Cordova was founded by Michael Heney in 1906 as the terminus for his Copper River Railroad to the Alaskan copper fields. The name derives from Puerto Cordova, the name given to Orca Inlet (the bay on which the town sits) by earlier Spanish explorer Don Salvador Fidalgo.
The CR&NW’s Long Road to Cordova
Cordova was not the Copper River & Northwestern’s first or even second choice of ocean terminals. In 1906, the Alaska Syndicate originally started building their line to the copper deposits – the original Copper River & Northwestern – from Valdez. Very shortly after construction began, work was abandoned. A new port on Controller Bay known as Katalla, approximately 90 miles southeast of Valdez, had caught the Syndicate’s eye. Katalla was deemed preferable because of local oil and coal deposits, and it eliminated the need to cross any of the rather steep passes leaving Valdez.
Construction on the second version of the CR&NW started again from Katalla, but lasted less than a year before that port was deemed unsuitable as well. In late 1907, severe winter storms destroyed the port facilities built by both the CR&NW and Alaska-Pacific Railway & Terminal Co. The coal deposits – a fuel source the Syndicate was counting on to fuel both the railroad and the mining concerns – were no longer a factor, as Teddy Roosevelt’s administration had closed them to any large scale commercial exploitation in 1906.
The Alaska Syndicate, backers of the CR&NW, quickly realized that Heney’s natural harbor at Cordova was superior, and quickly purchased the Copper River Railroad (all ~5 miles of it) as the new starting point of the CR&NW. Thus, Cordova became the third and final choice for the CR&NW’s ocean terminal.
CR&NW in Cordova
Cordova was not only the railroad’s main port, where supplies and men coming in and ore going out would be interchanged with ocean liners, but was also the railroad’s main yard and shops.
The railroad started northwest of town, where a dock was established.
At milepost 1.5, where the line crossed Second Street, the railroad had a tiny passenger depot and freight dock.
Beyond Second Street, the railroad had its main shops and yard. The shops had an 11-stall roundhouse which, at least in the later years, had a covered turntable to allow for easier operation in heavy snowfall.
The roundhouse, car shops, machine shops, and several outbuildings were destroyed by fire on the night of December 27, 1945. (Daily Sitka Sentinal, Sitka, AK, Dec 28, 1945) Presumably this was related to the Army’s reactivation of the shops and railroad between Cordova and the air strip at milepost 13.