Copper River and Northwestern Railway

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Copper River and Northwestern Railway

Copper River and Northwestern Railway
Alaska Heritage Resources Survey
A disused CR&NW bridge along McCarthy Road
Copper River and Northwestern Railway is located in Alaska
Copper River and Northwestern Railway
LocationChitina, Alaska to Tasnuna River, along western bank of Copper River
Nearest cityChitina, Alaska
Coordinates61°20′21″N 144°47′59″W / 61.33914°N 144.7998°W / 61.33914; -144.7998Coordinates: 61°20′21″N 144°47′59″W / 61.33914°N 144.7998°W / 61.33914; -144.7998
ArchitectMichael J. Heney
NRHP reference No.73002275[1]
Added to NRHPApril 24, 1973
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark historical marker for the CR&NW

The Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW) consisted of two rail lines, the Copper River line and the Northwestern line. Michael James Heney had secured the right-of-way up the Copper River in 1904. He started building the railway from Cordova, Alaska in 1906. The town of Cordova, Alaska, was actually named by Heney on March 13, 1906,[2] based on the original name given by Salvador Fidalgo. Both these railroads were abandoned and little remains of them. Only a 0-4-0 locomotive, "Ole", located near Goose City on a siding of the Alaska Anthracite Railroad Company is the only equipment left. Many of the holdings of the CR&NW railroad including Ole were acquired for this railroad by Mr. Clark Davis and his partners in 1908 after a major storm destroyed the Katalla area facilities in 1907. The town of Cordova would like to move Ole to a memorial site in Cordova to celebrate its role in these railroads. Ole was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.[3]

In 1905 Myron K. Rodgers received a four-year contract to assist the Guggenheim family with their interests in Alaska.[4] This work consisted of establishing coal claims in the Bering River coal field and building a railroad (Northwestern) to serve them. Myron Rodgers employed his brother Wesley P. Rodgers to carry out the surveys in 1906 and to build the railroad in 1907.[citation needed] The railroad started at Palm Point and extended to the northeast past the town of Katalla towards the coal fields. At Palm Point a loading pier was built into the bay and a branch line for the Copper River railroad was extended west to connect to it.[5] The 1907 winter storm destroyed all of these facilities, including the engine house and support base.

By Oct. 1906, Heney had retired and decided to sell his Copper River right-of-way to the Alaska Syndicate that consisted of M. Guggenheim & Sons and J.P. Morgan & Co. However, he returned to work for Daniel Guggenheim on the Copper River railway in 1907 after the destruction of the winter storm. Guggenheim had decided Cordova was a better starting point.[6]: 87, 91, 100–102  The railroad was built by the Kennecott Corporation (now part of the Alaska Syndicate) between 1908 and 1911 to take copper ore from Kennecott, Alaska to Cordova, Alaska, a distance of 315 km (196 mi).[7]

The Alaska Syndicate included investment by J.P. Morgan. He had earlier bought John Rosene's Northwestern Commercial Company, an empire of mercantile companies, shipping interests, and railroad. The syndicate started construction from Cordova, the Bonanza mine site at Kennecott, and at a point midway where the Nizina River merged with the Copper River. Challenges included bridging the Kuskulana River canyon and the Copper River with the Million Dollar Bridge. "The completion of the Million Dollar Bridge in the summer of 1910 effectively guaranteed the success of the rail project and the shipment of the first load of Kennecott ore in early 1911."[8]

Heney had traveled to New York in 1909 to meet with Daniel Guggenheim and other board members about the railroad progress. On his return journey, he departed Seattle on 23 Aug. 1909 aboard the steamship Ohio. On 25 Aug., the Ohio struck an uncharted rock and sank. Heney finally made it to Cordova on 18 Sept. On 30 Nov. 1909 the railroad reached the Tiekel River, completing the first phase of the contract. Heney made another trip to New York to turn over that portion of the railroad to the Katalla Company. On the return trip he spent the winter in Seattle. His health failing, Heney finally succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis on 4 Oct. 1910.[6]: 149–151 

