Alaska Roads photos -- Million Dollar Bridge

These photos are of the "Million Dollar Bridge," a one-lane historic bridge east of Cordova, Alaska at the end of the Copper River Highway (southern segment of state route 10). The bridge was added in 2000 to the National Register of Historic Places.

I took the first two photos on my summer 1994 vacation, on a van tour from Cordova to the bridge and the nearby Miles and Childs glaciers. The bridge then still reflected the serious damage suffered during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, which dropped one bridge span into the Copper River, as well as the temporary ramp drivers could use to get to a short unpaved road on the other side.

Since then, bridge was repaired, though there still isn't really very much to go to after crossing the river. Most of the photos below were taken on my revisit to the bridge in June 2009.

The bridge was completed in 1910, as a one-track railroad bridge for ore trains between the Kennicott copper mines and Cordova harbor. It was quite an engineering challenge, since it had to "thread the needle" between the Childs and Miles glaciers (then much closer than they are now), and icebergs floating downstream from the Miles glacier in the summer forced construction crews to do much of their work in the winter. After the copper mines closed in 1938, work began on converting the old trackbed into a highway, but the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 damaged both the bridge and much of the old roadbed north to Chitina. Most of the segment north of the bridge probably will never be opened to auto travel. The remainder of the trackbed is now the Copper River Highway west of the Million Dollar Bridge; a short spur south of Chitina, to recreational sites along the Copper River; and the McCarthy Road from Chitina to a few miles west of the old Kennicott mines.

NOTE: In case you want more detail, you can click any photo below to view an enlarged, and sometimes higher-quality (less .jpg compression), version. Those alternate versions have larger file sizes, so please be patient while they download.

WARNING! In 2011, after my second visit to the Million Dollar Bridge, there was a major partial washout of one of the Copper River Highway bridges through the river delta, and damage to at least one other bridge. The state considered, but then indefinitely postponed for budgetary reasons, repairing or replacing the closed bridges. The Copper River Highway is now closed about a dozen miles short of the Million Dollar Bridge, with no firm plans to reopen it.

There is no alternate road route to the Million Dollar Bridge, except possibly from the north with a very rugged 4x4 following what remains of the old railroad trackbed south of Chitina (which might also be traveled on foot by a sufficiently intrepid hiker). I have no idea if that can be done, or hard it would be. The easier option is a tour out of Cordova, with a vehicle shuttle from Cordova to the road closure, and a jetboat ride across the river directly to the bridge, or to a shuttle parked on the other side that will take you to the bridge. The 2018 edition of the Milepost travel guide to Alaska and other Arctic highways reports that one company was providing such tours the previous summer. Another company has done so in previous years.

Million Dollar Bridge, showing temporary transition between intact southern spans and collapsed northern span

This 1994 photo, before the bridge was repaired, is from the middle of the northernmost most-or-less-intact span. It shows the span that collapsed into the river, and the temporary transition between the two spans.

At the southern end of the collapsed span, a temporary wooden roadway goes about halfway down the span, to the temporary ramp back up to the north shore of the river. (1994)
Collapsed northern span of Million Dollar Bridge, with pedestrians on temporary ramp up to ground level at old northern end of bridge
Southern approach to repaired Million Dollar Bridge
The Million Dollar Bridge, after the earthquake damage was repaired, from the south. Side roads just south of the bridge lead to a picnic area with views of the Childs Glacier, and campsites. (June 2009)
Closeup of south end of restored Million Dollar Bridge
A closer view of the south end of the restored bridge. (June 2009)
Million Dollar Bridge, from shore to the northeast
The entire Million Dollar Bridge, viewed from the river shore to the northeast. The Childs Glacier is in the background. There are extra supports for the bridge on each side of the northernmost pier, which may not have been there pre-earthquake. (June 2009)
Closeup of extra supports for the bridge
From the northwest shore, a closer view of the extra supports alongside the north pier. (June 2009)
The underside of the bridge's north end. (June 2009) Underside of the bridge's north end
Million Dollar Bridge from shore to the southwest, with icebreakers guarding two of the piers
A view from the opposite shore, partially obscured by an unhelpfully-positioned tree. In the river, to the right (upstream) of the two nearest bridge piers, are what appear to be concrete icebreakers, protecting the piers from icebergs floating downriver from the Miles Glacier in the background. (June 2009)
Bridge deck, with SUV on left
The bridge deck, with an SUV on the left side, would be a rather tight squeeze for two-way traffic -- not that was ever an issue, with very little auto traffic crossing the bridge to the north side of the river. (June 2009)
Northbound view of two-foot offset between north span and rest of bridge
Southbound view of two-foot offset between north span and rest of bridge
Making things more interesting is that the north end of the bridge is a few feet out of line with the south end (first photo above faces northbound, the second southbound). My guess is that was due to the supports added both north and south of the north pier, which protrude above the bridge deck.

The state spent a lot of money on repairing the bridge. But the priority was just getting the north span out of the river to prevent environmental damage, especially if a river flood swept the collapsed north span away from the rest of the bridge and into the Childs Glacier. That was billed as a better alternative to demolition of the bridge, which by then had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Full restoration of the bridge to its pre-earthquake condition was apparently not a high enough priority to warrant the additional expense. (Both photos June 2009)

Childs Glacier, with a small icefall into the river
The Childs Glacier, from a viewing area near the south end of the bridge, as ice falls into the river. On my first visit in 1994, that glacier seemed positively fiendish, expert at dropping lots of ice into the river while I was changing film or eating lunch. (June 2009)

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© Oscar Voss 1994, 2005-2007, 2009, 2018.