Cordova’s Docks

I’ve been working on a post about the alternate history that lead to my present-day version of the Copper River & Northwestern, and as part of that I was justifying the changes in Cordova.  I realized that my section talking about dock changes was getting so darn long and detailed that it might as well be broken out into its own post.

Specifically, one of the things I’ve contemplated since first imaging this railroad is, “How does the ore actually move out of Cordova, and in what form?”  The Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 provides some pretty good cover for whatever I chose to do – the quake caused land deformations and a moderate tsunami by the time it reached Cordova.  Contemporary news reports indicate that the docks were all but destroyed, and as such I’m assuming that if the CR&NW were still operating, it would have been required to rebuild its dock facilities.  As tragic as this event was in the real world, it’s like a get out of jail free card for the modeler.

Now, here’s the question – what sort of dock facilities would the railroad rebuild?  When the CR&NW was actually operating, the ore was so rich (or could easily be concentrated) to the point it could be economically shipped in sacks and pallets to the smelter in Seattle.  Eventually, Kennecott installed a concentrator to be able to process lower grade ore (but still insanely rich, by today’s standards).  Assuming the mines had survived, concentrators would have been increasingly necessary, as would using solvent extraction – electrowinning (aka SX-EW, basically dissolving copper and electrically plating it back out) to process the tailings and even lower grade ore.  There would have been no way to ship these low grade materials to the lower 48 economically for processing, so I have to assume increased processing would have been set up somewhere along the route – likely some concentration at the mine and some down the line, where there was more space, better access to power, and more hospitable weather conditions.  (Plus, it’s now in the middle of what’s now a national park.  I would hope that even in the 1960s and early 1970s before Wrangell-St. Elias was founded, there was enough sense to not bury such a unique and wild landscape in giant leach piles, but I’m probably hoping for too much on that one.)

How much copper and concentrate are we really talking about?  Let’s just go overboard for fun to see what the upper limits would be.   We’ll use a large open pit copper mine with a dedicated rail haul system – ASARCO’s Ray Mine  and Hayden concentrator-smelter complex in Arizona – as a sort of upper bound on what we might be dealing with.  The place is absolutely huge, but isn’t even in the top 10 as far as largest copper mines.  It cranks out 300+ millon pounds of copper from Hayden and 75+ million pounds of copper from SX-EW directly at Ray.  If you assume that’s all refined before it’s shipped, that’s only 187,500 tons, and at 100 tons/car and 365 days in a year, 5 railcars per day.  So let’s say that we only refine that to 50% concentrate before shipping.  It’s still only 10 railcars per day, or 1000 tons.

Looking through the various categories of oceangoing bulk vessels, we’d probably want something in the “Handysize” class if we were going to ship copper ore.  These range from 10000 to 35000 tons of DWT capacity.  So, assuming 50% concentrate, that means we’d have a vessel calling in Cordova roughly every 20-30 days to load up if we went with a bulk transport system. Not bad.  That’s a realistic call schedule for something running to the west coast of the lower 48.

However, this overlooks a few factors.  The US no longer has copper smelters anywhere on the west coast.  Currently, the only copper smelters operational in the US are ASARCO at Ray, AZ, Kennecott at Magna, UT, and Freeport McMoRan at Miami, AZ.  Canada only offers us one more – Xstrata’s smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec.  There’s nowhere for our bulker to offload to, except to transload onto rail again.   Also, I’m assuming that my “modern” Kennecott mine on the CR&NW wouldn’t produce anywhere near the output of Ray used in the example above.  Probably more like 200 tons of pure copper or 400 tons of 50% concentrate every day.  (That’s still 146 million pounds per year, which puts it in the middle of the pack for US copper mines.)   In addition, building a pure bulk loader doesn’t account for other inbound supplies that come by rail (mine supplies, fuel, etc.), outgoing non-ore freight (such as sulphuric acid from smelting, timber products, etc.), or even outgoing electrolytic copper from SX-EW processes.

Now our dry bulk freight isn’t looking so good.

The ARR has received car-float service from the west coast for years.  The ARR receives roughly one carfloat a week at Whittier, with a capacity of 50-ish cars per trip, plus the stacks of containers on top.  Certainly a surviving variant of the CRNW could do something similar.  So, given the ability to skip transloading, it seems like a rail barge slip would likely be the answer to the CRNW’s shipping problems.  50 cars per week is a bit tight, though, so we might have to have some extra capacity added on in the summer.

Besides, one ship a month sounds boring.  I’m a model railroader and this is my model railroad, after all, so I get to make some executive decisions about things that might not be the most economically plausible, but make my alternate reality a whole lot more interesting.  Having a removable rail barge that my operators have to load/unload in some prescribed order has a lot more potential challenge for my crews.  Otherwise, it’s just run the ore transport trains through a loadout loop and head back to the concentrator.  Again – boring…

That’s not to say the docks would have vanished entirely.  Cordova still today has a thriving fishing industry, and I presume the canneries would have also rebuilt in short order after the quake.  Rail service along the cannery dock would have provided them with incoming materials along with the ability to ship our refrigerated cars full of frozen fish.  (For perspective, Trident Seafoods lists their Cordova cannery as capable of processing 1.8 million pounds of salmon… daily!  That’s 900 tons of fish.  Even assuming only 10% of that is frozen, that could still be 1-2 reefers or 2-3 refrigerated containers a day!  Fresh would still need to ship via air freight, as a rail barge would need 5-6 days to reach the west coast terminals.)  So in my Cordova, there will be a wooden wharf area with a built-in siding, next to the barge slip.  Running frozen fish in reefers to distribution points in the lower 48 sounds like a reasonable proposition, or at least gives me some more operational possibilities.

So, that’s my rationale behind only providing Cordova with a 4 track barge slip and no bulk loader.  Bear in mind that I do air freight for a living, so my grasp on oceangoing bulk transport may be missing some key points.  If anybody who reads this has actual experience in these industries, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

Also, hopefully I’ll get back to actually building the railroad this week and have a progress update by the end of the weekend. Between being overwhelmed with work and feeling kind of off for the last month, I haven’t accomplished much lately.

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