The last spike in the construction, a "copper spike", was driven on 29 March 1911, by Chief Engineer E. C. Hawkins and Superintendent Samuel Murchison at Kennicott.[9]

The cost of the railway at $25 million was justified because the mines produced $200 million worth of copper ore during their operation of which at least 50 percent was profit. There were 129 bridges constructed between Cordova and Chitina.[6]

As far as is known, the CR&NW was the only railway in Alaska to employ wigwags at railroad crossings.[10]

The good ore in the mines ran out and the last train ran on 11 Nov. 1938.[11] In 1941, the Kennecott Corporation donated the railroad right-of-way to the United States "for use as a public highway". In 1953 conversion was started. The Alaska Dept. of Highways had extended the Copper River Highway to Mile 59, from Cordova to the Million Dollar Bridge, by 1964. However, the damage to 28 bridges after the Good Friday earthquake delayed further construction. By 1972 the highway extended to Mile 72 and south 20 miles from Chitina.[6]: 130, 176–177 

The bridge has recently (2005) been repaired. Bridge 339 washed out in 2012 and cut the access to the bridge.[12] The roadbed from Chitina to McCarthy now forms the McCarthy Road.[citation needed]

Historic designations

Southern portion of the Copper River showing the location of the railway from Cordova to Kennicott

On April 24, 1973, the railway remains, comprising 11 trestles, an abandoned native village with a Russian post and the Tiekel Station, were added as a historic district to the National Register of Historic Places.[13] The railway's bunkhouse and messhouse at Chitina were also added to the register on December 5, 2002. The 0-4-0 tank engine, Number 3, "Ole", was declared eligible for the National Register in 1988.

See also


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  2. ^ Tower, 2003
  3. ^ "Steam Locomotive Moves Cordova Historical Society". Cordova Times. June 15, 2000.
  4. ^ Myron K. Rodgers' obituary,[where?] 1917
  5. ^ Katalla Company, Copper River & Northwestern Ry., United States Surveys, Terminal & Station Grounds at Katalla, Alaska. (July 1, 1907), ASL-P11-034,
  6. ^ a b c d Quinn, Alfredo O. (1995). Iron Rails to Alaskan Copper. D'Aloguin Publishing Co. p. 165.
  7. ^ Moffit, Fred H.; Capps, Stephen R. (1911). Geology and Mineral Resources of the Nizina District, Alaska, USGS Bulletin 448. U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 17–18.
  8. ^ Hawley, Charles Caldwell (2014). A Kennecott Story. The University of Utah Press. p. 72,132–135.
  9. ^ Elizabeth A. Tower (1990). Ghosts of Kennecott, The Story of Stephen Birch. p. 66.
  10. ^ "Magnetic Signal Co. Catalogue C" (PDF). p. 9. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  11. ^ Janson, Lone (1975). The Copper Spike. Alaska Northwest Publishing Co. p. 158.
  12. ^ Copper River Highway Bridge 339, Cordova Alaska. 2012.
  13. ^ "NRHP nomination for Copper River and Northwestern Railway". National Park Service. Retrieved June 12, 2017.

External links

Copper River (Alaska)

Copper River
Chitina dipnet.jpg
A fisherman (bottom center) dipnetting for salmon on the Copper River at Chitina in Southcentral Alaska
CountryUnited States
Physical characteristics
 • locationCopper Glacier on Mount Wrangell
 • coordinates62°10′39″N 143°49′05″W / 62.17750°N 143.81806°W / 62.17750; -143.81806
 • elevation4,380 ft (1,340 m)
 • location
Copper Bay of Pacific Ocean
 • coordinates
60°23′19″N 144°57′39″W / 60.38861°N 144.96083°W / 60.38861; -144.96083Coordinates: 60°23′19″N 144°57′39″W / 60.38861°N 144.96083°W / 60.38861; -144.96083
 • elevation
0 ft (0 m)
Length290 mi (470 km)
Basin size24,000 sq mi (62,000 km2)
 • average57,400 cu ft/s (1,630 m3/s) at mouth
Southern portion of the Copper River

