Sketch of Copper River and the Northwestern Railway dock

What is left of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway dock (built in 1908) in Cordova as it looked in 2019, with Hawkins Island in the background. Ray Bonnell

From the 1911 completion of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW) until the mid 1930s, Cordova’s economy was primarily dependent on the railway and shipment of copper ore from the mines at Kennecott.

Cordova was the railway’s southern terminus. The CR&NW train yard was in the Odiak Slough area on the town’s south side, and its docks at Cordova’s northern edge. This arrangement was necessary since the Odiak Slough area had no near-shore deep-water anchorage.

In 1907, the CR&NW built tracks from Odiak Slough along the shore of Orca Inlet to Three Trees Point (where the Jack Dalton house is located), just north of the town.

The CR&NW built its transit dock just off the Three Trees point. Train tracks ran out onto the dock, with the approach trestle curving around the point to the main dock, which ran several hundred yards further north. The dock was the first in Cordova and became known simply as Ocean Dock.

Its deep-water location attracted numerous businesses. In the late 1910s, the Alaska Steamship Company (ASC) built warehouse facilities there. In 1915, the first salmon cannery was built on Ocean Dock and additional canneries were later added. In the 1920s, Standard Oil Company erected oil storage tanks on-shore near Three Tree Point and also built dock facilities. By the 1930s, there were a half-dozen canneries operating from or near Ocean Dock, with New England Fish Company’s cannery, located at the dock’s northern end, being the largest.

During the mid-1930s, labor strikes and declining copper prices sent shudders through Cordova’s economy. However, according to a 2002 Alaska Department of Natural Resources report, by then seafood processing was vying for dominance as Cordova’s main economic driver. At least nine canneries were operating in Cordova, and the number of residents directly employed in the fishing industry was five times the number of Railroad employees.

By the late 1930s, high-grade copper ore at the Kennecott mines had been depleted. That, combined with rising operating costs, spurred the Kennecott Corporation to close its Alaska mines and the CR&NW Railway in 1938.

With the mines and CR&NW shut down, the railway facilities in Cordova were abandoned. Most of the buildings in the town’s rail yard sat unused and were eventually destroyed by fire.

The New England Fish Company’s Ocean Dock cannery burned in 1944, and the company rebuilt elsewhere the next year. During that time period, the rails on Ocean Dock were removed and the trestle linking the dock to town was replaced with a gravel road.

The ASC, Standard Oil and numerous canneries continued to use the dock until April 1968, when a welder at one of the canneries accidentally ignited dock pilings. The resulting inferno destroyed much of Ocean Dock, including three cannery buildings, the ASC’s 600’ wharf and Standard Oil’s dock facilities.

ASC chose not to rebuild its facilities (it ceased operations in 1971), and Ocean Dock was abandoned. Cordova was left without deep-water port facilities until the State of Alaska built a new dock about a mile away.

The surviving canneries and other facilities near Ocean Dock continued to be used.

The remaining bit of CR&NW dock is shown in the drawing. Located adjacent to still-active facilities, it consists of a 20’ x 181’ east-west-oriented section jutting out from shore, and a shorter north-south-oriented section in deeper water measuring 32’ x 62”. The dock has sat unused for over 50 years, and is in poor condition, covered with grass, moss and even small trees.

The property is now owned by Sylvia Lange and Greg Meyer. The old railway dock is unsafe and not open to the public. However, it remains a bitter-sweet reminder of a bygone era.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

• “Cordova historic building survey for the First Street sidewalk improvement project and the Copper River Highway bicycle and pedestrian path.” Rolffe G. Buzzell. State of Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. 2002

• “From Fish and Copper: Cordova’s Heritage and Buildings. Nicki J. Nielsen. Cordova Historical Society. 1984

• “The Copper Spike.” Lone. E. Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1975

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