Cordova’s Red Dragon provided Christian alternative to city’s saloons
The Red Dragon, a Christian social club run by the Episcopal Church, as it looked in
1909. The drawing is based on a photo in the Walter and Lillian Phillips photograph
collection at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives.
The City of Cordova is located on the eastern-most shore of Prince William Sound, across Orca Inlet from Hawkins Island. This area was the western edge of Eyak Indian territory, while Sugpiaq (also called Chugach Eskimo) occupied the rest of the sound.
Historically, Cordova is perhaps best known as the southern terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW). However, almost two decades before the railroad, Odiak Slough, just south of present-day downtown Cordova. was the site of a small cannery town, first called Odiak and then Eyak. By 1900, however, Eyak’s canneries were defunct.
Mike Heney, who had overseen construction of the White Pass and Yukon Railway, hoped to ramrod a railroad from Prince William Sound up the Copper River to Kennecott’s copper mines, and he bought Eyak’s empty cannery buildings in 1905. A townsite was laid out at the head of Odiak Slough, and Heney named the reborn town, Cordova. Businesses sprang up around Heney’s railroad operations.
A group of Valdez businessmen had already laid claim to the land just north of Heney’s townsite, and, as the railroad facilities expanded, most businesses moved from “Old Town” to the new townsite just to the north of Odiak Slough.
Nicki Nielson’s book, The Red Dragon and St. George’s, states that the rector of Valdez’s Episcopal parish, Rev. E.P. Newton, visited Cordova in 1907 and saw the need for an alternative to the town’s rowdy saloons. Rather than a church, Newton envisioned a Christian social club, open 24/7, with reading materials, games and other civilized entertainments.
His vision became a 24′ x 36′ gable-roofed wood-frame building erected on land donated by the railroad. Named the Red Dragon since it was painted railroad red with paint donated by the CR&NW, it was built in the summer of 1908, and opened on July 18th.
It was the second structure completed in the new townsite, opening four days after the Northern Saloon. (The saloon owner had outbid Rev. Newton for a lot of scarce lumber.) The saloon is long-gone, and the Red Dragon is the now the oldest building in Cordova.
The interior of the Red Dragon was an undivided room with a large fireplace at the west end. Its furnishings included several couches, numerous chairs and tables, a piano and a pool table. Well-stocked with books, magazines, writing materials and games, it welcomed all who entered. On Sundays an altar was lowered from the rafters for services.
In January 1909, Eustace Ziegler, who became one of Alaska’s foremost pioneer artists, arrived in Cordova as the Red Dragon’s lay missionary. Ziegler’s father was an Episcopal priest, and his four sons, including Eustace, were all eventually ordained.
Born in Detroit, Eustace spent his boyhood around Detroit’s docks and later worked odd jobs in Michigan logging camps, equipping him to work with railroad roustabouts as well as Cordova’s more genteel citizens. He also held services at camps along the railroad line, as well as along the coast as far south as Katalla.
The needs of Cordova’s Episcopalian parishioners soon outgrew a social club. In the mid-1910s Ziegler designed a church building and St. George’s Episcopal Church was built adjacent to the Red Dragon in 1918-1919.
Ziegler, who married while in Cordova, moved with his wife to Seattle in 1924 to pursue art full-time. After Ziegler’s departure and for most of St. George’s history the church has shared a priest with Valdez.
The Red Dragon was used for varied purposes after St. George’s was built. including as a rectory, a public library and a rental property. The building was almost lost to a State road-widening project in 1964, but church officials and Cordova residents rallied to save it. In 1982 both it and St. George’s were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
According to St. George’s Episcopal Church website, between 2013 and 2016 the parish undertook restoration work on the Red Dragon, including installing a new foundation and replacing the roof. The parish is currently working on restorations to St. George’s.
The Red Dragon now serves as the parish hall, as well as being available for community events.
- From Fish and Copper: Cordova’s Heritage and Buildings. Nicki J. Nielsen. Cordova Historical Society. 1984
- “Red Dragon Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Nicki J. Nielson & Michael S. Kennedy. National Park Service. 1982
- St. George’s Episcopal Church website, <https://cordovaepiscopal.org >
- The Red Dragon and St. George’s: Glimpses into Cordova’s Past. Nicki J. Nielsen. Fathom Publishing Company. 1983