The Copper River or Ahtna River (/ˈɑːtnə/), Ahtna Athabascan ‘Atna’tuu ([ʔatʰnaʔtʰuː]), "river of the Ahtnas",[1] Tlingit Eeḵhéeni ([ʔìːq.híː.nì]), "river of copper",[2][3] is a 290-mile (470 km) river in south-central Alaska in the United States. It drains a large region of the Wrangell Mountains and Chugach Mountains into the Gulf of Alaska.[4] It is known for its extensive delta ecosystem, as well as for its prolific runs of wild salmon, which are among the most highly prized stocks in the world.[5] The river is the tenth largest in the United States, as ranked by average discharge volume at its mouth.[6]


The Copper River rises out of the Copper Glacier, which lies on the northeast side of Mount Wrangell, in the Wrangell Mountains, within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park.[7] It begins by flowing almost due north in a valley that lies on the east side of Mount Sanford, and then turns west, forming the northwest edge of the Wrangell Mountains and separating them from the Mentasta Mountains to the northeast.[8] It continues to turn southeast, through a wide marshy plain to Chitina, where it is joined from the southeast by the Chitina River (Ahtna Athabascan Tsedi Na' [tʃɛ.diː.näʔ] < tsedi "copper" + na’ "river").[8][9]

A man dip netting on the Copper River, undated photo by John Nathan Cobb (died 1930)

The Copper River is approximately 290 miles (470 km) long.[10] It drops an average of about 12 feet per mile (2.3 m/km), and drains more than 24,000 square miles (62,000 km2)—an area the size of West Virginia.[10][11] The river runs at an average of 7 miles per hour (11 km/h).[11]

Downstream from its confluence with the Chitina it flows southwest, passing through a narrow glacier-lined gap in the Chugach Mountains within the Chugach National Forest east of Cordova Peak.[12] There is an extensive area of linear sand dunes up to 250 feet (76 m) in height radiating from the mouth of the Copper River.[13][14] Both Miles Glacier and Childs Glacier calve directly into the river.[15] The Copper enters the Gulf of Alaska southeast of Cordova where it creates a delta nearly 50 miles (80 km) wide.[13]


The name of the river comes from the abundant copper deposits along the upper river that were used by Alaska Native population and then later by settlers from the Russian Empire and the United States.[16] Extraction of the copper resources was problematic due to navigation difficulties at the river's mouth.[8][16] The construction of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway from Cordova through the upper river valley from 1908 to 1911 allowed widespread extraction of the mineral resources, in particular from the Kennecott Mine, discovered in 1898.[16][17] The mine was abandoned in 1938 and is now a ghost town tourist attraction and historic district maintained by the National Park Service.[16][17]

Copper River Highway (Alaska Route 10) runs from Cordova to the lower Copper River near Childs Glacier, following the old railroad route and ending at the reconstructed Million Dollar Bridge across the river.[18][19] The Tok Cut-Off (Alaska Route 1) follows the Copper River Valley on the north side of the Chugach Mountains.[20]


Copper River sockeyes, 2007

The river's famous salmon runs arise from the use of the river watershed by over 2 million salmon each year for spawning.[15] The extensive runs result in many unique varieties, prized for their fat content.[21] The river's commercial salmon season is very brief, beginning in May for chinook salmon and sockeye salmon for periods lasting days or hours at a time.[22] Sport fishing by contrast is open all year long, but peak season on the Copper River lasts from August to September when the coho salmon runs.[23][24] The fisheries are co-managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and the Department of the Interior Federal Subsistence Board.[23][25] Management data are obtained primarily by ADF&G at the Miles Lake sonar station and the native village of Eyak at the Baird Canyon and Canyon Creek research stations.[26][27]


