Cordova throws a coal party

Aunt Phil's Trunk

Cordova made national headlines when its citizens took a leaf from the annals of Boston. But instead of a tea party, they staged a coal party. They proved to a far away and indifferent government that the spirit of ’76 was still alive on May 11, 1911.

Five years before, a campaign for the conservation of natural resources swept America, and the government decided to withdraw the coal, oil and timber lands of Alaska from private ownership. The Copper River Railroad stopped building its branch line to the Bering River coal fields. Katalla, where 5,000 people had moved in to profit from the oil boom, was left a ghost town. General development halted, and the country began to slide into a trough of depression.

Cordovans were forced to rely on imported Canadian coal dug more than 1,000 miles away, and they had to pay an exorbitant price to heat their homes and businesses. Things looked pretty dark.

Protests to the government at Washington went unheeded. Pleas and petitions fell on deaf ears. And indignation rose with the price of coal. Finally, impatience reached the point of desperation – then somebody remembered the Boston Tea Party.

Led by the Cordova Chamber of Commerce president, and many business and professional men of the town, a group of 300 Cordova citizens, each armed with a shovel, marched down to the Ocean Dock. They picked a time when the U.S. Deputy Marshal was conveniently several miles away, and it took a little while for the chief of police to get a federal warrant.

So before he arrived on the scene, the Cordova Coal Party was in full swing. At least the shovels were swinging to the shouts of “Give us Alaska coal,” as several tons of Canadian coal were pitched over the dock into the bay.

The poor steamship agent, in his office at the dock, was taken by surprise. He rushed out and demanded that this unauthorized shoveling cease. But his protests were answered with the coal heavers shouting, “Give us Alaska Coal!”

The agent called the railroad shop, and its superintendent – with a crew of husky railroaders – rushed to the dock to try and protect company property. By this time, the chief of police had obtained his federal warrant and ordered the coal shovelers to shoulder their shovels.

“Shovel away boys,” the crew’s leader said. “We want Alaska coal!”

“In the name of the government of the United States of America, you are ordered to disband or be subject to arrest,” the police chief shouted.

With that, the shovelers shouldered their trusty shovels, the merchants went back to their stores and the rest of the citizens disbanded. The Cordova Coal Party was over. But the townspeople had made their point – and they made headlines throughout the nation.

While the nation’s Capitol issued stern warnings against lawlessness, assurances were given that an investigation would be made. Eventually the Secretry of the Interior, Walter L. Fisher, visited Alaska to get firsthand information. And, in due time, land laws were modified and Cordova citizens appeased.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, is turning many of Carlson’s stories into a series of books titled “Aunt Phil’s Trunk.” Volumes 1-4 are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at

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