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Dennis Nottingham
Dennis Nottingham

Dennis Nottingham was interviewed on December 19, 2006 by Marie Mitchell in his office in Anchorage, Alaska. In this interview, Dennis talks about construction of the North Slope Haul Road (Dalton Highway) and his role in design and construction of the Yukon River bridge. He discusses the challenges of engineering and building in the cold conditions of Alaska and dealing with permafrost, the unique design and structure of the bridge and building it strong enough to withstand flooding and being hit by moving ice during spring breakup, and the timeline of the project in coordination with the broader road construction project and work being held up while Native land claims were settled.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-28-13

Project: Dalton Highway
Date of Interview: Dec 19, 2006
Narrator(s): Dennis Nottingham
Interviewer(s): Marie Mitchell
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
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1) Personal background

2) Coming to Alaska

3) Designing the Yukon River Bridge

4) Engineering challenges in Alaska

5) Discovery of oil and need for road access

6) Spanning the wide Yukon River with a bridge

7) Purpose and design features of the Yukon River Bridge

8) Seismic design of the Yukon River Bridge

9) Quality of engineers working on the Yukon River Bridge

10) First visit to the site of the Yukon River Bridge, and effect of the bridge on Alaska's river transportation system

11) His role in designing the Yukon River bridge, and logistics of design, purchasing, and construction

12) Continuing to work on the bridge while the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was on hold, and construction of other bridges in Alaska

13) More about the features, strength and construction of the Yukon River Bridge

14) Other people who worked on the bridge design team

15) Designers, engineers, and builders of the Yukon River Bridge

16) Lack of acclaim for accomplishments, lack of accidents during construction, and successful project and budget management

17) Criticism of ice bridge design

18) Short time frame of the bridge design project

19) Work as bridge designer and consultant

20) Environmental concerns

21) Public access to the Haul Road

22) Recognition of design and success of the Yukon River Bridge

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Section 1: Nottingham grew up in a family of ranchers, builders, and inventors. He attended Montana State College, which is Montana State University today, and earned a Masters Degree. He studied geo-tech engineering (advanced structures and soil mechanics). In Montana, he designed his first bridges near his hometown, Fort Benton. He built one of the last riveted plate girders before welding became prominent with the advent of modern steel.
childhood -- family\ ranchers\ builders\ inventors\ Montana State College -- Montana State University\ Masters Degree -- geo-tech engineering\ designed -- bridges\ riveted plate girders|

Section 2: Nottingham worked for the Montana Highway Department with the bridge section. He noticed an ad for bridge engineers with the Alaska State Highway Department. He applied and was accepted for the position, and drove a 1960 Ford Falcon up the Alaska Highway. Nottingham traveled to Juneau, Alaska, where he worked for the Highway Department for ten years. The Alaska State Highway Department is now called the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF).
Montana Highway Department -- employment\ bridge section\ job -- advertisement\ trade magazine\ Alaska State Highway Department -- applied for\ hired\ Juneau, Alaska -- relocation\ 1964 Falcon -- vehicle\ Alaska Highway\ Alaska State Department of Highways -- employed\ duration\ Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF)|

Section 3: In 1973, he worked for R&M consultants for seven years. During that time, he was the consultant for the design of the Yukon Bridge for TAPS. He designed the Yukon Bridge while he was with the Alaska State Highway Department.
R&M Consultants -- employed with\ Consultant -- Yukon River Bridge\ Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS)\ Yukon River Bridge -- engineer\ designer of\ Alaska State Highway Department|

Section 4: The challenge for engineering in Alaska was complex, due to colder regions, permafrost, and icing. Nottingham worked directly with Alaska Governor Bill Egan and engineer Bruce Campbell. There was great opportunity for major highway development in Alaska. The ferry system was being introduced. According to Nottingham, people were focused back then. Today too many projects are fragmented and not completed. Governor Egan was focused and would complete a project and move to the next one.
Alaska -- complex\ colder regions\ permafrost\ icing\ Egan, Governor Bill -- worked with\ Campbell, Bruce -- engineer\ worked with\ highway development -- Alaska\ ferry system -- introduction of\ projects -- changes in\ past -- focused\ today -- fragmented|

