Cordova Chronicles: History in tangents and circles

Walking the highway is a trip back in time

This 2018 photo shows the end of today’s tangent at the Norman D. Osborne Bridge, where the road begins curving behind the Mile 13 airport. Dick Shellhorn photo

Spring cleanup is here again. A lack of snowfall this past winter means debris is already appearing. The annual Cordova Chamber of Commerce Cleanup Day is scheduled for Saturday, April 28.

Plus, city crews have begun clearing streets and sidewalks of sand and dust resulting from repeated treatments of often icy streets throughout the winter.

It’s time for one of my favorite pastimes, sunny early morning walks along the edges of the Copper River Highway, to pick up trash on the berms while enjoying the honking and quacking of returning waterfowl.

Every year birds return with marvelous consistency; and every year there seems to be less and less litter along the road. If we could understand bird-speak, I am sure it contains noisy appreciation.

Walking the highway not only is an enjoyable outdoor experience, it is also an annual trip back in time. We zip back and forth to the Mile 13 airport at 55 mph in a 15-minute trip and overlook the tale of a route that dates back several 100 years.

The 11-mile tangent on the CR&NW Railway began at the Mile 5 bridge across the Eyak River.
Cordova Historical Society photo

Perhaps no book contains a more detailed account of its early history than Alfred O. Quinn’s Iron Rails to Alaskan Copper: The Epic Triumph of Erastus Corning Hawkins. It mentions: “For the first 20 miles the route followed the old Indian tract from Eyak to Alaganic and the right away cleared by Heney’s forces in 1906.”

Visualize, if you will, “forces” out whacking their way through brush, muskeg, timber, swamps, glacial rivers and mosquitos to clear that route. Likely ancestors of the very waterfowl we see today were making a ruckus over this intrusion on their turf.

At least birds did not have to deal with the roar of chain saws. In fact, Andreas Stihl (a name all Cordova woodcutters should recognize) did not develop the first gas-operated chain saw until 1927, and it was a two-man monster that weighed 139 pounds.

Quinn’s book goes on to mention that “the route was across a relatively flat glacial outwash plain which required numerous small bridges and culverts — as many as 40 per mile.”

Wow. That is a lot of little bridges and culverts. There must not have been as many beavers around back then, for there is no mention of railroad crews constantly dealing with the big-toothed rodents having a field day damming them up.

Quinn then states: “This portion of the route contains an 11-mile tangent.”

Like many words in our English language, “tangent” has multiple meanings. For example, it is not uncommon for citizens to go off on tangents when discussing Cordova politics.

A security fence along the runway, originally built to keep moose off the landing strip, follows the original CR&NW Railway tangential right-of-way.
Dick Shellhorn photo

In engineering and mathematics, tangent refers to a straight line that touches a circle or curve at only one point. The tangent Quinn refers to, began at the Eyak River bridge at Mile 5 and ended at today’s location of the Alaganik Landing road turnoff at Mile 16.

The railway curved along the edge of Eyak Lake prior to the bridge across Eyak River; and also took a curve to the northeast immediately past the Alaganik Landing exit. Between those two points, the railway was a straight line. Likewise, the Copper River Highway, whose construction began right after the end of WWII, by tearing up the tracks and replacing them with a layer of gravel, included the same tangent.

Ironically, the 11-mile straight stretch no longer exists, and is now only eight miles long. Why?  Because the linear stretch of road now only extends from the Eyak River bridge to the near end of the Mile 13 runway.

The early highway ran directly parallel to the edge of the runway, until it was relocated to the north of the airstrip, beginning just beyond the Norman D. Osborne Bridge.

A link fence was built around the edge of the runway after a mid-1970s incident in which an Alaska Airline 727 ran into a moose on the runway.  The fence’s northern edge follows the original tangent course.

In this 1950s photo, a spindly moose calf, likely an ancestor of the moose that fell prey to the nose wheel of an Alaska Air 727 landing at Mile 13, follows caretaker Hollis Henrich down Second Street.
Cordova Historical Society photo

Mathematically speaking, one might say the moose, which was following a straight-line route across the runway in search of willow browse, learned about “the point of tangency” in its fatal encounter with the circular front landing gear wheel of the 727.

Ironically, it was at this very airport that this unlucky moose’s ancestors arrived on the Delta —  back in the 1950s, as calves from the Kenai Peninsula via Mudhole Smith’s Cordova Air DC-3s.

History, which takes countless twists and turns, contains many tangents and circles.

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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.