The Mears Memorial Bridge**
Alaska’s longest bridge span is the Tanana River railroad crossing at Nenana. Built in 1922–23 and now known as the Mears Memorial Bridge, it is surely one of Alaska’s most underappreciated historic resources. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect. With the credentials of a National Landmark, it isn’t even listed in Alaska’s Heritage Resources Survey. Happily, it still serves its original purpose well and should be with us for years to come.*
The bridge’s namesake, Frederick Mears, was chairman and chief engineer of the Alaska Engineering Commission, the railroad’s builder and original operator. Construction of the line by a federal agency (the AEC) is unique in American history. Public ownership was a response to early 20th century Americans’ distrust of monopolistic industrial trusts in general and to Alaskans’ fear of the Guggenheim-led "Alaska Syndicate" in particular. The railroad has been pivotal in Alaskan history. It played key roles in reviving Interior mining in the 1920s, in Alaska’s World War II efforts, and in construction of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Today the overwhelming majority of Alaskans live along the Railbelt.
The Mears Bridge was the final and crowning link in the railroad. The first train crossed in February 1923, a year after the rest of the 470-mile line was finished. The AEC designed and built nearly all the railroad with their own forces, but not the Tanana River crossing. Instead, they hired the Chicago firm of Modjeski and Angier to design the bridge, and the American Bridge Company to fabricate and erect it. Ralph Modjeski was then perhaps the most famous bridge designer in the world, and American Bridge the world’s foremost bridge builders. The 700-foot long Pennsylvania through truss is said to have been the longest truss span in the United States when completed. It is still the third longest simple truss in North America and the longest span of any kind in Alaska (the Gastineau Channel main span at Juneau is second, at 620 feet).
President Warren G. Harding came to Alaska to drive the ceremonial golden spike at the north end of the bridge in July 1923. With him were three members of his cabinet (including Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover) and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was one of Harding’s last public appearances. On his return trip he died suddenly from heart failure, sometimes attributed to the stress of the journey.
Visit the bridge when you get a chance. There’s a good view of it from the highway bridge at Nenana, but from that vantage there’s little to lend scale to what you see. To really appreciate it, go through town and follow the riverbank upstream. You can easily drive a car up to the bridge’s massive south pier. You won’t regret it!
* Another early Alaskan railroad bridge, the "Million Dollar Bridge" over the Copper River, is more famous than the Mears Bridge despite its smaller spans. This is largely due to colorful accounts about the Million Dollar Bridge’s construction. Crews there worked practically nonstop for three days to avoid disaster, completing the last span just hours before the Copper River ice broke up and took the bridge falsework (temporary support) with it. This is indeed a dramatic tale. The Mears Bridge’s construction was methodical and without major problems; boring by comparison. Yet to an engineer like the author this indicates better design and management. A good project should not rely on needless risks to workers’ safety.
**another version of this article was originally published in the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation newsletter in 1999.