Section 5: Oil was discovered at the Swanson River in the 1950s and on the North Slope in 1968. The oil companies needed road access to the North Slope to deliver supplies. A winter road had been built from Livengood to the Yukon River, beyond that there was no road system. R&M Consultants was contracted to design and engineer a secondary haul road from Livengood to the Yukon River. In 1969, the first access road to get from Livengood to the Yukon River was built. Nottingham worked for the State Highway Department until 1972, and was involved with designing the alignments for the Yukon Bridge.
oil -- discovery\ oil -- Swanson River\ 1950's\ oil -- North Slope\ 1968\ road access -- in need of\ supplies -- delivery of\ location -- North Slope\ road system -- limited\ winter road -- Livengood to Yukon River\ road system -- none North of Yukon River\ R&M Consultants --contractor\ design -- secondary haul road\ route -- Livengood to Yukon River\ 1969\ Alaska State Highway Department -- involved with designing the alignments for the Yukon Bridge|

Section 6: The Yukon River is the largest river system. It is 2000 feet across. The Yukon River Bridge is a half-mile longer than the width of the river. The pipeline is built onto the bridge and over the river for several reasons. During spring break-up, there is five feet of thick ice, where in other northern regions it is normally 3 to 4 feet. This creates large ice forces against the bridge. There is enormous flood potential. Gravel and stream bed material overaly the bedrock, which wash away during a flood. For this reason, the support piers are drilled in bedrock. In addition, there is permafrost on each side of bridge. Permafrost is ground that is frozen at 32 degrees continuously for two or more years. The permafrost near the bridge is colder, and remains stable if not disturbed.
Yukon River -- largest river system\ 2000 feet across\ Yukon River Bridge -- description\ half-mile wider\ pipeline -- built to the bridge\ spring break-up -- impact of\ reasons\ ice forces -- extreme\ flooding -- potential of\ effects of\ bridge support piers -- description of\ permafrost -- challenges with\ permafrost -- description|

Section 7: The Yukon River Bridge is a dual highway pipeline bridge. Nottingham had to design it to carry two pipelines, one for oil and the other for natural gas, and for the transportation of heavy loads. The Haul Road is intended to haul materials and supplies for oil fields, which means there is a lot of sustained truck traffic. The Yukon River Bridge was designed to sustain all these factors.
bridge -- dual highway pipeline bridge\ oil\ natural gas\ transportation -- heavy loads\ haul road -- purpose of\ Yukon River Bridge -- designed for|

Section 8: Alaska is very different, and very remote. Lower-48 bridge and road engineers have available road access, and can create multiple designs. The Yukon River Bridge needed a specific design with girders designed at a specific size. The first modern seismic design loads were applied to the Yukon River Bridge. In the early days, seismic loads were neglected. There was earlier ignorance about designing bridges with seismic design loads. The TAPS project brought into reality how earthquakes work. The seismic design loads are 10 times on the Yukon River Bridge than what is applied in the Lower-48. In Alaska, 1000 earthquakes can occur per month. In 2002, an earthquake hit Alaska that registered 7.9 on the Richter Scale. Both the pipeline and Yukon River Bridge withstood the impact. If designed the traditional way, there could have been a problem.
Alaska -- landscape\ challenges\ remote\ road -- limited access\ Yukon River Bridge -- requirements of\ unique\ seismic designs loads -- first application of\ model for\ Alaska -- earthquakes\ earthquakes -- number of\ earthquake -- 7.9 Richter Scale\ location -- Alaska\ pipeline -- not impacted\ Yukon River Bridge -- withstood impact|

Section 9: The designing and building of the Yukon River Bridge went smoothly. TAPS hired experienced people. Professor Newmark from the University of Illinois, who is well known for his seismic knowledge, gave positive reviews of the bridge design. A book named "Designing the Yukon Bridge" provides details of the methods used. Nottingham was 34 years old when he designed the bridge.
TAPS -- recruitment\ designers\ engineers\ Yukon River Bridge -- well-designed\ engineered\ acknowledgements of\ "Designing the Yukon Bridge" -- book\ methods -- details of|

