A Bridge-Building in Alaska

Charles Shirley January 1 1911

A Bridge-Building in Alaska

Charles Shirley January 1 1911

A Bridge-Building in Alaska

Charles Shirley

I HAD nothing to do with the building of the bridge so I am free to speak of it. I had business in Alaska, but not in bridge-building. I happened to see it when I was there and it was worth the whole journey. The “Prince George” carried me up from Vancouver and set me down at Skagway. Thereafter I took other steamers and other modes of transportation on land and river and mountain trail, until civilization faded away behind me on the horizon of the Pacific and the mountains of Alaska stood out—and ignored mere humanity.

It was there that I came upon the bridge. It was there that I came upon Hawkins, the Chief Engineer, and his men. They had been recruited down in the States. Down there, they were ordinary steel workers. They kicked when they had a piece of work to do that was not in the schedule. They did what they liked about working overtime. They had their union and the union “had” whatever engineer employed the men. But here I found it different. I found Hawkins and his army working like one family, like a family of Cyclops, to build the bridge—this particular bridge I am talking about. It was not a question of pay and tobacco and enough sleep. It was not a question of getting a day’s work done and quitting, but it was — The Bridge! and the waters under the bridge.

It is finished now and it is quite commonplace to contemplate. It is not the longest bridge in the world, far from it.

I’ve built longer myself. It is not the heaviest in the world, nor the widest, nor the highest, but as Jimmy Bain, the Cockney engineer, who ran the little donkey engine at the far end of it used to say, it was the “cussedest” bridge that ever was dreamed of. But Bain did not say cussed; it was another word. The bridges over Niagara are high. The new Quebec Bridge will have the longest single span in the world. The bridges at Brooklyn have their features and there are one or two in South America that have certain points of interest which are very noteworthy but of no significance, except to engineers. This particular case of the bridge in Alaska, was a case of human interest. It was a case of—The Bridge ! and the waters under the bridge, as I said before.

The Copper River cuts off one part of Alaska from the rest. You may land on the shores of this Arctic territory from the Behring Sea, but you have not then arrived where you can cross into the hinterland of the Copper River. At least, I should say, you might cross with a guide, on a raft or in a canoe at certain of the few placid stretches between the rapids in the Copper River. But you could not, for instance, take a train across —until this bridge was built. And it was most essential that one should be able to take a train across, for then, and only then, could the copper deposits in the interior of the country be brought to the markets of the rest of the world.

Glaciers feed the river with icebergs in summer, in the winter it freezes seven feet deep. The wealthy corporation that wished to gain access with its railroad to the mines—the richest copper mines in the world—had built the road up one shore of the river until it came to the one spot where a bridge might be thrown across. The “steel” came that far and stopped. The banks of the river anywhere but at this point, were embarrassed with glaciers and a cub knows you can’t build foundations in moving ice. So the bridge had to cross the river at this particular point, and the great corporation sent for some of the more famous engineers and told them to go up to Alaska and build the bridge. It’s an off-hand way some general managers have. They say, “Two million: June 29th,” and by that they expect the engineering firm to understand the amount it is to spend for the work, and the time it is to be completed.

But the engineers came back from this Alaska matter and said they could not undertake the work. They turned it down, one after another. The general manager wanted to know why and they told him. They told him in cold language that nobody could get his work done if an iceberg weighing seven thousand tons was going to drop off the Glacier —Miles Glacier, just above the bridge, and saunter down at twelve miles an hour to wipe out piling and false-work and scows and engines and everything else. They told this to the general manager and the board of directors and passed on—all but one.

Hawkins’ firm undertook it and told Hawkins to do it. So Hawkins picked up the men lie had known on other jobs of his, and took them up north. Some were from New York and some from ’Frisco. Some were from Montreal, and two from Vancouver and Victoria. So they went up there and started.

