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Million Dollar Bridge: Hearty Alaska travelers run river during detour

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times
Diane Jeantet / Cordova Times

CORDOVA -- Since Mile-36 Bridge closed last summer -- making the Million Dollar Bridge accessible only by air or water -- businesses that offered trips to Childs Glacier have felt the pinch. For both residents and visitors, the glacier, and historic bridge with its view of Miles Glacier are two of Cordova's prime attractions. But at least one local business is serving visitors in a new way.

"Our bookings for June and July are made up of foreign tourists coming specifically for the glacier," explained Wendy Ranney, the wife of Steve Ranney, owner of the Orca Adventure Lodge. During those months, she continues, most of the lodge's guests are on extended Alaska traveling tours, which bring them to Cordova to see the glaciers.

Last summer, when the Mile-36 Bridge on the Copper River Highway closed, locals found out the bridge might not be fixed for as long as five years, if ever. Steve and Wendy Ranney decided that one way or another, they had to keep bringing people there.

They purchased a landing craft, the Williwaw, and got it lengthened to 36 feet at Peterson Welding in order to bring more people each trip. The price of a ticket rocketed from $89 to $200 per person. The money they invested in the landing craft was necessary -- but expensive.

Twice a week, the Williwaw brings a crowd of people to the Childs and Miles glaciers. On day recently, the Orca Adventure Lodge had very special guests on board.

Grandfather's handiwork

Carol O'Neel Stiller, a lively lady in her early 70s, whose grandfather Albert Clay O'Neel was the engineer of the Million Dollar Bridge, came with her daughter and granddaughter to see the huge steel and concrete structure for the first time.

Also on board: Vic de Forest. His great grandfather, painter and photographer Lockwood de Forest, painted the Childs Glacier back in 1912. Vic De Forest now lives in New Hampshire with his wife Judith and he’s wanted to see the glacier for himself for years. A century after the painting was made, De Forest was sailing on the Copper River Delta.

"I'm in the process of learning about him, so really I'm on the same boat as most people," said De Forest as he cautiously takes a photo of his great grandfather's 100-year-old painting out of his backpack. Not until he inherited a few paintings 10 years ago -- and a local art dealer in Santa Barbara, Calif., started putting on shows -- did De Forest’s interest bloom.

Along with another family of four, these two special inquisitors departed from Cordova's harbor for the day-long excursion. Now that the bridge is closed, the trip to the glacier is more involved. A mini car belonging to the Orca Lodge drives visitors to the boat's location, to then swap vehicles and jump aboard the customized craft.

Blessed with warm and sunny weather, the group had the opportunity to spot a number of beavers and sea otters among the floating wood. But as the boat started to bypass small chunks of floating ice, the excitement on board became almost tangible. O'Neel Stiller and De Forest, looking out for the first glimpse of the glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge, were both leaning, impatient, on opposite sides of the boat.

"I didn't know my grandfather; he died when I was 3," said Carol before the boat reached the dark red steel bridge, standing close to her daughter and granddaughter. Just like for Vic de Forest, it was a special discovery that sparked her curiosity.

Scarce documentation

One day Carol O'Neel Stiller was helping a cousin sorting out some papers and at the bottom of a cardboard box, she found a small red notebook belonging to Albert Clay O'Neel. "In the back of it, it shows how much money they paid for so many pounds of nails and all these tiny expenses," she described with excitement. This wasn't about the Million Dollar Bridge, which earned its nickname for its astronomical cost -- $1.4 million -- but the Monroe Street Bridge in Washington state.

"She has talked about going to the glacier for years, she has pictures everywhere in her house," confessed Jessica Mattice, Carol's own granddaughter. Since she found this notebook, Carol O'Neel Stiller has been investigating. The documentation on her grandfather's projects is scarce and it's sometimes hard to know for sure which construction he actually worked on or which man he is in old pictures she gathered over the years. "It's a mystery and an adventure for her to find the clues and proofs of her grandfather's work," Jessica said. "She's very proud of him."

Used with permission. Contact Diane Jeantet at djeantet@thecordovatimes.com