The Prototype: The Copper River & Northwestern Railway

A Brief History of the CR&NW

The real Copper River & Northwestern Railway – the prototype my layout is based upon – was an isolated standard-gauge ore hauler in southeast Alaska. Construction on the final route started from Cordova in 1907 and was completed nearly 200 miles inland to the mines above Kennicott on Mar 29, 1911. The railroad was built for one primary purpose: to connect some of the world’s richest copper deposits to tidewater at Cordova. Cordova, a deep water port on the Gulf of Alaska, allowed for easy access to the US west coast. Supplies could be hauled north and ore transported south to the smelter at Tacoma, WA.

Over the line’s 27 year operation, 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 Kennicott on November 11, 1938, carting away any remaining salvage and personnel, and the railroad filed with the ICC for abandonment two days later.

As it did every year, the Chitina crossing of the Copper River was swept away with the ice breakup in the spring of 1939, and with that event the line was permanently severed.

The track between Cordova and milepost 13 received a brief reprieve during World War II. The US Army reactivated this section of line to connect the port with an air strip being constructed at milepost 13 during the war. On the north end of the line, locals used motorcars on the track east of the Chitina bridge through the 1940s and 1950s to deliver supplies and mail to all the residents between Chitina and Kennicott. By the late 1950s, however, the track was in too bad of shape even for motorcars, and in the 1960s the track was torn out and the grade became the McCarthy Road.

Given the remote, inaccessible location of the mine and the railway, nearly everything was just abandoned in place. Tearing it out simply wasn’t worth the effort of hauling it out of the wild frontier. As a result of this isolation, parts of the operation have survived to present day remarkably intact. The mine and most of the town at Kennicott is preserved as a National Historic Site (or as private property) within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The rail grade was deeded to the State of Alaska, and has been rebuilt as a road from Cordova to Miles Glacier and Chitina to McCarthy. The section through the Copper River canyons itself, however, is mostly lost to time. Erosion, missing bridges, and just the forces of time and extreme weather have taken their toll, and aside from access via boat or helicopter, it has reverted to what it was when the CR&NW first cut the grade – a wild, inaccessible country.

A More In-Depth History

The Discovery of Copper

The Bonanza copper deposit was first discovered by white men in the summer of 1900, when Clarence Warner and Jack Smith found the rich chalcocite deposits at what would become Kennicott.  The native Ahtna people of the region had known of the deposits for many years, using the highly pure deposits to create a variety of copper items for daily life.  In fact, without the help of Chief Nicolai and his people, the two prospectors may have never found the famous ridge.

The two did not have the resources to develop the claims, so they contacted Stephen Birch.  Birch was an eastern mining engineer sent to Alaska by the Havemeyers (of sugar production fame) to search for business opportunities.  Birch instantly recognized the potential, and began buying up the various claims.  However, without a way to transport supplies in and ore out, there was no commercially viable way to exploit the ore body.

So, teaming the Havemeyers with the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan, Birch put together the Alaska Syndicate in 1905 to mine, process, and ship the ore.

The Valdez Terminus

Initially, Birch selected Valdez as the ocean port for a new railroad to serve the mines.  Two initial routes were surveyed between Valdez and the Copper River valley:

  • Via Thompson Pass, following the headwaters of the Tonsina River up to the Ernestine Divide and then down the Tonsina River to the Copper.  This is basically the route of the modern Richardson Highway from Valdez to Tonsina, and then the Edgerton Highway over to the Copper.  This route had the most severe grades, but avoided most of the troublesome spots in the Copper River valley.
  • Via Marshall Pass and the Tasnuna River valley, converging with the Copper River and following what would be the final alignment north.

Minimal work – a bit of grading and rock work – was done before the Alaska Syndicate was formed in 1905 and in late 1906 decided to move the terminus to Katalla, located on Controller Bay.  About the only remnant today is an abandoned tunnel in Keystone Canyon, right beside the Richardson Highway.

