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The real Copper River & Northwestern was an isolated copper ore hauler in extremely remote southeast Alaska. Built against nearly impossible odds in 1908-1911 (earning it the nickname “Can’t Run & Never Will”), the line connected the docks at Cordova with the mine at Kennecott. The two-hundred mile route, largely through the extremely remote and inaccessible Alaska Coastal Range, followed the Copper River northward from Cordova to Chitina, where it turned east along the Chitina and Kennicott Rivers to the mines.
Over the line’s 27 year history, the route moved some $200 million in copper ore from some of the richest deposits ever discovered, along with the men, machines, and supplies that kept the mines running. However, by the late thirties, the top grade ore had been exhausted and Kennecott had acquired larger and easier to work mines at Bingham Canyon in Utah and El Teniente in Chile. On top of years of financial battering from the Depression, Kennecott finally pulled the plug on their original Alaska mine complex in 1938. The final train pulled out of Kennecott on September 11, 1938, carting away any remaining salvage and personnel, and the railroad filed with the ICC for abandonment two days later. When the timber trestle over the Copper River at Chitina went out with the spring thaw in 1939, the route was severed as a railway forever.
The Model Railroad
I’ve been fascinated by the CR&NW since I was a kid, vising Alaska for the first time with my family in 1989. While I never got the chance to see any of it on that trip, I remember looking at pictures of the Gilahina, Kuskulana and Miles Glacier bridges in various editions of The Milepost that we’d brought along, and daydreaming about what this remote, seldom-mentioned railroad would have been like when it was operating.
In the summer of 2013, I started kicking around the idea of actually building a model railroad again. I’d specifically sought out unfinished basements when I purchased my current house, and had started on a layout back in 2005. However, life threw me a few curve balls and progess stopped in late 2006. Since then I’d had the opportunity to actually visit the north end of the abandoned CR&NW, experience Chitina and Kuskulana for myself, and the old spark was rekindled in my imagination.
My N-scale Copper River & Northwestern is a “what if”, set in (near) modern day times as if the line had never been abandoned and the ore had never run out. I’ve made a few adaptations in the name of building an interesting layout, but I’ve tried to stay true to the history and feel of the region. I’ve kept many of the notable elements along the line – the two remaining big bridges, the Kennecott Mill (though, like reality, only as a piece of industrial heritage), some of the towns, etc. My goal is to create a scale world that seems like a plausible continuation of the CR&NW, with elements and a general feel readily recognizable to anybody familiar with the area.
The layout – two decks 16×25 in size – is still actively under construction and likely will be for a couple more years. Watch the “Latest Updates” section for regular posts not only about progress on the layout, but about prototype history and other related tidbits.