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Harriman Expedition Retraced



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Community Profile: Cordova


Cordova is located in the South Central Gulf Coast Region of Alaska. It serves as port and gateway to the vast and beautiful waters of Prince William Sound.


Cordova (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 60E 33' N, Long.145E 45' W

Area: 5 square miles

Population: 2,512

Industry: Fishing, fish processing, school district, healthcare

Access: Air, sea, summer ferry

Alaska Native Affiliation: Alutiiq, Athabascan, Tlingit

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Chugach Alaska Corporation
Weather: Winter temperatures average between 17 and 29 degrees Fahrenheit, summer between 49 and 63 degrees. Annual precipitation is 167 inches, including 80 inches of snowfall.

Historical Overview

  • The Cordova area was originally home to Alutiiq people, and later to migrant Athabascans and Tlingits who called themselves Eyaks.
  • The first European explorer to visit the area was Don Salvador Fidalgo who, in 1790, named the port Puerto Cordova.
  • In the 19th century, Cordova served as gateway to resource-rich areas of the Sound. Copper and other precious metals from the Kennicott Mine were shipped from Cordova, and one of the first Alaskan oil fields was opened in 1902 in nearby Katalla.
  • Michael Heney, builder of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, officially named the town "Cordova" in 1906.
  • The Katalla oil fields closed in 1933 after a fire. The Kennicott Mine closed 1938. The mine had yielded over $200 million in gold, silver and copper.
  • The Copper River red salmon fisheries supported the town's economy for decades, but the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill closed down much of Cordova's fishing operations.

Harriman's Visit

  • The Elder stopped at Orca, near Cordova, to observe a salmon cannery owned by the Pacific Steam Whaling Company. Many of the travelers noted the stench of rotting fish, the litter of fish parts on the beach, and the unsightly sheen of fish oil fouling the water. John Muir observed that the two hundred Chinese immigrants working in the cannery were "themselves canned." Artist Frederick Dellenbaugh spent hours painting Eyak Mountain, and John Burroughs recounted some heart-rending tales he'd heard from a flock of failed and hopeless miners who had tried to reach the Klondike through the Copper River Valley.


  • Cordova's fishing fleet is recovering from losses suffered in the Exxon Valdez Spill, and primary catches include red and pink salmon, herring, halibut and bottom fish. Cordova's population doubles in the summer with an influx of seasonal cannery workers, but fishing is on the decline across the state.
  • Tourism is the growth industry in Cordova, and some residents now work for the two cruise ship companies that have docked there since 1998. The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the State Department of Transportation, the school district and the hospital are also major employers in the area.

Community Issues

  • A proposed road from Anchorage to Cordova has sparked debate for over three decade. The road, which would open the area to tourist traffic on a grand scale, would be a boost to the economy but a threat to the ecosystem. The number of tourists could jump from 10,000 to 100, 000 annually, and residents are worried about the threat not only to the fragile Sound, but also to their way of life. A number of polls taken over the years have shown that Cordova residents are evenly split on the road proposal. When given a choice between a new road or an improved ferry service, a majority choose better ferries.

(View the Cordova daily log entry)




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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