Cordova, Orca Inlet

Cordova, Orca Inlet

by | May 27, 2022

Cordova is a community on the southeastern shore of Orca Inlet across from Hawkins Island in eastern Prince William Sound, about 100 miles (160 km) east-southeast of Whittier and 45 miles (72 km) south-southeast of Valdez, Alaska. Orca Inlet was originally named Puerto Cordova after the Spanish admiral Luis de Córdova y Córdova in 1790 by Salvador Fidalgo y Lopegarcía, a Spanish explorer who commanded an expedition to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The town was named after the inlet in 1906 by Michael J. Heney, builder of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad when a rail terminal and post office was established for the Kennecott copper mines. Cordova is flanked to the east by Mount Eyak and to the south by the Heney Range, which are separated by the lowlands of Odiak Slough, Odiak Lagoon, and Eyak Lake. These mountains are part of the Chugach Range and within the Chugach National Forest. The Chugach Mountains are a heavily glaciated region that represents a major portion of one of the world’s largest accretionary complexes called the Prince William terrane which is now classified as part of the Southern Margin Composite terrane. The bedrock surrounding Cordova is part of the Orca Group that formed during the Late Paleocene to Eocene on the geological time scale. The rock formation consists of a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks including greywacke sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, and conglomerate that represent turbidity current deposits in the middle of a deep submarine fan. During the Eocene, these sedimentary rocks were intruded by volcanic magma that formed basalt consisting of pillowed, massive, sills, or crudely columnar flows, and these erosion-resistant rocks are represented by Mount Eyak. The landscape surrounding Cordova has been heavily influenced by glaciers. During the Last Glacial Maximum, glaciers covered most of central and southern Alaska and the adjacent continental shelf where it formed an interconnected network of ice caps and piedmont lobes as a northwestern extension of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. Glacier retreat was underway 22–20 thousand years ago along the Gulf of Alaska and ice margins were approximately at their modern positions by the start of the Holocene, about 11 thousand years ago.

Archaeological sites in the Prince William Sound region indicate that humans occupied the area about 4400 years ago. Prehistorical humans probably inhabited the area much earlier but any evidence of their occupation has been destroyed by post-glacial sea-level rise. Several groups of historical people have lived in the area and had contact with each other through warfare as well as trade. They exchanged ideas as well as traded goods, thereby making the region a rich center for cultural interaction. The upper Copper River basin is the traditional home of the Ahtna, an Athapaskan-speaking people. The Copper River Delta is the traditional home of the Eyak, another group whose language is related to Athapaskan. The Eyak people reputedly migrated down the Copper River from the interior of Alaska about 3,500 years ago and became established on the delta probably for the rich salmon fishing grounds. There they encountered the Chugach Sugpiat of Prince William Sound, an Alutiiq people with a distinctively maritime culture. The Chugach are related to the Koniag, another Alutiiq group, with a territory extending from what is now Kodiak Island to Cook Inlet. The Tlingit inhabited the coast from Southeast Alaska to Yakutat and were pushing west. Because of their small population, the Eyak were often raided and their territorial boundaries were under constant pressure from the Chugach to the west and the Tlingit to the east. The Tlingit had better relations with the Eyak and this led to intermarriage and assimilation. The first contact between Alaska Natives and Europeans occurred in 1741 when Vitus Bering’s second Russian expedition reached Kayak Island. By the 1780s, several European ships had explored Prince William Sound. In 1793, the Russians established a post near Nuchek, and from there they explored the Copper River. The Russians recognized the Eyak as a distinct culture from the Chugach and described their territory on maps. They also traded with the Eyak and in the 1800s sent Russian Orthodox missionaries and established a church. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States, and soon thereafter the country saw an influx of prospectors, miners, fishers, and loggers. As in other places in North America, contact with Euro-American diseases devastated the Native populations.

The Pacific Packing Company owned by Louis Sloss and Company of San Francisco built a salmon cannery called the Odiak Cannery at Odiak Slough in 1888. The cannery operated for a few years and joined the Alaska Packers Association in 1893. The Alaska Packers Association operated the cannery through the 1905 season and sold it in 1906 to the Copper River and Northwestern Railway Company which was preparing to build a railroad from Odiak to the headwaters of the Copper River at Kennecott. The Pacific Steam Whaling Company established a second salmon cannery at Odiak in 1889 but after a fire in 1895, the canning equipment was moved to a location known as Orca, about 3 miles (4.8 km) to the northeast. By 1898 when the Harriman Expedition visited Orca, the salmon cannery had expanded to three buildings, and for miles along the coast discarded salmon heads and fins created a foul odor of rotting fish. About 200 Chinese laborers were brought up from San Francisco each season and worked long hours in the cannery for low wages. The town of Cordova had its origin as the railroad terminus and ocean shipping port for high-grade copper ore from the Kennecott mine 196 miles (315 km) up the Copper River. Michael J. Heney purchased the land for a townsite on March 26, 1906, and a week later crews arrived to begin work on the railroad. A group of surveyors from Valdez laid out the first town lots that were sold at auction in May 1908. As the railroad grew, so did the town. Eventually, schools, businesses, a hospital, and utilities were established. After the railroad was completed Cordova became the transportation hub for the ore coming out of Kennecott. From 1911 to 1938, more than 200 million tons of copper ore were transported through Cordova to a smelter at Tacoma, Washington. Today, several companies including Copper River Seafoods, 60 Degrees North Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, and Ocean Beauty Seafoods operate fish processing facilities for fresh, frozen, and canned salmon, salmon caviar, halibut, black cod, pacific cod, and rockfish. Commercial fishing is still the main industry and half of all households in Cordova have at least one person involved in commercial fishing or processing. All five Pacific salmon species are caught, but the most well-known are the early run Chinook and sockeye salmon from the Copper River. Wild fish stocks are now augmented by hatcheries in Prince William Sound and on the Copper River. Read more here and here. Explore more of Cordova and Orca Inlet here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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