No Roads Lead Here

Cordova, Alaska: A Town Built on Copper

Alaskans have a reputation for being hardy, resourceful people in the face of bitterly cold winters and other dangers in the environment around them.

In Cordova, a port on Prince William Sound, people live with no roads into or out of town and more than a handful of locals are content if it stays that way. People come and go from Cordova by ferry or fishing boat, a lucky few fly in and out.

Others live out their days in the town that is ringed with snow-topped mountains and features several glaciers nearby.

One hundred and twelve years ago, Cordova did not exist. In 1906, a railroad builder allied with J.P. Morgan and Daniel Guggenheim oversaw the creation of the town. The East Coast business magnets needed a place to unload the high-grade copper it was shipping out of the lucrative Kennecott mines nearly 200 miles away in the mountains. Cordova grew along with the railway, which went into operation in 1911.

For the next 25 years, tons of copper was loaded onto ships in Cordova and thousands of men, some with their families, came ashore seeking work in the mine. In 1938, when the copper was depleted the mine shut down and the railroad was given to the state. The huge transport ships disappeared from the harbor, replaced by a growing fleet of trawlers and other fishing boats that dominate today.

A Cordova Gem: The Pioneer Club

Cordova residents today have honed survival skills, a legacy of the first settlers back in 1906. These hearty men and their families came together in the 1920s to support each other in the newly-named Pioneer Club, which was springing up in distant Alaska locales. Residents of Cordova founded their own post, dubbed Igloo #19, in 1928.

Today, the original log cabin where pioneers met to break up the long, dark winter nights still stands. Inside, yellowing photographs of the settlers line the walls.

Social dances, dinners and fundraisers still bring neighbors together, as they did on a recent summer night in the hall.

Cordova today attracts a few visitors willing to make the trek by sea or air. The beautiful Sullivan glacier is easily accessible about 15 miles outside of town.

Visitors used to be able to get a close-up view of Child’s glacier, which drops chunks of ice straight into the Copper River, from the road but now you have to go by boat. Seven years ago one of the bridges that crosses the braided strands of the river, was damaged, then closed. Cordova’s only major road ends now at the far edge of the bridge.

Like the hardy pioneers who first landed in this harsh environment and plodded through snowy mountains for a chance to work in the copper mine, people in Cordova have learned to thrive. The exquisite deep green temperate rainforest along the coast offers miles of beautiful hiking and the snowy peaks tempt skiers to put their skills to the test.

Cordova may seem isolated to folks who live in more southern climates but for the hardy souls here, including the native Eyak, Alutiiq, Ahtna and Tlingit peoples whose ancestors roamed the coast for thousands of years, it is home. Take a seven-hour ferry ride from Whittier, Alaska, and you can experience it first-hand.

Written by

TV, print and online journalist. Mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, adventurer, history-lover. and

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store