Million Dollar Bridge and Brothers

The wild roses have faded and in their places, rose hips have emerged. Cottonwood no longer blows through the air like snow. In the mornings, mountain tips are rarely dusted with snow from a cold night storm. Raspberries can be spotted among the brush on the roadsides. Blueberries will be next. We are about midway through summer.

Last weekend Austin and I, along with our friend Kendra, flew an hour south to a Cordova, Alaska. This was a small native village in the early 1900s. A man named Mike Heney got word that the Guggenheims and J. P. Morgan were funding a railroad project beginning in Valdez with its terminus as Kennecott, Alaska--the site of the world's most pure copper ore. America, at that time, was experiencing a "copper famine" secondary to the recent invention of the lightbulb and a subsequent desire to install electricity in homes and businesses. A railroad was the best means for transferring supplies to the interior and ore down to a harbor where it could be loaded onto steamship headed for Tacoma, Washington for smelting.

"Big Mike Heney" was an Irishman who had a large presence as well as confidence. He was responsible for the construction of the Yukon River and White Pass Railroad completed years before. He somehow determined that the Valdez railroad project would fail and thus began constructing a railway beginning in Cordova, banking on his prediction that the Guggenheims and Morgans would eventually have to buy him out. Everyone believed Heney had lost it--his plan was to construct a bridge between two glaciers that had significant breakup each spring (when the river thaws and giant hunks of ice crash downstream). However, just has Heney predicted, the Valdez railroad was destroyed in a storm while his bridge, the a Million Dollar Bridge (so named because it took 1.5 million of his own money as well as that of a few small investors, to complete) survived the spring breakup. Cordova became a bustling seaport.

The Kennecott mine closed in the 1930s. Some of the iron rails have since been removed for scrap metal or recycling for other railroad projects. Some of the railway has been converted to roadbed for vehicle traffic (from Chitina to McCarthy/Kennecott) and the remainder is overgrown and no longer discernible. Cordova survived the changes and remains a small community of about 1,500 year-round residents. The only way in or out of Cordova is via plane or ferry which keeps the town only lightly touristic and quaint. Cordova's bread and butter is commercial fishing... which is what brought both of my brothers there this summer.


I think it is funny that all three of us landed so close together in two remote Alaskan towns that have such a deep historic connection. Will, Jess, and their friend Van walked to the airstrip to meet us and to hitch a ride with Austin to fly over the Million Dollar Bridge. Kendra and I flew over it on our way in so we ambled in to town with Eddie. The boys later reported that Van, who had never before seen the bridge or flown in a small plane, was giddy and speechless after the flight. Austin gives great flight-sees!...also it's just a really cool flight.


The rest of the evening saw us exploring a The Rafferty, the boat on which both of my brothers are seining, and enjoying a nice meal of salmon, halibut, and oysters at the Reluctant Fisherman patio which overlooked the harbor at sunset. Sweet times with my little bros and our friend Forrest from Abilene.


Austin, Eddie, and I then crammed into our tent that we set up in a public park (next to bear scat...but where else could we camp?) and we strung out a hammock tent for Kendra between some trees. After a fitful night of sleep (only a few hours of darkness--it is Alaska summer, after all) and several hours with crows ka-kawing overhead (and I mean right overhead--15 feet above our sleepy heads), we went back in to town to visit a bit more with my bros before they headed out for another day of fishing.

Flying Eddie

It was a very quick trip, but will be a highlight of the summer.