The Copper River & Northwestern Railway

The Copper River & Northwestern Railway operated between Cordova & McCarthy, AK along the Copper River for 192 miles, with construction beginning in 1904 and finally being completed in 1911. As best I can tell, it is the longest American abandoned rail line that exists outside the Contiguous 48 States. Outside of its location, however, it was just like any other railway.

Copper River Bridge 27A. Image: Cook Inlet Historical Society

The original right of way of the line was to begin at Katalla as opposed to Cordova, AK, but a 1907 flood, combined with competition with the Alaska Anthracite Railroad derailed those plans. Construction commenced at Katalla, but no revenue trains ever operated, as it is unlikely the right of way was completed beyond a few miles north from the settlement.

"Copper River & Northwestern Railroad, Gilahina Bridge, Mile 28.5, McCarthy Road, Chitina, Valdez-Cordova Census Area, AK" (Library of Congress), >1968


Railroad contractor Michael James Henry secured the right of way and financiers M. Guggenheim & Sons and J.P. Morgan & Co. were part of the project as well. In March, 1911, after five years of work, the road was completed in a "copper" spike ceremony, a nod to the Golden Spike of the Original Transcontinental Railroad.

CR&NW Map, complete with steamship routes that connected to the line at Cordova.

Despite being remotely located in the Alaskan wilderness, and at a cost of $25 million, unlike many of the railroads we discuss in this blog, this railroad would be a huge economic success, as it transported over $200 million in copper ore between the two cities, and to the rest of the US, throughout its lifetime. When accounting for overhead of operating costs of the mines and railroad, the line was over $50 million in the black. 

Locomotive No. 3 and No. 20 of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, ca. 1909. Eric A. Hegg, Photographer. University of Washington Collection.

After the mines were depleted, and thus no longer became profitable, the line was abandoned in 1938. In 1941, the Kennecott Corporation donated the railroad right-of-way to the United States "for use as a public highway". In 1953 conversion was started, and today almost the entire right of way comprises McCarthy Road

Undoubtedly, the most famous part of the 192 mile right of way is the the Miles Glacier Bridge, nicknamed, and better known as, the "Million Dollar Bridge", is one of the most famous abandoned bridges in the world. It was abandoned along with the rest of the line in 1938 by the CR&NW, as it was converted to a vehicle bridge, but sustained major damage in the 1964 Alaskan earthquake.

By 1910, "workers were scrambling to complete the Million Dollar Bridge, spurred on by a U.S. law that gave railroad developers four years to complete a designated route. After four years, the government would tax them $100 per operating mile per year. Contactors finished the bridge by midsummer of 1910." (Ned Rozell

Photo of the Million Dollar Bridge c.2002, before repairs took place. (University of Alaska-Fairbanks)

It was repaired again in the mid-2000’s despite not being accessible via road, since the repair costs were actually cheaper than having the bridge dismantled. 

Had the collapsed, it could have triggered an environmental disaster, and one that could have had an economic impact to the State's fisheries, as salmon use the Copper River in their seasonal passages.

Thanks as always for reading!

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