Collapse of Alaska Highway strands motorists

Northbound travelers may face 500-mile backtrack until temporary fix put in place

Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2001

WHITEHORSE, Yukon - The Alaska Highway is closed about 30 miles south of Watson Lake in Canada due to a culvert collapse that left a 100-foot gap in the roadway. Highway officials hope to have a temporary span in place in a couple of days.

In the meantime, southbound travelers can detour down the rugged Cassiar Highway to join up with the road that connects Prince George and Prince Rupert in central British Columbia. Northbound motorists who reach the break unawares will have to either wait for the repair or backtrack about 500 miles, nearly to Dawson Creek, before they can reach the detour to the Cassiar and head north again.

The culvert that collapsed was touted as the largest of its type in the world when it was installed across Iron Creek, near the Yukon-British Columbia border, in 1998 at a cost of about $7 million.

The old span was only taken down this past spring, said Evelyn Robertson at the nearby Iron Creek Lodge, run by her daughter and son-in-law, Vern and Dee Hinson.

It wasn't clear what caused the collapse, but Robertson said the culvert appeared to be completely gone.

"The water's been coming up," she said. "It's been raining here the last four days."

She said motorists were being stopped in Watson Lake, so there wasn't a big backup of travelers at the lodge about a mile north of the stream.

"There is definitely a hole in the road about 100 feet across, the width of the road," said Robert Magnuson, director of transportation maintenance for the Yukon government. "That superstructure has basically collapsed."

Magnuson wouldn't guess at whether the collapse had anything to do with heavy rainfalls recently, or whether it was purely a structural matter. "It is flopped down in the middle. What is left on each end, I do not know."

The culvert was installed in September 1998. It was heralded at the time as the largest culvert arch in the world, measuring 76 feet wide, 27 feet high and 115 feet long. It replaced an old narrow bridge.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they learned of the bridge failure about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. They had no reports the collapse caused any injury to motorists.

Its expected to take two days to ship in a temporary bridge from Fort Nelson.

Pat Irvin, who owns the three hotels in Watson Lake, said the washout could mean closing up businesses and laying workers off for a short while if travelers detour down the Cassiar and bypass his town.

"This is devastating," he said. Irvin predicted that by Thursday, his hotels would be vacant. The closure could cause problems for the town's RV park as well, at a time of the year when the tourism season is just beginning, he said.

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