The Copper River Delta, which extends for 700,000 acres (2,800 km2), is the largest contiguous wetlands along the Pacific coast of North America.[13][15] It is used annually by 16 million shorebirds, including the world's entire population of western sandpipers and dunlins.[28] It is also home to the world's largest population of nesting trumpeter swans and is the only known nesting site for the dusky Canada goose subspecies (Branta canadensis occidentalis).[29][30]

See also


  1. ^ Smelcer, John (2011). AHTNA NOUN DICTIONARY and Pronunciation Guide (PDF) (2nd ed.). Copper Center, Alaska: The Ahtna Heritage Foundation. pp. 28, 34. ISBN 978-0-9656310-2-0. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 December 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
  2. ^ "Tlingit (Lingít, Łingít)". Omniglot. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  3. ^ Thornton, Thomas F (January 2012). University of Washington (ed.). Being and Place Among the Tlingit, p. 64. ISBN 9780295800400. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
  4. ^ "Geological Survey Circular, Issues 491-500". USGS. 1950. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  5. ^ Special Ecological Sites IN ALASKA'S EASTERN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND & COPPER RIVER DELTA (PDF). Anchorage, Alaska: National Wildlife Federation. 2005. p. 6. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  6. ^ "Largest Rivers in the United States" (PDF). USGS.
  7. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". NPS. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Keltie, John Scott (1902). "Recent Explorations in Alaska". The Geographical Journal (Volume 19): 609. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  9. ^ Smelcer, John (2011). AHTNA NOUN DICTIONARY and Pronunciation Guide (PDF) (2nd ed.). Copper Center, Alaska: The Ahtna Heritage Foundation. pp. 28, 53 108. ISBN 978-0-9656310-2-0. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 December 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
  10. ^ a b Brabets, Timothy P. (1997). Geomorphology of the Lower Copper River, Alaska (PDF). USGS. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  11. ^ a b Mendenhall, Walter Curran (1905). Geology of the Central Copper River Region, Alaska Issue 41 of Geological Survey professional paper Geology of the Central Copper River Region, Alaska. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. p. 20. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  12. ^ "Copper River Float" (PDF). NPS. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  13. ^ a b c Mohlenbrock, Robert H. (2006). This Land: A Guide to Western National Forests. University of California Press. ISBN 0520930517. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  14. ^ "Cordova Peak, Alaska". Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  15. ^ a b c "Chugach Visitors Guide Summer 2014" (PDF). Alaska Geographic. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 December 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  16. ^ a b c d "Human History". NPS. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  17. ^ a b "An Alaskan Regional Railroad - 1930's Copper River & Northwestern Railway". Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  18. ^ Staff. "The Copper River Highway". The Milepost. Archived from the original on April 4, 2012. Retrieved April 23, 2012.
  19. ^ Google (May 31, 2012). "Overview Map of Copper River Highway" (Map). Google Maps. Google. Retrieved May 31, 2012.
  20. ^ "Glenn Highway-Tok Cutoff". The Milepost. Archived from the original on 16 September 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  21. ^ Lange, Lori (22 August 2014). "corodva, alaska: copper river salmon fishing". recipe girl. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  22. ^ "Copper River salmon opening today with first 12 hour fishing period". Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  23. ^ a b "PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND FRESH WATERS" (PDF). Retrieved 15 December 2014.[permanent dead link]
  24. ^ Van Vanasse, Deb (2009). Insiders' Guide® to Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska: Including the Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound, and Denali National Park. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 160. ISBN 978-0762756063. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  25. ^ "Federal Subsistence Board News Release" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  26. ^ "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Subsistence Management Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program Estimating Chinook salmon escapement on the Copper River, 2004 annual report Annual Report No. FIS 04-503" (PDF). LGL Alaska Research Associates, Inc. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  27. ^ "Copper River Sonar Tools". ADF&G. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  28. ^ Hagner, Chuck. "Birdwatching at the Copper River Delta in Alaska". Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  29. ^ "Species at Alaganik Slough". US Forest Service.
  30. ^ "Birds Field Trip: Dusky Canada Geese". Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Friends Association. Retrieved 14 December 2014.

Further reading

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