Cordova Chronicles: The biggest explosion in Cordova, Part 3

Three men never identified saved Lovseth’s piano from roaring flames

While the 1947 blast at Alaganik was a surprise that few witnessed, in 1963 many on-lookers were on hand to see a large, planned explosion right on Cordova’s Main Street.

FIRE DESTROYS BUSINESS AREA OF CORDOVA, screamed the headlines of the May 9 Cordova Times, published by mimeograph as the Times Building and its presses were among the many structures destroyed in the blaze.

At 4:10 a.m., Thursday, May 2, 1963 the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department was called out for a fire that had already spread full breadth of the Club Cafe and back of the Club Bar … Within minutes after starting, flames had spread north and south …

Firemen attempt to save the Cordova Drug building, which housed the Elks Lodge on the upper floor. Individuals can be seen evacuating materials from adjacent buildings. The dynamite blast took place in Bill’s Bar, the first low building this side of Cordova Drug.
Photo courtesy of the Cordova Historical Society
Bystanders flinch as the dynamite blast in Bill’s Bar sends debris flying in all direction. The explosion was unsuccessful in stopping the fire’s advance.
Photo courtesy of the Cordova Historical Society

Old two and three story wooden frame buildings, built in the railroad days and crammed side by side, lined the entire Main Street block between C and B Avenues. Before it was all over, almost every building on Main and Second Street was a pile of smoldering rubble.

The Club Bar and Cafe were located at the site of today’s Copper River Fleece, and it turns out they had just received a deliver of 1,500 gallons of fuel the day before the blaze began. As the conflagration roared down the street, business and apartment owners frantically tried to save what they could carry before it reached their locations.

Among the items was a piano. Three men, who remain unidentified to this day, discovered Judy Lovseth, a talented musician who was a high school junior at the time, standing outside Rosswogs Building, crying. Her parents, Pete and Lil Lovseth, had recently purchased the building, and the trio thought she might be fearful her father was still inside.  When she explained her piano might go up in flames, the threesome raced inside, pushed it down the upstairs hallway, slide it out a window, and loaded it from the roof to a pickup truck in the alleyway.  She still has the piano, with a few of the keys partially browned by the heat,

In an attempt to stop the blaze by creating a fire break, large amounts of dynamite were placed in Bill’s Bar, which was located near today’s Seaman’s Hardware. Everyone was cleared of the area, and many witnessed the explosion while standing on the street in front of the Alaskan.

The blast was quite spectacular, with wood and building parts flying in all directions.  Unfortunately, despite valiant efforts by the under-equipped fire department to douse the area, flames jumped the gap and continue onward.

Not until 2 p.m. that day was the fire declared until control. By the time the smoke had settled, 15 buildings that housed 32 various businesses had been destroyed. Many of the adjacent buildings were damaged by the heat of the fire, water used to extinguish the flames, and ironically, the force of the dynamite explosion. Over 150 people were displaced.

And while a small, overgrown gap in a rock outcropping at 22 Mile is the only reminder of the 1947 explosion at Alaganik, a view of today’s Main Street reflects the huge impact of a 1963 fire, and unsuccessful dynamite blast, that changed the shape of Cordova forever.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. Shellhorn has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town.