Cordova Chronicles: Historic Adams Avenue receives major repairs

Route dating back to 1905 has a niche in Cordova history

A view up Adams Avenue from Main Street shows Wilson Construction busy at work on major renovations. The project is scheduled to be completed by mid-September. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Anyone who has survived driving through lake-size puddles at the conjunction of Adams Avenue and Main Street following heavy rains or slushy winter storms will appreciate the major repairs now taking place on that much-traveled section of Cordova’s streets.

Since mid-August, Wilson Construction has been busy on a half-million-dollar project to resolve drainage issues – plus install new sidewalks – and hopes to be done with the work by mid-September.

Funding for the project came from a combination of city and federal funding in a roughly one-to-three ratio, with the city chipping in $130,000 and federal grants adding $420,000. Much of the money was allocated from Federal Safe Access to Schools as well as Handicapped Access programs.

The Wilson crew in action with new storm drains in place, as seen in this view from Second Street. Resolving water accumulation at the bottom of the hill is a major goal of the project.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

“Water pooling at the bottom of the hill there has always been a major problem,” city engineer Rich Rogers said. “Plus, new sidewalks will make it much safer for kids to go from Mt. Eccles Elementary to the city library and museum.”

“Completion of the project is of course weather dependent,” Rogers said. “The final steps will be having Harris Sand and Gravel bring over hot asphalt and equipment from Valdez on their specially designed barge to repave the entire street.”

Drivable curb valleys in front of Net Loft and the former city library will allow vehicle access to parking in front of those buildings, while larger drains and a crown on the road should resolve the runoff issues.

Sometimes there is simply no place where machinery can do the work, as efforts by this Wilson employee installing an enlarged water drain demonstrates.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Adams Avenue has quite a niche in Cordova history. It dates back to 1905 when a group of Valdez businessmen who became interested in land around Orca Inlet as a potential harbor for the shipment of coal from Katella. One of those was George Hazlet, who arrived in Valdez in 1898 as a prospector. Eventually he became built a large home on the corner of Fourth and Council on the way to the Ski Hill, and also served as Cordova’s first mayor.

Cordova surveyor Leo Americus follows in the footsteps of A. Judson Adams, a deputy U.S. Surveyor who laid out Adams Avenue and the new Cordova Townsite back in 1905.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Judson Adams, deputy U.S. Surveyor, completed an on-site survey of the new Cordova townsite for the Valdez investment group between May 16-18, 1905. Hence the name Adams for the first road connecting First and Second streets.

The rocky terrain upon which Cordova is now situated had a definite drainage advantage over the original townsite, which was on flat but swampy terrain near Eyak Lake. It had been located there due to a fishery in Eyak Lake itself, and a small railroad track that ran through town was used to transport salmon to a cannery located on Odiak Slough. Ironically, Wilson Construction’s present offices and equipment yard are situated on what was the very center of “old town.”

Cordova moved from this swampy original townsite near Eyak Lake to its present location beginning in 1907. Wilson Construction’s offices and equipment are now located where the large buildings at the right once stood.
Photo courtesy Cordova Historical Society

During the year following the survey, much blasting of solid rock in the area was done to create available property, with over $100,000 in improvements including clearing and laying out streets being paid for by the sale of the lots. By 1908 the relocation of many businesses was underway.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the first structure completed on the new townsite was the Northern Saloon. Just four days later, on July 14, 1908, the Red Dragon opened its doors. Supposedly the owner of the Northern Saloon outbid Reverend Newton for a scarce pile of lumber to win the construction race.

Buildings along Adams Avenue also reflect Cordova history. At various times the site of today’s popular Net Loft contained a bottling works, and then a laundromat. The latter was torn town after its roof blew off in a storm and replaced with the present structure.

For many years, just up the street at the site of today’s Baptist Church, stood the Presbyterian Church, which included a gym in the basement that was the site of high school basketball action from 1928 to 1936. That church, which by then had become the Cordova Baptist Church, was destroyed by fire in 1960.

For many years, a children’s playground was located on the north side of Adams Avenue between First and Second streets.
Photo courtesy Cordova Historical Society

A playground which dated back to the 1930s occupied a mostly empty lot opposite today’s Net Loft and Baptist Church. Elevated wooden boardwalks lined both Main and Second streets beside the lots, which were used as a snow dump during the winter.

Wildlife is also part of the Adams Avenue history. The first moose to wander the Copper River Delta spent their early months after arrival via Cordova Air DC-3s gazing at activity on Adams from a fenced-in block of brush and swamp that is now the site of Mt. Eccles Elementary.  Youngsters help Hollis Henrich and other Izaak Walton volunteers feed them from large bottles and also discovered the little calves loved fireweed.

The Iceworm Festival was created in 1961, and the first Iceworm marched down Adams Avenue to begin the parade.
Photo courtesy Cordova Historical Society

Other historic events occurred on Adams. Photos of the first Iceworm Festival parade in 1961 show it starting not near today’s lineup by the Masonic Lodge, but headed down the very section of Adams now being repaired.

Adams Avenue terminates further to the east beyond Fourth Street, and likely very few locals know that at one time a steep gorge beyond that point was once the site of a dump.

Of this I can verify, for the days of my youth were spent in the house on the corner of Adams and Second now owned by Randy and Jackie Bruce, and one time my dad was astonished when we neighborhood kids came rolling a large stagecoach-style wheel down the dusty road.

City dumps have been located in quite a variety of places, and at one time one was at the upper end of Adams Avenue. A wagon similar to the one shown in this early photo of the docks near today’s Copper River Seafoods was among the treasures discovered in that abandoned scrap heap
Photo courtesy Cordova Historical Society

We had discovered what had been a horse-drawn wagon, and countless other treasures, in a heap of rubble overgrown with brush, while exploring beyond the upper end of Adams.

History is where you find it.

I wonder if Wilson Construction discovered any artifacts while digging down into a street that dates back to 1905.

And as part of the current project, it was noteworthy watching local surveyor Leo Americus set up a tripod for his high-tech equipment in the place where 113 years earlier, A. Judson Adams had done the very same thing, albeit surrounded by brush and trees, and using much more fundamental tools.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at 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.