Section 10: Remoteness of site for building the Yukon River Bridge and first seeing the site by camping at Hess Creek and hiking into the site. No big studies were done. We just did it. We stopped at a cafe in Livengood and local people all were curious what we were doing and they thought we were crazy when we said, "We were going to cross the Yukon River." In the earlier days, barges on the river systems were the main transportation corridors in Alaska. Airplanes came in and changed that. Effect of the Yukon River Bridge on transportation system along the rivers by providing another point of access.
Nenana, Alaska -- port\ barges -- transportation\ shipping\ river system\ barges -- decline of\ airplanes -- shipping\ barges -- return of\ Yukon River Bridge -- potential port|

Section 11: Nottingham's part in designing the bridge was to plan ahead of construction, making sure materials needed to design the bridge were available at the time of construction. Design and logistics are planned two years ahead even before purchasing of actual materials.
design -- responsibility\ planning -- pre-construction\ materials -- selection of\ logistics|

Section 12: The TAPS project was on hold due to legal disputes. He went to Houston, Texas in 1973 and worked on other elements of the pipeline design. Nottingham remained a consultant to Alyeska for the Yukon River Bridge. The State Department of Highway continued with the construction of the bridge. Ghemm Construction Company in Fairbanks won the bid for building the bridge. Following the Yukon River Bridge construction, Nottingham developed concepts for other bridges in Alaska. After 1976, he reconstructed some access bridges along the Pipeline.
TAPS project -- injunction\ delayed\ year -- 1971\ Alaska State Department of Highway -- resignation\ year -- 1972\ Alaska Department of Highways -- design\ construction\ Yukon River Bridge\ TAPS -- employed with\ year -- 1973\ Alyeska -- consultant for\ Yukon River Bridge|

Section 13: Nottingham was not on the construction site. During construction of the Yukon River Bridge, he was a consultant for Alyeska. The Yukon River Bridge has a 30-foot roadway. It has the tallest piers, which rise 120 feet above the river and extend another 70 feet down to the river bottom. The life of the bridge will last a century. The Yukon River Bridge is built to resist ice forces (1300 tons of ice force for each pier). Nottingham needed to build a support system that would withstand extreme circumstances (seismic activity and ice forces).
Yukon River Bridge -- construction phase\ consultant -- Alyeska\ Yukon River Bridge -- description of\ bridge -- life of\ duration\ ice forces -- resistance\ Yukon River Bridge -- design\ circumstances -- extreme\ seismic activity -- withstand\ ice forces -- withstand|

Section 14: Nottingham's crew was the first team on the site. The crew camped at Hess Creek and hiked into the site. People think that projects require a large design crew, but it was a small design team. Names some of the key designers. Seismic design loads for the Yukon River Bridge were considered advanced technology during that time. Some bridges are now applying this technology. New ideas do not advance very fast in engineering societies. Engineers rely on Bridge and Building Codes that are usually 10 years out of date. New ideas take time to emerge.
design team -- small\ Gute, Bill\ Carlson, Larry\ Lium, Bob\ Mielke, Karl\ seismic design loads -- advanced technology\ application of\ model for\ bridges -- applying this technology\ engineers -- Bridge and Building Codes\ ten years out of date\ new ideas -- slow emergence of|

Section 15: Engineers do not build, but design. Engineers are not out on the construction site. Contractors are the builders. State officials monitor the specs and make sure contractors are paid. Most people think the design and engineering happen during the construction stage. The design and engineering (and what materials are required) takes place years ahead of construction. The Yukon River Bridge was the largest bridge in the world of its type. It is currently the largest bridge in Alaska. The bridge is very sophisticated in its engineering and its purpose. At the time, the Yukon River Bridge was transporting 25% of the US oil, so it had to be designed exceptionally well.
engineers -- designers\ contractors -- builders\ State officials -- monitor specs\ payroll\ design and engineering stage -- pre-construction\ Yukon River Bridge -- largest bridge its type\ largest bridge in Alaska\ sophisticated\ Yukon River Bridge -- transporting 25% of the US oil\ designed -- exceptionally|

