Little remains of the once-important Cordova Naval Radio Station in Alaska
In 1904 the U.S. Army’s Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) was completed. According to George Todd’s undated publication, “Early Radio Communications in the Thirteenth Naval District Washington, Oregon and Alaska,” that same year the U.S. Navy began building a coastal radio communications system for the entire nation. By the mid-1910s the Alaska portion of that system consisted of nine stations stretching from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands to Southeast Alaska. The Alaska stations routed messages to and from ships at sea as well as coastal communities, and also transmitting those messages to the rest of the United States.
Just as the WAMCATS handled both civilian and military communications, so too did the Naval radio system, and the two systems worked as backup for each other. If the WAMCATS undersea cable experienced outages, messages could be diverted to the Navy’s radio system, and vice versa.
A Naval radio station was established near Cordova in 1908. The Point Whitshed facility, located about eight miles southwest of Cordova, was only accessible by boat, and the surrounding terrain turned out to not be conducive to radio communications. Consequently, after the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW) was completed, the Navy relocated its radio facility to a better location near the railroad.
The new radio station would be a large operation, and the Navy selected two sites, one for the transmitter, and one for the receiving antennas and control facility. In a 2016 Cordova Times article, author Dick Shelhorn relates a possibly apocryphal site-selection story in which, after being unable to agree on sites, the engineer in charge announced to his crew that the next day they would take two quarts of whiskey with them in their railroad speeder. Wherever they finished the first bottle would be one location, and emptying the second bottle would determine the other location.
Whatever the selection criteria, Eyak Station, about a mile east of Lake Eyak at Mile 7.7 of the CR&NW, was selected as the receiving antenna and control facility location. The transmitter site, Hanscom Station, was located about seven miles farther, at Mile 14.5 (near the present-day airport). Together they were referred to as Cordova Naval Radio Station.
In 1917 the Navy constructed a transmitter and transmission antenna at Hanscom Station. Four towers for the receiving antennas were erected at Eyak Station, as well as control and power generation facilities, water and fuel storage facilities, and six cottages for personnel. The two sites were linked by telephone and power lines strung on poles alongside the railroad tracks.
Most Naval radio stations in Alaska had low-power “spark” transmitters, limiting their range to a few hundred miles. However, Naval planners had installed a powerful state-of-the-art “arc” radio transmitter at the Cordova facility. This allowed Cordova operators to communicate with the Navy’s Keyport facility in Puget Sound, so all Alaskan Naval communications originating west of the 138th meridian (near Glacier Bay) were routed through the Cordova station.
The Cordova facility gradually expanded, and eventually included about 20 structures. In 1930 Hanscom Station closed and the transmitter was moved to Eyak Station. That same year a concrete powerhouse (shown in the drawing) was constructed at the Eyak facility.
In 1932 Eyak Station was placed in inactive status and it was decommissioned in 1939. Over the next few decades most of Eyak Station’s buildings were either moved or razed. By the 1960s the only remaining structure was the concrete powerhouse, used for storage by the Alaska State Transportation Department.
Fire destroyed the structure’s roof in 1962, and the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake dropped land at the site several feet, turning it into wetlands. Now abandoned, the powerhouse, which is visible from the Copper River Highway, provides refuge for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.
• “Cordova Chronicles: Whitshed or Whiteshed?” Dick Shellhorn. In The Cordova Times. 9-16-2016
• Cordova historic building survey for the First Street sidewalk improvement project and the Copper River Highway bicycle and pedestrian path. Rolffe G. Buzzell. State of Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. 2002
• “Early Radio Communications in the Thirteenth Naval District Washington, Oregon and Alaska.” George B. Todd. In “Navy Pre-WW2 Communications Stations,“ on U.S Navy Radio Communications website. No date (c 1987) <https://navy-radio.com/commsta/todd-seattle-01.pdf>