* * =t=

I HAD talked to Hawkins when he was figuring out the strain sheets in his New York office. We were all shaking our heads at him then. So when 1 arrived at the end of the rails in this Alaska fastness of his, I knew I would

have to take some things back, because he had already progressed far enough to make fools of those of us who had laughed at him. So I recanted. He listened and laughed and said he guessed that’d be all right—I didn’t need to think of that—anybody might have thought the same, and so on ; and we went out to look her over. Of course, she wasn’t finished, but I liked her appearance. She had that look you can always tell about a bridge when she’s building—she looked—well, you could see her lines beginning and you could see where the rest was going to fit in. If you were an engineer you would understand. Otherwise you won’t.

It was snowing and we had furs. We walked out on the gangway and we looked down at the false-work built on the frozenover top of the river.

“How’d you get the piers in?” I isked. “Last summer.”

“What’s the strain of the river on ’em?” “An average of three ’bergs a day m summer. Each ’berg up to ten thousand ton. Current brings ’em down at twelve miles per, and in the spring the seven-foot freeze-over breaks up.”

“Mind telling me what depth you’ve got to those piers?”

“Sixty feet from the bottom of the water to the bed-rock.”

“What else?”

“Eighty-six feet around the base. Armoured with ninety-pound rails set on end, foot apart all the way round.”

In the dusk I counted the piers crossing the frozen river like concrete monuments to somebody’s strides. In the distance the glaciers were gleaming softly. Behind us there were more glaciers.

* * *

THE scaffoldings, or what we would call the false-work, were begun as soon as the river froze over last winter. They were to support the steel wTork until the spans were completed and the piers could take the load. The piles, the foundations for the false-work, were driven through the seven feet of ice to the bottom of the river.

But the steel had not arrived. Hawkins had counted on having about three and a half months for the work, but two months

were spent waiting for the steel. He received it, piece after piece, and then more pieces. He piled them up on the bank and waited for the complete parts. The crews blew on their mittens to keep warm and waited for steel. When the last of it came about the last day of March, the whole camp woke up and howled like the wolves that used to hang around Skagway, and Jimmy Bain, the little Cockney, pulled the whistle on his engine so suddenly and so hard that he broke the valve.

But the delay left Hawkins only six weeks to finish the work. He had to get it done before the river woke up. The waking-up time was due in those forty-two days. In that time he had to have 1,150 feet of steel strung across the piers. Otherwise the out-going ice and the down-coming icebergs would wipe out all his falsework and drop two million dollars’ worth of steel and labor into the river.

• * * *

BIT by bit, rivet by rivet, angle by angle and strain by strain, we pushing the steel nearer the middle. The first span Avas four hundred feet long and we had her finished in ten days and a half. The second was three hundred, and we finished her in six days. The third was four hundred and fifty, and she Avas done in ten days.

But they were somewhat wearing ten days. For instance, one day, little Scott, who Avas a general helper around the office, came panting up looking for Hawkins.

“Ice rising, sir,” he said.

(“Rising!” says Hawkins, “Hm!”

We went down and looked, and Scotty was right. She was rising. She was lifting us and the piles which supported the false-work and the half-complete steelAvork Avith her. In fractions of inches, such as you would find on a German slide rule, she vyas lifting, and every fraction of a lift threatened to smash the whole tAvo million dollars’ Avorth of work to nothing.

“Get everybody!” says Hawkins, lighting his pipe in the most excruciating coolness. “Get all the feed piping you can.

Get all the steam from every engine we have, and run a pipe of steam to the foot of each pile.”

We did it.

“Now,” Hawkins AArent on, “Get your pipe elbows bent down to the ice and turn

the steam on—like H-.” He scarcely

raised his voice on the last tAvo Avords.

We did. Every man Avas on deck. Even the cooks turned out to help. The engineers threAv the coal on and ripped open the drafts till the Avhole valley hummed with the noise. And it Avas night, too. At the foot of each pile the nozzles of steam emitted roaring clouds of vapor.