The Katalla Terminus

The decision to move the ocean terminal to Katalla after the discovery of coal and oil would seem obvious.  The Alaska Syndicate would own the mine, the railway, and the Alaska Steamship Company.  Eventually, they would want a smelter to refine the ore so that all that waste rock didn’t have to be transported by ship to a smelter elsewhere.  All of these things needed fuel, and if coal and oil were available locally, costs dictated using them.

Unfortunately, by the time the Syndicate made the decision to move the terminal, the Federal Government set aside the coal and oil fields around Katalla, placing them out of reach for commercial exploitation.

Construction of the CR&NW, along with the competing Alaska Pacific & Terminal Railroad, commenced in the spring of 1907.  As Katalla was not itself a deepwater port or a protected harbor, both railroads built jetties out into the ocean to allow large ships enough draft to dock.

It was all for naught, however.  Two severe storms in the the fall of 1907 destroyed both  ocean jetties and much of the railroad infrastructure.  The coal and oil deposits near Katalla were forever tied up in government bureaucracy, and were never brought to their potential.

Starting Over from Cordova

In 1906, Michael James “Big Mike” Heney of White Pass & Yukon fame started construction of a line, known as the Copper River Railroad, from a natural harbor on Orca Inlet known as the Odiak Cannery.  Heney would rename this starting point Cordova, AK, on Mar 13, 1906.

The Alaska Syndicate, having failed at Katalla, bought Heney’s new line and restarted construction of the Copper River & North Western Railway in late 1907.

Construction was completed on Mar 29, 1911 with the driving of a copper spike at Kennicott, 195.6 miles from the loading dock on Orca Inlet.

Over the years, the railway moved over $200 million in copper to market and provided vital access to an otherwise remote part of Alaska.

The railway’s final run was on September 11, 1938, hauling out the last of equipment and supplies from the final closing of the Kennecott mines.  Permission for abandonment was sought from the ICC on September 13, 1938, and was granted to April 21, 1939.

Post-Abandonment

The 13 mile section of railway between Cordova and the site of the current Cordova Airport was reactivated in 1941 to allow the US Army to construct an airport.  The strip would provide a refueling point for planes headed between the lower 48 and Alaskan airfields.

The railway was essentially abandoned in place, though the line was severed permanently the next spring when the Chitina trestle across the Copper River went out with the ice. Because of interest in maintaining the right of way as a possible public corridor, Congress passed an act on 15 Jul 1941 that allowed the CR&NW to convey their property to the Federal Government. On 29 Mar 1945, the CR&NW relinquished interest in the property to the Department of the Interior, which would pass to the State of Alaska at statehood.

The section between the east side of the Chitina river crossing and McCarthy remained and was used by light vehicles (rail-converted automobiles, motorcars, and the like) for years after abandonment to carry supplies and mail to McCarthy. This continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s, but by then the track and bridges were in such bad shape as to be nearly impassible. Around 1961, a contractor was hired to remove the rails and a rough frontier road was graded over the railbed.

In 1971, a new highway bridge was installed roughly in the same spot as the old Chitina trestle crossing of the Copper River.  The old railroad bed to Kennicott was then cleaned and graded to create the McCarthy Road.

The section of line between Chitina and the Tasnuna River crossing was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on 24 Apr 1973 as listing #73002275.

Published References

The primary published histories of the CR&NW consist of two books:

  1. The Copper Spike by Lone E. Jansen, ISBN 0882400665.  Published by Alaska Northwest Books in 1975.
  2. Iron Rails to Alaskan Copper by Alfred O. Quinn, ISBN 0964666901.  Published by D’Aloquin Publishing Company in 1995.

While not technically a history of the line, Ronald Simpson’s Legacy of the Chief is a fascinating historic novel about Kennicott copper deposits, the railway, and the human stories involved from both the native and non-native points of view.  While a work of fiction, Ron has devoted a huge amount of time and effort to getting the history right and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the area.

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