Cordova Chronicles: The Culvert Gang is at it again

Wilson Construction scheduled to install a fish-friendly culvert at 20 Mile

Cordovans startled by a sign at Mile 13 stating “Road Closed at Mile Post 20” directly below a sign reading “Road Closed at Mile 36” need not worry about what often seems like the continually shrinking Copper River Highway.

Wilson Construction’s Culvert Gang is at it again, and as the sign indicates, this closure will last from Nov. 28 to Dec. 23.  This time the Wilson crew is installing a new, fish-friendly 105-foot culvert at 20 Mile.

Putting another metal waterway under a road must seem routine to Wilson Construction by now. They installed one of the biggest culverts in the state at Nicolet Creek two years ago, and also have developed their expertise with the Eccles Creek culvert, plus a habitat-friendly model similar to their latest project at the end of the small airport in Cordova.

This type of work always seems to involve moving a lot of dirt, figuring out how to divert water, and battling the elements, but the Culvert Gang always seems to get the work done, and on time. The closure date was scheduled to minimize interruption of traffic out the road during the summer and fall.

Like many other road projects around Cordova, the site of this latest renovation has quite a history. When the Copper River and Northwestern Railway was built, many smaller rivers and sloughs were crossed by the installation of temporary wooden bridges on pilings. Such was the case at Mile 20, and the grade of the rail bed was just high enough to be above big tides, which would flood the entire area.

The railroad was abandoned in 1938 when the mines at Kennicott closed; shortly after, it was reactivated for construction of the military airfield at Mile 13 during WWII.   Soon after, the tracks from town to Mile 13 were torn up and replaced by a dirt road on the rail bed. Gradually, the same process was used to extend the Copper River Highway further out the along the rail right-of-way. So it should not be surprising to learn that old railroad trestle and a converted bridge were part of the materials Wilson recently discovered as part of their culvert excavation.


By the early 1950s, the road had reached all the way to the McKinley River at 22 Mile.  Going Out the Road, a popular pastime for all Cordovans, was gathering new meaning.  Why, there were entire vistas not accessible to most during the railroad days.

Among the most excited about this development were Cordova’s duck hunters.

Dating back to the 1890s, the primary access to the Flats and prime waterfowl grounds was by crossing Eyak Lake and navigating down Eyak River. Given the size of boats and the notorious fall weather, almost all the duck hunting efforts were concentrated in the Eyak area. Ducks and geese to the east might has well have been in a refuge.

But wait. Now waterfowlers could drive out the road, put in boats at the McKinley River, which connects to Alaganik Slough, and head for the Promised Land. And guess what? The tidal slough at 20 Mile where Wilson’s is installing this culvert became a favorite launch site, as it was closer, and not filled with hazardous logs and stumps found in McKinley River.

By the mid-’50s, wooden skiffs of all sizes powered by outboards were left anchored above and below the wooden bridge there, awaiting Weekend Warriors who would roar down to chase waterfowl. Many of the boats were tied off to the guardrails on the bridge, with stern anchors out to keep them in the slough on falling tides.

Of course, being an ingenious lot, the next thing hunters were hauling downriver was not only shotguns, but also building materials. A flurry of unrestricted duck shack construction began, until finally in 1957 the USFS put that to a halt. A year later, the Forest Service had a lottery for lease sites at Pete Dahl and Glacier, and those were the last on which cabins were to be built on the Delta.

Occasionally, a boat anchored at 20 Mile would drift off on a big tide. Such was the case in 1963, when a 22-foot work skiff floated off toward the Haystack. There were no spruce trees in the area at that time, and it could be seen tangled in a patch of alder a mile below the road. The owners planned on retrieving it on a big run of tides the following spring.

Unfortunately, the 1964 earthquake and uplift did away with that idea, and the Mile 20 slough as access to the Flats. It had been drained dry. Two years later, the current Alaganik road and landing were completed, creating access to the new upper reaches of tides in that slough.

Every now and then, I stop and look down the now shallow stream below 20 Mile, choked with vegetation and surrounded by alder and spruce. It’s hard to believe we used to run a 22 Banta work skiff powered by two 18 horse long-shaft Johnson outboards down that gutter to get to our cabin at Pete Dahl. The bridge is gone, and whatever is left of that missing skiff is hidden in a growing forest.

Soon there will be a new culvert for fish coming up that narrow waterway, but the days of running duck boats down it are gone forever.

And maybe Wilson Construction ought to add a culvert symbol to its company logo.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at