The steam melted the ice as though it had been mere snow. But there was seven feet of it to go through. We had to make the space around each pile large enough to allow the ice to rise around it Avithout lifting the superstructure. The ice still had its grip on the piling—it continued to lift—when suddenly it let go. The piles that a few moments before Avere being lifted out of their places, settled down. The steel-work rested on the scaffoldings. The creAvs, panting Avith relief, stood *by, still keeping the steam around the foot of each pile, and watched the river rise tAventy-one feet. For hours the river rose. We measured the position of the ice by marks on the sides of the pilings. Hours after the rise ceased Hawkins ordered off the steam and we uncoupled the piping.

* * *

BUT the river Avas not yet through Avith HaAvkins. Its great white floor had risen and fallen " twenty-one feet, and HaAvkins had coped with that manoeuvre. But now it began its other strategy. The ice commenced to move out. It did not go with a rush. It did not come suddenly. It began so slowly that it might have done irrevocable damage before anyone noticed it. One inch a day was its rate. One inch per day was it carrying the false-Avork off its foundations and threatening to precipitate the whole span. Inch by inch the alignment of the bridge was being warped,

A foreman on the centre span came into the office one morning and demanded to see Hawkins.

“We can’t work,” he announced, “Can’t match the ends. She’s out of line, sir.” “What’s the matter?”

“False-work’s movin’, sir.”

Hawkins went out with him.

We found the span inches out of alignment. Every moment the ice was forcing it farther out of place. Hawkins summoned the foreman again. The steam was turned on through the feed pipes to the foot of the piles a second time, and between the steam and the use of axes the piles were kept free of the ice pressure from up-stream. Meanwhile, overhead. Hawkins lifted the weight of the centre span from the false-work to the cantilever supports. He made the finished part of the bridge support the unfinished portion temporarily, and that took the strain off the false-work. Then he set about to bring the timbers into proper place again.

Upstream we forced new piles through the ice to the river bottom. Scores of them there were. It looked for a time as though we could not get them through soon enough. But we did. We hitched all the spare tackle to them and with the engines winding the tackle against them, we pulled the four hundred and fifty feet of scaffolding back into position. Hawkins, himself, stood on the bridge and watched. He blew the pea-whistle to signal the donkey engineers. As the great mass was hauled back into place the riveters and fitters, astradle the girders, let the steelwork into place again, and finished the work.

It was midnight when it was all finished. We had been having coffee on account of the cold.

“I’m going out to see her finished.” announced Hawkins, setting down his empty mug. “Coming?”

We walked out over the slippery steel cautiously. It wras dark. In the centre, standing out of the way of the men, we counted the empty rivet holes which wait-

ed for the rivet and for which the whole bridge, and the patient wooden supports on the ice beneath, were waiting—to say nothing of wives and families back in civilization.

There were ten rivets to be made when we arrived. As we stood watching there were only nine, and eight ! and seven ! and six! and five—. In the spattering electric light “Blue Bottle Bill,” from San Francisco, lifted the white hot rivet from his forge. Peterkin—comes from Montreal—caught it in his can and tossed it on the Laroche, the Frenchman, who was working on the Quebec Bridge when she collapsed. Laroche caught it in his pliers and held it for Thompson, another San Francisco man. Thompson heaved the air hose a little higher under his right arm-pit: held the air-riveters a bit tighter in his hand and then—let her have it.

The rivet was home. It -was the last. The red glow had died out of it before Hawkins said anything.

“Sound, Thompson?” he asked, quietly.

“Sure!” retorted Thompson, who wanted to be enthusiastic, but couldn’t when the Chief wasn’t.

An hour later the silent river made a noise, the first it had made the whole winter. It stirred, like a heavy sleeper beginning to feel the light coming in his window. The groaning was terrible. It was the ice working at the false-work, gnawing at it. crushing it. In fact, it was a horrible noise, and it grew louder! We had hauled the engines off the ice in the afternoon. We had hoped to save the other stuff in the morning, but now it was too late. The blocks had been knocked out from under the steel. It rested no longer on the false-work, but on the piers, its true foundations, so the false-work did not matter. We let it go.

The timbers protested as the ice caught them in its maw. There was a sort of a shriek, and then the whole substructure, on which the bridge had been reared, vanished.