Section 16: The people involved in most building projects do not get much acclaim. The public does not really know what is involved in engineering and constructing bridges. The Yukon River Bridge was under construction from 1975 to 1976. There were no accidents. The project management stayed within the budget. $29 million was the original bid, and the final cost was $31 million or so. The Yukon River Bridge was the largest project the state had ever done. The second largest bridge in Alaska is the Copper River Highway Bridge, which was designed and built for seven million dollars in 1968. Today that bridge would be $150 million.
engineers -- minimal acclaim\ limited public awareness\ Yukon River Bridge -- construction\ construction -- timeline\ year -- 1975-76\ accidents -- none\ project management -- within the budget|

Section 17: Nottingham is critical of the ice bridge design that was built upstream of the Yukon River Bridge. The ice bridge was built as a reinforced thickened ice bridge. During ice break up, the ice bridge would breakup and float downstream, crashing into the piers of the Yukon River Bridge with the large ice flows during breakup. An ice bridge is used as a temporary bridge during the construction of the real bridge. The ice bridge scarred the piers of the Yukon River Bridge, but did not do too much damage.
ice bridge design --- critical of\ criticism -- reasons for\ ice bridge -- purpose of\ temporary bridge|

Section 18: The Yukon River Bridge was the largest project the State had ever done, and it was designed in three months. Today, the State cannot even have dialogue within three months. Back then, the State was expected to get the job done. Projects were performed more efficiently.
Yukon River Bridge -- design stage\ duration -- three months\ Yukon River Bridge --largest project\ Alaska\ construction projects -- process of\ changes in|

Section 19: Nottingham designed the Yukon River Bridge while he was working with the Alaska State Department of Highways in Juneau until 1972. He was hired as a consultant for the TAPS project in 1973 to oversee the design and construction of the Yukon River Bridge. From 1975, Nottingham has lived in Anchorage. He is married and has four children.
Yukon River Bridge -- designer of\ Alaska State Department of Highways -- responsible for\ Yukon River Bridge -- design\ construction\ Alaska State Department of Highways employed with\ until 1972\ TAPS project -- employed with\ year -- 1973\ consultant -- responsibilities\ PN&D Consultants -- formation of\ year -- 1979\ PN&D Consultants -- designing and engineering\ bridges\ ports\ marinas|

Section 20: Nottingham talks about engineering and design advances made in Alaska and how things can be built in an environmentally sensitive way. He believes the real problem with the environment is over-population, and that environmentalists do not focus on over-population. Instead, environmentalists focus on stopping progress, particularly building projects. For example, with the Red Dog Mine road, Nottingham did geo-tech techniques for leaving the tundra unscarred. The same technique was applied to the Haul Road, leaving the permafrost undisturbed. If the project is engineered and constructed correctly, then there should be no environmental concerns. Environmentalists need to address the real problem of over-population. The last major highway project in Alaska was the Red Dog Mine road, which was in the mid-1980s.
environmentalists -- opinion of\ problem -- over-population\ environmentalists -- misguided\ limits progress\ Red Dog Mine road -- geo-technology\ tundra -- unscarred\ Haul Road -- environmental impact\ minimal\ engineered -- positive outcomes|

Section 21: Many of the haul roads are of a temporary nature. When the Haul Road was designed, engineers realized it was more than temporary after the state was pressured to provide public access to the road. Access, security, logistics, supplies, bridges, and maintenance needed to be addressed.
haul roads -- temporary\ Haul Road -- design\ design -- changes in\ Haul Road -- secondary highway\ public -- pressure\ Haul Road -- access\ limited to public\ Haul Road -- issues with\ access\ security\ logistics\ supplies\ bridges\ maintenance|

Section 22: The Yukon River Bridge is famous. It has appeared in many books. Design of the Yukon River Bridge has received many acknowledgements.
Yukon River Bridge -- acknowledgements\ design -- achievements\ Lincoln Arc Welding Corporation\ public agencies -- negative impact of\ purpose of|