Cordova Chronicles: For whom the bell tolls

The Cordova Hotel and Bar is demolished. (Dec. 4, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
The Cordova Hotel and Bar is demolished. (Dec. 4, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cordova Telephone Cooperative is on schedule with their plan to replace the decaying Cordova Hotel and Bar (CoHo) with a new Main Street office. CTC was the high bidder in its sale this spring, after the old landmark fell into city hands following its abandonment.

Demolition of the aging three-story structure is under way by Alaska Abatement, an Anchorage firm that was awarded the contract. One of their first steps was to conduct a hazmat survey that identified potentially dangerous materials that were sealed and taken to the city landfill at Mile 17. Debris from the demolition will also go to that site.

After demolition, the exposed lot between the Alaskan Hotel and Bar and Laura’s Liquor Shoppe will be covered with fill and surrounded by a security fence. CTC will then proceed with plans and design work for a new three-story structure that will reflect the appearance of the original building.

The CoHo was one of the first buildings constructed on the Cordova townsite, which was established in 1907 in conjunction with the development of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway.

Originally two stories high, the 50-by-90-foot rooming apartment was completed in 1908 and named the Cordova Lodging House. Frank Castle, an old time Alaskan and locomotive engineer, and Harry Thiestd were the proprietors. 

The third floor was added in 1910, and many years later a stairway fire escape was added to the front of the building. When the fire escape was later removed, the result was a strange door on the third floor that opened up into nothing but air, which puzzled observers almost as much as the nearby upside-down Alaskan’s bar sign.

At the recently opened Kayak Cafe, Jane Spencer displays the highly prized CoHo Bar Bell that she won in bidding for artifacts from the famous old building. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times
At the recently opened Kayak Cafe, Jane Spencer displays the highly prized CoHo Bar Bell that she won in bidding for artifacts from the famous old building. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Countless Cordovans have lamented the closing of the CoHo, which for many years was famous for its sourdough pancakes served in the back cafe, in a unique and often smoky atmosphere which was accessible only by those brave enough to venture through a deteriorating maze of hallways.

Also missed will be the CoHo’s classic bar, adjacent pool table, jukebox and dance floor.

As part of its bid agreement prior to demolition, CTC identified and put up for sealed-bid auction countless keepsakes and useful items that were left behind when the building was abandoned. 

Perhaps none was more treasured by locals who appreciate live late-night entertainment than the bar bell.

For those unfamiliar with this apparatus, it is a metal bell typically mounted behind the bar.  When a patron asks the barkeep to ring the bell, that signals he is buying a round of drinks for everyone at the bar.

This is a tradition believed to harken back to the days of sailing ships. When safely arriving home, thirsty sailors would head to the nearest pub, and ring the bell to celebrate surviving another voyage. Britain, rich in sailing tradition, now has over 61,000 pubs, and buying a round is a national pastime, so the bells are ringing quite often.

Cordova doesn’t have that many pubs, but probably ranks right up there in pubs per capita. Starting back in the railway days, and through the transition to a fishing town after the Copper River and Northwestern Railway closed in 1938, many a bar bell has rung about town.

For example, before a major fire in 1963 destroyed the entire block of buildings from today’s Prince William Sound Aquaculture to First National Bank Alaska, the following bars lined Main Street, scattered between other businesses: the Club, Nick’s (Little) Bar, the Tavern, Bill’s, the Alaskan and the Coho. Others about town included the Elks, Moose and Powder House.

At one time there were more. Al Swalling, who came to Cordova in 1929 with nothing but the shirt on his back, and eventually ended up in charge of all the buildings along the railroad before making his fortune ramrodding the construction of the Whittier Tunnel during WWII, wrote a fascinating 27-page booklet titled “The Cordova I Knew”. In it, Swalling listed 11 bars and three card rooms. 

Mt. Eccles students watch as the Cordova Hotel and Bar is demolished. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Mt. Eccles students watch as the Cordova Hotel and Bar is demolished. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Can you imagine all those bar bells? It must have sounded like Christmas Eve every night on Main Street, for up through the ’60s, closing time for pubs was 2 a.m. during the week, but 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Plus, outside the then city limits, the Powder House stayed open until 5 a.m.

Ah, the tales those bar bells could tell. 

Here’s just one, from that precious CoHo bell.

In the mid-’70s, Cordova was hosting a district basketball tournament. Back then, players were housed out; and traditionally, at the end of the tournament, the coaches and referees would get together to wrap up the playoffs.

The CHS Wolverines fared well, and after the final games and awards ceremonies, it seemed like every fan of legal age in the gym headed uptown to celebrate. The Club, Alaskan and CoHo all had live bands, and Main Street was Saturday Night Live.

We ended up at the CoHo, scrunched around a small table right next to the band in a far corner of the dance floor. Folks were out showing off their best moves, and over the din, Delta Coach Roger Nelles shouted, “last one to get a dance buys the first round.”

He jumped up, raced over to the bar, and tapped the back of a long blond sitting on a bar stool.   The person swiveled around, and through an equally long beard said, “Can I help you?”

Nelles — who was also quick with courtside wit — said, “Sure. I’d like to buy all you guys a drink.”

As we roared with laughter, the bartender rang the bell, and everyone cheered.

That very bell, in the CTC auction, went to Jane Spencer, with a bid that would surely buy a round at any pub in town.

What a keepsake.

Think how many times, and by how many characters, that CoHo bell was rung.

Recently I conducted a phone survey of every current waterhole in Cordova: the Anchor, Reluctant, Alaskan, Moose and Powder House. The results revealed that all have a bar bell.

My favorite response came from a barmaid at the Anchor, which is well known as the last pub to close most nights. With indignation in her voice came, “Of COURSE we have one.”

So.

The bell has rung for its last time at the CoHo, but there are still several other places where you can be the one for whom the bell tolls.