All along the way, all the previously frozen lakes were broken into huge ice chunks. The Kenai River bridge at the outlet of Kenai Lake had collapsed.
In about a week the military flew a Bailey bridge into Soldotna, and the Alaska Department of Transportation drove it out to Cooper Landing and installed it. About 10 days after the quake Hershberger drove to Seward over that bridge and saw the mess that was the town’s waterfront, including a photo of a locomotive on its side at the railroad yard.
Seldovia also was hit hard. Much of the town’s commerce was built on boardwalk right on the waterfront — the hotel, bars and canneries. Hershberger had a photo from his first flight to Seldovia in 1955, showing the built-up waterfront, and another from long after the quake, where none of those builders were there anymore.
“It’s all gone, of course, because Seldovia settled 7, 8 or 9 or 10 feet — I don’t know how much. And when the first high tides came in the hotel, the bars, the canneries were all flooded with water, so there was really nothing to do but tear it out, and they did. They had complete urban renewal to the extreme,” Hershberger said.
Being witness to 65 years of change on the peninsula might seem extreme at times, as in a series of aerial pictures showing more and more development, starting in 1950 of Kenai where about all that was notable was the new school being built and, “The other important thing showing here is Kenai Joe’s,” Hershberger said.
A 1960 aerial shot of Soldotna shows the old movie theater about where Beemun’s is now, and a gravel pit in the spot that would become the Borough Building. By 1975 the Borough Building was done, the elementary school was built and added onto, the Kenai River bridge had been replaced.
“You can see quite a few changes there,” Hershberger said
That’s what sticks out the most from the photos and Hershberger’s descriptions is the overall feeling of change — in buildings, infrastructure, culture and way of life.
Maybe not quite as many names and dates as once would have accompanied such a presentation, but far more than Hershberger likes to give himself credit for.
“When you get to be 88 years old the old mental hard drive get a bit fragmented. And unlike Microsoft, nobody makes a defragmenter for mental hard drives,” he said.
Microsoft also never built hard drives that last as long as Hershberger has been compiling, storing and retrieving the information stored in his files. Then again, Microsoft doesn’t make the Hershberger model of local history buff. Not many do.