Cordova and the Copper River Highway


Even today you can see the bumperstickers around Cordova:

Bumpersticker, Cordova, Alaska, Photographer Unknown

Bumpersticker, Cordova, Alaska, Photographer Unknown

There is not and never has been a road from Cordova to the rest of the world. There used to be a railroad from Cordova through Chitina to McCarthy, the Copper River & Northwestern Railroad. Cordova exists because of the railroad and the $200 million in copper ore hauled out of Kennicott Mine. But the CR&NW Railroad ceased operations in 1938. The railroad donated the right-of-way to the Unites States, and the right-of-way went to the new State of Alaska, but the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964 damaged the Million Dollar Bridge at Childs Glacier, brought down massive landslides at many places in Copper River Canyon, and despite fits and starts at construction since, the road has never been close to being built.1

Today, the old railroad grade is improved as a gravel road east from Cordova to the Copper River Delta. At one point, you could drive to the Million Dollar Bridge at MP59. But the ever-changing channels in the Copper River Delta have scoured out gravel islands and damaged Bridges 339 and 340 at MP 36. Today, it looks like this:

Copper River Highway, Looking Across to Bridge 340

Copper River Highway, Looking Across to Bridge 340

That’s about 1,100 feet of empty air where there used to be a gravel island. Worse, the channelized flow has scoured down to the bottom of the piers on both bridges 339 (where the photo was taken) and Bridge 340 (the west end of which is across the river channel). This is the way it has been since 2011, and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has no plans or the funds to repair the break.

Easterly end of the Copper River Delta, 2012 (ADOT&PF Photo)

Easterly end of the Copper River Delta, 2012 (ADOT&PF Photo)

Let alone complete repairs to the Million Dollar Bridge (officially the Miles Glacier Bridge) and build a road on the canyon wall the rest the way up to Chitina.

Bumpersticker politics? No, geography and economics. But no road, even so.

Miles Glacier Bridge, a/k/a Million Dollar Bridge, June 1956 (Photo by U.S.G.S.)

Miles Glacier Bridge, a/k/a Million Dollar Bridge, June 1956 (Photo by U.S.G.S.)

 


  1. In 1991, Governor Wally Hickel, in his second term, attempted to construct the highway along the old railroad grade. He didn’t get very far before the federal government stepped in. Cooler heads prevailed. The State of Alaska paid some fines for violating the Clean Water Act. Canyon erosion has obliterated most of the dozer work. Nature bats last. 
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