Cordova Chronicles: Did the 1964 Earthquake actually help Cordova?

The disaster changed the landscape of Cordova as we know it By Dick Shellhorn For The Cordova Times

The Great Alaska Earthquake of March 1964 caused damage estimated at $1.7 million to Cordova, but perhaps its greatest impact was the resulting 6.2-foot land uplift.

Lone Janson, editor of The Cordova Times at the time, headlined one story in the “Earthquake Edition” with the question “Where Has the Water Gone?” Tides no longer flooded the harbor and nearby mudflats. Estimates by local fisherman of an elevation of about 7 feet turned out to be amazingly close. Indeed, a lot of water left, never to return.

To get a “feel” for the amount of uplift, walk out on the dock across from the Cordova Outboard Shop that connects to a covered ramp down to the floats. Prior to the earthquake, extreme high tides compounded by bad weather would almost touch the underside of that dock.

Fifty-two years later, it appears one impact may have been positive. Almost immediately after the earthquake, the Army Corps of Engineers came in to do a massive dredging project in the harbor. The dredged material was pumped on to mudflats adjacent to the harbor, creating large areas of fill which would settle and be used for industrial expansion.

In the ’60s, longtime Cordovan Randy Bruce worked at Johnny French’s Cordova Outboard Shop, and was employed there both prior to and after the earthquake.

“I remember we were one of the first business to rebuild, just a year after the earthquake,” he said. “The fill areas were being covered with rock and gravel, and we had to drive pilings to support the new building.”

“The land around the building was pretty soft at first,” Bruce added. “In fact, we sunk one of our trucks up to its hubcaps while trying to drive across it.”

Since then, the fill areas have been expanded, and proved to be some of Cordova’s most valuable real estate.

This year alone, five new building/structures are in various stages of completion. One of the most striking is Alpine Diesel’s towering covered facility on the boat haul-out fill beyond the Ferry Dock.

The structure was created by attaching metal frame arch-work atop two rows of containers stacked two high. The inside dimensions are 120-feet by 50-feet, with the top of the cover 50 feet up. It was assembled by Alaska Dreams of Anchorage, and built to withstand winds of 120 mph and 120-pound snow loads.

“It’s designed to handle two 58-foot seiners or one larger vessel,” said owner Jerry Blackler. “The city’s travel lift can drive right through it. We will soon have a trailer that will allow us to fit four boats inside. It will also be available for all kinds of equipment repairs, as well as gill netters, pleasure craft and large vehicles.”

Ocean Beauty is busy wrapping up its 6,500-square-foot fish oil/fish meal plant adjacent to its existing facilities, with most of the work being done by local contractors Wilson Construction, Facility Contractors and Kiwi Mechanical.

David Roemhildt of Facility Contractors has added a 50-foot by 100-foot metal warehouse-style building next to his recently completed Redden Net/Plumbline building. The facility will be used by Redden for building seines as well as storage for Plumbline.

Harborside Pizza is eyeing a Sept. 10 opening of a pizza parlor being built by Steve and Laramie Schmid of local CNA Contractors for owners Brian Wildrick and Lindsay Butters. The 1,500-square-foot building will include inside seating for 25 as well as an outside deck to enjoy their well-regarded brick-oven “pies.” Rounding out the mini-boom is Prime Select’s bunkhouse for its employees.

All this construction, compounded by several expansions for housing, storage, and processing by Trident in recent years, plus Camtu’s developments on the other side of the harbor, will literally fill up all land available from the original dredging and follow-up expansions. The only lot left other than the Breakwater Fill near the Science Center is a small parcel being used for impounded cars by the City of Cordova.

Leif Stavig of the City Planning Department provided some statistics about the value and impact of all this development. Four canneries are located on the fills: Trident, Ocean Beauty, Prime Select, and Camtu. The total assessed value of all the enterprises and properties on the North and South Fill areas is $24 Million, which between property taxes and leases generates about $360,000 annually. Stavig also mentioned how vital the fill areas are for fisherman’s parking, as well as boat haul out and storage.

The City of Cordova has recognized the demand for space, and is looking to expand its boat haul out facility and develop more industrial tideland property. It recently issued a Request for Proposals/Bids on undeveloped tidelands adjacent to the boat haul out area. Since it’s completion in 2010, the facility has exceeded projected numbers of lifts and revenue, and the proposal seeks bidders to partner with the City to fill five acres just north of the current area.

All this development leads to an interesting question: Where would all of this growth have gone, but for an earthquake half a century ago?

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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. He 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. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.