Cordova Chronicles: Stories came up as the walls came down

Demolition workers tear down the façade of the Cordova Hotel and Bar. (Dec. 4, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Demolition workers tear down the façade of the Cordova Hotel and Bar. (Dec. 4, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

As bystanders from ages one to 80 stood under chilly blue skies, the Cordova Hotel and Bar came tumbling down.

Fascinated by the skillful operation of a massive orange excavator, crowds and vehicles lined Second Street on Nov. 10, 2019, as the back of the 111-year old building was carefully demolished without damage to the nearby Laura’s Liquor Shoppe or Alaskan Hotel and Bar.

The following day, action shifted to Main Street, where viewers stood in front of the ultra-modern new city civic center and museum to watch one of Cordova’s oldest buildings reduced to rubble. 

Amazingly, Main Street was open to two-way traffic during the teardown, and drivers gawked out their windows as they slowly passed a cordoned off area of sidewalk and street-front, with debris occasionally splattering the concrete just feet away.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this”, said longtime Cordovan Randy Bruce, who arrived here in the 1950’s to witness the heyday of wild times on Main Street, and worked on big machines out at the Mile 13 State DOT Station for many years.

Why, there was even heavy rock music to accompany the action.  Tyler Labruyere was parked for hours in a shiny silver hatchback directly in front of Laura’s, with the grill of his vehicle almost touching a pair of sawhorses that cordoned off the demolition area, while rocking out with tunes including Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” blaring out open windows.

More than one viewer kicked himself for not setting up a hot chocolate and hot dog stand, and many were baffled that the Alaskan Bar didn’t open early to serve hot toddies.   Someone suggested the event should have been saved for the Ice Worm Festival.

Demolition began at 10 a.m. on Nov. 11, and the CoHo was off into the mystic by 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon.  It was truly a fascinating and historic two days.

And as the walls came down, the stories came up. Of such are legends made.

The Cordova Hotel and Bar is demolished. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
The Cordova Hotel and Bar is demolished. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Samples:

Day #1: Flying Toilets and $2 Rooms

Young students in Laura Hanson’s second grade class at Mt. Eccles had a great view off the demolition.  Charlotte Westing’s daughter Sierra came home and told her how exciting it was to see a toilet go flying in the air.

Ralph Lohse remembered renting a room in the CoHo for $2 a night when he and his wife Linda first came to Cordova for the herring roe and kelp harvest in the early 70s.  She needed a place to stay when Ralph took their boat across the Sound for the fishery.  A day later she corrected him, saying it was a room in the Alaskan they rented.   “Oh well”, replied Ralph, “who can remember stuff for 50 years.”

So much for oral history.

Neither could remember if the $2 room had a toilet like the one the second graders saw go flying.

Day #2:  Black Velvet Paintings & Strippers

Bill Bernard, waiting on Main Street for the top edge of the CoHo’s front facia to come down, reminisced.   “Remember those famous paintings of a naked lady on black velvet that were behind the bar?  One night, some buddies of mine swiped one and somehow I ended up with it.”

Kenny Van Brocklin, Randy Bruce’s uncle, was a co-owner of the Club Bar for many years. “I remember one of those in the Club Bar, too,” said Bruce.

Another local, who wished to remain anonymous, stated: “When I was in high school, I remember walking by the bar on the alley between what is now Nichols Front Door Store and the Salvation Army store.  It was a hot afternoon, the door was open, and I saw a painting like that on the wall.”

Bernard:  “They must have been in every bar in town.  I don’t know who the artist was, but there was a LOT of speculation about who the model was.”

The paintings were popular for good reason. Every pub owner knew such guesswork would be a hot topic worthy of several rounds during many a cold winter night.

A driver peers out the window of his pickup while passing the demolition of the CoHo on November 11, 2019.   Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn
A driver peers out the window of his pickup while passing the demolition of the CoHo on November 11, 2019. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

Linda Johnson Ecolano, who worked at the CoHo Bar for years, added another juicy tidbit:

“One year after a big seine season the CoHo flew down some strippers from Anchorage to perform on the dance floor.  I remember they had guards on every door – not to keep people from coming in, but to warn if the cops were coming.”

Both Days: Mystery Windows with No View

When bystanders weren’t exchanging stories, many were mystified by the three rows of windows on the south-side wall of the Alaskan that were exposed as the CoHo was demolished.

The answer to that riddle lies in Nicki Nielsen’s booklet, “From Fish and Copper, Cordova’s Heritage and Buildings”, an Alaska Historical Commission Studies in History No. 124, Copyright 1984, Cordova Historical Society. 

To produce this remarkable booklet full of photos and background of particular buildings, Nielsen spent considerable time reviewing old Cordova newspapers, interviewing local Cordovans, researching court records and documents, and reading various books about Cordova.

In it, she dedicated two pages to the Alaskan Hotel and Bar, and the Cordova House. Perhaps they provide the answer.

Wrote Nielsen: “The Alaskan Hotel, built in the summer of 1908, opened for occupancy in September, 1908 as the two-story MacCormac Hotel.  A third story was added in 2010.

“When built in 1908 the Cordova Lodging House, originally two stories high, was constructed in stages.”

Onlookers gather on the streets and roofs of the Alaskan and CoHo to watch a “drilling contest” as part of the Cordova’s July 4, 1909 celebration. Photo courtesy of Cordova Historical Society
Onlookers gather on the streets and roofs of the Alaskan and CoHo to watch a “drilling contest” as part of the Cordova’s July 4, 1909 celebration. Photo courtesy of Cordova Historical Society

Nielson then quotes an August 1908 article from the Cordova Alaskan newspaper: “The Cordova Lodging House is erecting a mammoth rooming apartment to the front structure recently built. “

So it appears the Alaskan and the original CoHo were built at almost the same time.  Since that first section of the CoHo did not extend very far back off Main Street, it would make sense for the Alaskan to have view windows along its exposed south wall. 

However, once the “mammoth rooming apartment”, with its pitched roof, was added on to the back of the CoHo, all those Alaskan Hotel windows would be blocked from view; and even more so, when a third floor was added to the front of the CoHo in 1910.

Incidentally, neither the Alaskan or CoHo were the first building completed in the new Cordova townsite, established in 1907.

In the same booklet, Nielson notes that the Red Dragon “was the second building completed during the construction phase of the new townsite.  It opened on July 14, 1908, just four days after the Northern Saloon, who had outbid Rev. Newton for a pile of scarce lumber.”

Well, surprise, surprise.

The first building in Cordova was … a saloon.

And now one of its more famous is gone, into the mystic.