Cordova’s Alaskan Hotel and Bar gives peek at “Frisco of the North” in 1908
The Spanish explorer Salvadore Fidalgo led a 1790 expedition to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska in an effort to bolster Spanish claims to North America’s west coast. Fidalgo arrived in Prince William Sound at the end of May, anchoring in Orca Inlet near present-day Cordova. While there he re-asserted Spanish claims to the area and named the location Puerto Cordoba.
Fidalgo’s name for the location was revived when, in 1906, Mike Heney selected the defunct cannery village of Eyak, on Orca Inlet’s Odiak Slough, as the construction headquarters for his Copper River Railway (CRR). Learning of Fidalgo’s exploits, Heney renamed the village Cordova.
A townsite was laid out along Odiak Slough, with the CRR reserving half the land. Businesses and houses sprang up on remaining lots. Lone Janson, in her book, “The Copper Spike,” states that in late 1906 Heney’s interests were bought out by the Guggenheim-Morgan Syndicate, whose contractor, the Katalla Company, was beginning construction of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW) from Katalla, 76 miles to the southeast.
Railroad work at Cordova ceased until late fall of 1907 when rampaging storms destroyed Katalla’s new 2,000’ breakwater, along with docks and railroad facilities. That disaster ended Katalla’s bid to be the southern terminus for the CR&NW.
The Katalla Company subsequently moved its headquarters to Cordova. However, it quickly became evident that additional land was needed for railroad facilities.
Businessmen from Valdez had acquired land just north of Odiak in 1905, before Heney had bought the cannery property. They believed the location, at the eastern edge of Prince William Sound, was a good location for developing the newly-discovered Bering River Coal Field to the southeast, on the far side of the Copper River.
When it became apparent that the Katalla Company needed more land, the Valdez businessmen developed their townsite, and lots went on sale in May of 1908. The Katalla Company bought about half the lots, trading them with lot owners in “Old Town.”
The new townsite was on the lower slopes of Mount Eyak. The steep terrain necessitated blasting for some streets, and according to a 2002 Alaska State Office of History and Archeology report, over $100,000 ($2.5 million today) was spent on street improvements during 1908. Early boosters promoted Cordova as the “Frisco of the North.”
Many merchants relocated from Old Town, some of them dismantling their buildings and re-assembling them at the new townsite. Two merchants who moved were James D. MacCormac and Walter Storey.
Both MacCormac and Storey had been involved with canneries at Eyak before the railroad came to town, and they were partners in a clothing store in Old Town. When Cordova’s new townsite opened, they traded lots with the Katalla Company, sold off their clothing inventory and hired a contractor to erect a new building. Their new two-story, 45’ x 95’ wood-frame building was constructed during the summer of 1908 at the corner of First Street and Browning Avenue in the new townsite.
In September of that year, the building opened as MacCormac’s Hotel, and shortly afterward a bar and café opened on the hotel’s first floor. A third story was added to the hotel in 1910. During this period magazines such as “The Century” lauded Cordova s a budding metropolis and the new “Frisco of the North.”
The building’s framing is of post and beam construction, covered with horizontal wood siding. Its façade is typical of early 1900s commercial buildings. The first floor has recessed entrances, large plate glass main windows, and transom windows above the doors and main windows. The second and third stories have double-hung sash windows. The building has a wide shingled fascia and a deep cornice with simple supporting brackets.
One of the hotel bar’s attractions is the backbar that stands behind the bar counter. An elaborately-detailed wooden structure with plate-glass cabinet doors and a large mirror, it came from Katalla’s Hotel Northern after that establishment closed.
The drawing shows the building as it looked in the 1990s. Now called the Alaskan Hotel and Bar, it is one of a handful of commercial buildings surviving from Cordova’s earliest days. The hotel’s exterior has undergone few modifications and it is an excellent example of the city’s early commercial buildings.
- “Buildings of Alaska.” Allison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
- “Cordova Historic Buildings Survey for the First Street Sidewalk Improvement Project and the Copper River Highway Bicycle and Pedestrian Path.” Rolfe Buzzell. Alaska State Office of History and Archeology.” 2002
- “From Fish and Copper. Cordova’s Heritage and Buildings.” Nicki Nielsen. Cordova Historical Society. 1984
- “The Copper Spike.” Lone Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing Company. 1975