DOT&PF returns roadside memorial to Anchorage family
Chelsea Johnston’s memorial was taken down and stored during a construction project on the Parks Highway
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On a drive up the Parks Highway north of Wasilla, Karma Elliott saw a vacant lot that was on the backdrop to her sister’s roadside memorial.
Then she saw the memorial was missing.
“I noticed it was gone and I was kind of shattered,” Elliott said.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is working to expand the Parks and the rights-of-way are being ripped up to make room for the new road.
“I thought maybe they bulldozed the property and threw it in a scrap pile somewhere,” she said.
Chelsea Johnston was just 16 when she was killed in a car crash in 2008. Elliott describes her sister as a quintessential Alaskan girl.
“She was beautiful and she was rugged and she loved the outdoors, snow machining, four-wheeling, fishing, hunting. She was really something special,” Elliott said.
Construction crews know those roadside memorials are special to the families. Project Engineer Todd Smith with the DOT&PF said the memorials are marked during a project and left up as long as possible while the DOT&PF try to contact loved ones.
They make every effort to return the memorials but it’s not always easy to track people down.
“Talking to emergency services, we talk to local churches. We do a lot of Google searches on archived news, archive obituaries, we use our social media platforms and we talk to the adjacent property owners to see when the memorial was put up,” Smith said.
Elliott posted about the missing memorial on a Mat-Su Valley Facebook page; she even offered a cash reward. A contractor saw the post and notified Smith who got in touch to let Elliott know the memorial had been saved.
“I was astounded. They have so much work to do out there that they would go out of their way and go up ahead of the heavy equipment and all of the — not just the cross, but all of the pieces and flag them as they go together to document exactly where they were. I was astounded they put that much care into the project,” Elliott said.
Every weathered piece that had been left over the past 12 years was collected and given back. Each token has a special memory for Elliott.
“This little orange whale my son had left out there. One of our sisters left this angel there that says ‘Sister’ on it. The dried blue flower one of my nieces left when they came up to visit from Washington,” Elliott said.
Smith said crews have come across about a half dozen roadside memorials in the four-mile section they’re working on near Big Lake Road.
“It means everything to me. We look at it as we’re neighbors. I live here, this is our community. We want to do right by the loved ones that that roadside memorial means to much to them,” Smith said.
Johnston was cremated and Elliott has some of her ashes in a dove necklace. With no gravesite to visit, the roadside memorial is where they find her presence.
“It’s a place we go to share memories of Chelsea with her nieces and nephews who didn’t get to know her. It kind of helps keep her memory alive,” she said.
She’s grateful to have the cross back as an important tribute to a life taken too soon. Elliott said her family plans to fix up the cross and replace it when the road construction is completed in 2022.
Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.