Cordova, Alaska, is a quiet town tucked away in a corner of Prince William Sound about 50 mi/80 km southeast of Valdez and 176 mi/281 km by air southeast of Anchorage. It's also the doorstep to the 2-million-acre/810,000-hectare Copper River Delta, where millions of shorebirds—the largest such gathering in the Western Hemisphere—go to nest each spring. Ringed by glaciers and the snowcapped Chugach Mountain Range, the delta's landscape is spectacular.
Cordova's reason for being, however, is commercial fishing: It's a small working town of about 2,000 year-round residents, home to a sizable fleet and several seafood-processing plants that provide employment for most of the residents. The town has an unhurried feel, and the friendly townspeople haven't yet become jaded to visitors.
Accessible by airplane, boat or ferry, Cordova was built on the eastern shore of Orca Inlet, at the base of Eyak Mountain, and was originally named Puerto Cordova by Spanish explorer Don Salvador Fidalgo in 1790.
The south edge of downtown is ringed by Eyak Lake, and the harbor district is on the west edge of downtown. The main street is charmingly edged by streetlamps and maintains historic buildings. Residential areas are east of downtown and along the south Copper River Highway toward the airport, as well as southwest along Whitshed Road. Bird-watchers from around the world flock to the Copper River Delta State Critical Habitat each May and September to see millions of migrating shorebirds.
Fishing has always been Cordova's lifeblood. For centuries, the Alutiiq people camped there to take advantage of the huge salmon runs, plentiful shellfish and waterfowl. They were joined by migrating Athabaskans and Tlingits who called themselves Eyaks. White settlers were also impressed by the fishing: They built the area's first cannery in 1887 and made Cordova the terminus and shipping port of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, completed in 1911, running from the Kennecott copper mines near Kennicott and McCarthy.
With millions of dollars of copper ore leaving its docks, the little fishing village became, briefly, a boomtown. However, the Great Depression rang the death knell for the ore industry. After the price of copper fell in 1938, the mines closed and the train quit running. The bustling community would have faded entirely if not for the clam industry. Cordova brought in the world's largest razor clam harvests during the otherwise lean years of the late 1930s.
Life there was quiet and stable after the 1930s—until the 1964 Good Friday earthquake altered the flourishing clam beds and caused a partial collapse of the 1910-built Million Dollar Bridge. Built over the Copper River, the bridge—a monument to big dreams dashed by Alaska's unforgiving environment—earned its name because the cost to construct it topped US$1.5 million.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill nearly decimated the city's lifeblood, the Prince William Sound fisheries. The area is still attempting to recover from this environmental tragedy; the spill affected 11,000 sq mi/28,500 sq km, including 1,300 mi/2,000 km of shoreline. Nevertheless, fishing remains the dominant industry, and, even with the arrival of tourism, it is still Cordova's heart and soul. Nearly half of all households have someone working in commercial harvesting or processing.
Cordova is very walkable community, but you need a vehicle to see many of the sights. Walking through downtown is similar to a trip through a movie set—there are no chain stores, only locally owned businesses.
The primary sightseeing trip is the 50-mi/80-km road along the Copper River Delta to see the Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge. The Alaganik Slough boardwalk should also not be missed, located near the 17-mi/27-km point of the road. In the spring and fall, you can see hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds in addition to rare trumpeter swans.
The Cordova Chamber of Commerce Vistor Center offers free maps for visitors. The Cordova Historical Museum also offers a historic walking map of the city.
If nightlife is essential to your travel plans, you might want to skip Cordova. Once home to 26 saloons in its copper- and coal-mining heyday, it now has only a few places that stay open till the wee hours, and the secondhand smoke may stretch the patience of even the most tolerant barfly.
The dining room at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn has great views of the harbor.
Not surprisingly, seafood is ubiquitous in Cordova, but that doesn't mean the small town lacks variety in its dining choices. Asian and Mexican cuisine is also available.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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