Cordova Chronicles: A 4-page trip back in time

By August 1908, most of “Old Cordova” had been dismantled, with much of the material being used to rebuild many of the same businesses in the new townsite. The railroad tracks shown in the photo had been used to move fish from the end of Eyak Lake to canneries on Odiak Slough. Photo courtesy of Cordova Historical Society

Perhaps nothing gives more insight into history than a newspaper from the past, so imagine the treasures held in a recently discovered copy of The Cordova Alaskan dated Saturday, Aug. 29, 1908.

Listed as Vol. 3, No. 11, the paper was a four-page weekly published by editor John W. Frame at a time when the city of Cordova was moving from “Old Town” near the end of Eyak Lake to the newly established present site of the city.

Frame situated a feature titled “Let Us Each One Advertise” in the upper right hand corner of the front page, and described how this edition “gives a short descriptive paragraph of each business man’s place in Cordova” to “give those not acquainted with the new town an idea of what is here and the class of men engaged in business in Cordova.”

What followed, on pages two and three of a four page fold-out edition, was an amazing Who’s Who in Cordova list of 76 individuals or businesses, each with details as to the owner’s time in Alaska, the state where he was born, his background, and a sales pitch to spend $3.50 to send a copy of the paper to a “friend in the states for a year.”

Based on the number of 80-foot length buildings of various width that were being erected in the new townsite, as well as others being hauled intact or disassembled from their old location, it is amazing they all fit into the new digs, which were literally that.

Main Street included a huge hold halfway down the byway that was being spanned by a wooden boardwalk.

Not surprisingly, grand opening announcements were plentiful in both number and adjectives. For example, a pub named The Cordova received these plaudits:

“The Cordova will give a grand opening tonight at their palatial saloon on First Street, New Cordova. Messrs. O’Brien & Simpson say they will spare nothing. There is to be the best of music, a delicious lunch and plenty to drink. This popular firm which has been in business in the old town for some time has secured for its new place all the choice wines and liquors for the family table and asks you to sample them. The liquors that will be served over the bar are of the highest grade and you are cordially invited to see for yourself. The lunch will be served free and everybody is invited. The Cordova building is the most artistic structure in the new town, handsomely decorated and richly furnished. Be sure you are there tonight and see it for yourself.”

Whew. Reading it is enough to make one both hungry and thirsty.

Also note the biography pages were titled “Business Men of Cordova.” Yet tucked in the list was Miss L.A. Burke, who was building an 85-by-100-foot hotel on the corner of Second Street and B Avenue.

Dated August 29, 1908, Vol. 3, No. 11 of The Cordova Alaskan was full of fascinating history, including a biography of all the “Business Men of Cordova.” Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Hmmm. A woman on the list. Surprise, surprise. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, didn’t pass until 1920.

Burke’s hotel, which became known as the Windsor, would be the largest and most expensive structure in town. With electricity, steam heating and hot and cold water in each room, it would have all the conveniences of the most up-to-date hotels in the biggest cities. It was famous for its huge lobby, massive fireplace and broad stairway leading to upper level rooms.

The front page contained news of interest, some requiring a little historical context. Recall that originally there were three competing routes for the railway to the copper at Kennecott, from Katella, Valdez and Cordova.

In 1907, winter Gulf of Alaska storms wiped out the breakwaters and docks at Katella, and references were made by several businesses to their relocation to Cordova from that site.  However, the rivalry between Valdez and Cordova was still in play.

In fact, the local newspapers of those two towns were going at it. Evidently The Valdez Prospector accused Cordovans of stuffing the ballot box in a recent territorial election.

A short front-page story in the Cordova paper titled “The Deserted Village” first quotes a paragraph from the Valdez Propector: “The Alaskan proudly asserts that no illegal votes were cast in Cordova. Well, some men could walk through the streets naked without blushing.”

Editor Frame responds with a timely rebuttal: “Well yes. If the Valdezians keep moving to Cordova for three more months as they have in the past three, we could walk naked through streets of that deserted village without blushing.”

When not tangling with their cross-sound rival the Alaskan also described progress on the railway construction toward the great copper mines of the Interior.

Under headlines “Watch Cordova Grow”, it states: “The bridge is now completed across the river (referring to the Million Dollar Bridge at Mile 52) and the engines are whistling on the opposite bank as they roll along farther and farther each day toward the rapids (Abercrombie Rapids). The steamer Chitina above the rapids is busily engaged distributing supplies and men along the Chitina river, where the work is being pushed ahead as it has been on this end of the line. Watch C.R. & N.W. grow.”

The paper contained so much more.

Worth mentioning is an advertisement for Alaska Steamship Company’s sailings for Seattle, on August 13, 20 and 28, and Sept. 6, 13 and 20. That’s once a week, in 1908. What’s our ferry schedule look like in 2020?

Remember The Cordova Times (July 17) recent article about Dr. Council and his donation of $20,000 for a gymnasium in the basement of the Presbyterian Church?

On Page 4 of this 1908 edition, under headlines “Local News,” “Dr. Whiting, CR & NW physician and surgeon took his departure this week for the Rapids where the main company hospital has been located. He will remain there until the season’s work closes. Dr. W.W. Council has charge of the hospital here in town which will be used for convalescents.”

In 1908, “new” Cordova was cluttered with construction materials, and included a big hole in Main Street (visible in the left center of this photo) that was being spanned by a wooden boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Cordova Historical Society

Later, in a separate article, “Dr. Council this week performed an operation on the left arm of Fred Castell, the paper-hanger. The arm has been giving Fred much pain for some time and got so bad the first of the week, that he had to quit work. The doctor found a fracture on one of the bones and hopes to make a cure without further operations.”

Paper hangers must have been going full bore to decorate all the new buildings.

Finally, a wedding announcement simply titled “Hoge – Walker” included this tidbit. “Miss Hoge was the proprietor of a cozy little coffee house near the lake in old town. It was here she met Mr. Walker, who first fell in love with that good home-made coffee, and then in love with the one who made it.”

Just think of the many local bistros where one can find a fancy cup of expresso these days. Plus, who knows, maybe a mate.

In the meantime, what better way to enjoy your latte than spending hours taking an incredible trip back in time, all in a simple four-page small town newspaper from 1908.


Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 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 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 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 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.