Nestled inside the Chugach National Forest sits a fresh water lake that has the shape of a three-armed starfish, diversity of many aquatic and land dwelling residents, and offers economy and recreation to the fishing town Cordova.
Eyak Lake is flat bottomed, average depth of eight feet, with very distinct stream channels cut one to twelve feet deeper than the surrounding bottom. This leads some to believe the area was once a tidal flat, draining out into Eyak River and/or Orca Inlet. However the lake was formed, certainly it has changed in many ways.
Copper River salmon fishermen remember the days before the 1964 Earthquake when they could pilot their bowpickers through Eyak River into Eyak Lake for mooring. Aeroplane pilots remember docking in Nirvana Lagoon. And some have shared stories of spruce canoes and the Eyak Native Village that stood where is now the Lake View Trailer Park.
The history of Eyak Lake, its citizens and their stories, are rooted very deep into Cordova’s culture today. Before 1900, a native fishing village of 200 called Eyak, dwelled along the shores of Eyak Lake. The name Cordova came from Cordova Bay, located at the head of Orca Inet.
HISTORY OF CORDOVA
Michael Heney prospected Cordova as a port for copper mining in the Wrangell Mountains. After buying the old Pacific Packing Company cannery buildings for a headquarters and half of the one-quarter mile surveyed township, Heney began construction on the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. From 1906 to 1911, 6,000 men worked building the railroad, while many came to Cordova to support that industry. Still in service is Ambrosia Pizza, Alaska Hotel & Bar, and Cordova’s Chiropratic Clinic… just to name a few.
On July 8, 1909 Cordova was incorporated and a “Home Rule” government was approved. The community has and will continue to lead Cordova’s direction for growth.
Industries have come and gone from Cordova. The rich copper mines of Kenicott, abundant harvests of razor clams, Vina Young’s dairy farm, and countless entrepenual spirits have seen a home in Cordova. They came to build roads, schools, homes, and a town visitors and residents alike have come to love. And the one resource that has stayed with Cordova throughout the ages has been from the sea. Whether subsistence, sport, or for profit, fisherman have flocked to the bounty.
In 1917, Pioneer Packing Co. was built and many other processors followed in the 1920s. Many cannery names have entered the Cordova market, such as the New England Co., Western Fisheries Co., G.P. Halferty & Co., Alaska Packers Association, Sea Alaska Products, and Chugach Alaska Fisheries Morpac.
The export business was enormous for Alaskan salmon and many fisherman rose to supply that demand. In 1903, gas motors propelled the fishing boats in Alaska. From 1912 to 1960, seining gear size increased 257%.
Fishermen at Egg Island know the importance of a healthy run of sockeye. Their family, grocery store, mortgage company, and tax lawyer knows the importance; but how many knew that 50,000 of those come from Eyak Lake?
HISTORY OF AVIATION
Another passion of Cordovans is aerodynamics. On May 7, 1929 Clayton Scott flew the first aircraft into Cordova. It was certainly not the last.
By 1934, Cordova constructed an airfield on Eyak Lake. Kirk Kirkpatrick began Cordova Air Service in 1934, Merle “Mudhole” Smith took over operations in 1939, Wayne Smith bought parts of it in 1968 and founded Chitna Air Service, Jim Foode purchased it in 1979. Tom Parker began Park Air. Other pioneers — Chisum Flying Service, Kennedy Air Service, and Ketchum Air — were the forerunners of today’s Alaskan Wilderness Air and Cordova Air.
HISTORY OF EYAK LAKE’S HATCHERY
In 1975, Patrica Roppel explored Alaska’s obsession with the disappearing salmon since the early 1900s. In 1871, Congress established the Commission of Fish and Fisheries in the United States to determine the cause of decreasing salmon runs. In 1889, fearful of Alaska’s distruction, they established the first Alaskan hatchery on Kodiak Island and made it unlawful to build any form of obstruction to bodies of water offering habitat to salmon. This was set throughout the state.
The responsibility for salmon abundance was held with the federal govenment until the late 1890’s when government hatcheries were abondoned and cannery-operated hatcheries, wanting to protect their own stream and futures, flourished. This empowered the government, in 1900, to make it “mandatory for any person, company, or corporation taking salmon in Alaskan waters to produce sockeye fry in a last four times the number of mature salmon taken each year”. By 1902, the number was changed to 10 : 1.
After many failed operations, in 1906, the manadatory hatchery law was eliminated and a new rebate system ($.40 for every 1,000 fry released) was enacted with efficiency inspections biannually.
In 1917, the Alaska State Legislative set aside $80,000 for the Territorial Fish Commission, who had just moved operations from Juneau to Ketchikan, to build two new hatcheries. One was in Seward and the other, Eyak Lake.
In June, 1921, AJ Sprague guided construction of not only a new hatchery but also roads, rails, bunkhouses, outdoor troughs, and a 1,400 foot pipeline to create a salmon pond. The first year, 12 million chinook eggs were taken, but because the egg baskets had not arrived, once the eggs were eyed, half of the eggs were buried into Power Creek and half into Spring Creek.
Sprague was fired by December, 1921 for frivilous spending on the hatchery. Edwin Wentworth successed in 1922 to plant 3 million sockeye eyed eggs at the head of Eyak Lake. In 1923, a new hatchery building was erected and methods became more sophisticated. Now able to rear fry, Wentworth released 3.8 million sockey fry by January 24, 1924. The hatchery attempted to lengthen the rearing process in its 1924 egg take, however, the flood in August 1925, liberated the 3.2 million fry.
In the egg take of 1925, 7.3 million were released early by Novemeber, 1925. Funds had run out; with high expenses for heating, lighting, payroll, and running a predator control weir that destroyed any cuttrout trout or Dolly Varden from entering the lake. By 1926, the bunkhouse had burned and by 1927, the U.S. Forest Service took ownership of the hatchery. The old hatchery building became the Bethany Home for Children in 1938. Today only a bridge remains.
*** PHOTOS ON THIS PAGE ARE COURTESY OF THE CORDOVA HISTORICAL SOCIETY. ***