The River Is Wide
During the gold rush a century ago, gold miners came down the swift and treacherous Klutina River in boats they hand-made
from spruce logs. Copper Center became the hub where the miners dried out.
Today, fishermen clean their catch in the Klutina.
The cabins along the Copper Center road are truly genuine, but are beginning to suffer from their age and poor original
Jim McKinley's Wrangell Mountain Song
One of John Denver’s songs is “The Wrangell Mountain Song”, which celebrates the spirit of Copper
He sang: “It’s a quiet life out here among the mountains/In a cabin that was built with these two hands.../I
can’t wait to see the Wrangell Mountains/I can’t wait to do what I will do...”
Only a year after the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
was built, back in the 1970’s, Ahtna elder Jim McKinley, who had seen
tremendous change in the region during his long life, wrote a potlatch
song, also defining his Copper River homeland.
The brand-new Pipeline had already become a part of the landscape. Jim McKinley sang: “Look for the Wrangell Mountains.
Look for the Pipeline. Look for the Ahtna. That’s where you find the Copper River...”
Metal Insulation in 70 Below Cold
An early Copper Center cabin-builder tried to keep out the cold of an intensely arctic winter with pieces of metal – probably
cut-up gas cans.
Nowadays, flexible caulking is the order of the day.
Gold rush cabin-builders also used oakum, mud, and sphagnum moss for old style insulation.
Early Russian Orthodox priests never entered the Copper River Valley. But Ahtna Natives traveled widely on their trading
trips and set up their own log Russian Orthodox church in Copper Center.
Although there is no Russian Orthodox presence in the valley today, the Russian style fenced grave – and Russian
names, like “Nicolai”, “Walya” and “Basille” – remained.
A Cache of Memories Spanning
Decades of Life in Copper Center
Yoshimoto, a Copper River Native, dug out all the old mocassins,
mittens, and other handmade and beaded objects from her grandmother’s
sheds and around the house.
The objects had been made, used, and set aside.
This stunning collection clearly shows the utilitarian and esthetic values of a typical Athabascan Indian family as
seen in everyday objects.
Fishing on the Klutina River
Two bridges cross the Klutina River in Copper Center. You can fish for kings and reds here.
The Klutina is a beautiful, milky, turquoise-blue, yet clear enough for fish to see flies and bait. The river has a
steep grade and many boulders, making it tricky to navigate.
You’ll have to use heavier line and it’s safer to go with a guide who knows the river.
Located on the banks of the Copper River in “old” Copper Center, part of the museum is an authentic log
The Copper Center Museum is open in the summer from 11 am - 5 pm. Check hours here.
Near the museum, check out the Copper Rail Depot, featuring scale models of Kennecott.
While viewing cabins on your trip, please note they are private property. Don’t trespass.
Park Headquarters and Visitor Center
Look for the highway sign 1/4 mile from the turnoff to old Copper Center at Mile 106.8 on the Richardson Highway.
The park headquarters aren’t in the park itself, but they're close. Head to McCarthy
and Kennicott to get the real park experience.
There’s plenty of room to park and turn around at the National Park Headquarters and Visitor Center, even with
You can get up-to-date information on the park, the road to McCarthy and the Nabesna Road – or purchase maps,
get bear resistant food containers, and watch a movie about the national park.
Edgerton Highway (33 paved miles)
to Kenny Lake & Chitina
Lake is a farming community – one of the last to be homesteaded in
America. It stretches for miles along the Edgerton, and is proud of its
country fair, held this summer on August 14th. At Chitina, the road
descends to the Copper River bridge and then on for 60 narrow unpaved
miles to McCarthy and Kennicott. If you’re in the Copper Valley and
it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see the Wrangell Mountains from
Willow Lake Viewpoint (mile 88 Richardson) just before the Edgerton
Highway turnoff to Kenny Lake (Mile 82.5 Richardson).
All the highways around here follow the arc of the Copper River, which flows around the mountain range.
Mt. Wrangell Is Alaska's Largest Active Volcano
Of the 15 highest peaks in Alaska, 12 are in Wrangell-St. Elias Park.
Mt. Wrangell is the largest active volcano in Alaska. On cloudless
days, a small puff of steam can often be seen rising from the north
crater near Wrangell’s summit. Before the Great Alaska Earthquake in
1964, the west crater on top of Mt. Wrangell was the most active. But
after the earthquake, the north crater became more active.
is a kilometer of ice on top of Mt. Wrangell. Its mean annual
temperature at the summit is 21 degrees below zero. In spite of the
extreme cold, over 100 million cubic meters of ice have melted on the
north crater since 1964. One meter below the crater’s surface lies
boiling sulfuric acid.
the days of the gold rush, early miners (who chronicled every day of
their exasperating adventures with early Kodak cameras) took photos of
Mt. Wrangell billowing big clouds of dark steam. Scientists are now
probing to see what happened inside the mountain after the 2002 Alaska
earthquake – and the big tsunami-generating earthquake in Asia.
Chitina Is The Gateway to Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve
The Edgerton Highway leads to Chitina, which was a major supply center, because goods were shipped to it directly on
the Copper River & Northwestern Railway from the port of Cordova.
Some speculated Chitina would become the capital of Alaska.
of Chitina’s 100 or so residents are Native American. They are direct
descendents of the famed chiefs and leaders who are mentioned by the
gold miners in their diaries. Chitina’s original Native settlement was
Taral, on the trade route south to the coast. The Ahtna people were
expert traders who traded all over Alaska.
The Chitina Centennial – 1910 - 2010
Chitina as a railroad town
was an important supply route to Fairbanks and in 1910, the railroad
offered the first townsites at Chitina. Freight came into Alaska at the
port town of Cordova. It was then shipped up the Copper River and
Northwest Railroad, and taken by the Orr stagecoach company up the
Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. The railroad was also linked by track to the
Kennicott mines, so Chitina was an extremely important Alaskan town. By
1942, the mines had closed, and Chitina began to decline in importance
-- though the buildings still remain.
Dipnetting In Chitina
A unique type of salmon fishing – other than fishwheels – is found here in Chitina. But it’s limited
to Alaska residents.
You’ll see people down at the Copper River using long-handled nets to scoop up salmon. This is a variant of a
method Ahtna Natives used in the old days, when they fashioned similar nets from natural materials.
Chitina As A Ghost Town
Chitina is a very remote town, where local people provide visitors with almost all of the basic services.
emergency care, firefighting and cleanup – all volunteer jobs.
While in Chitina, please use public facilities, like the Chitina wayside. And please take home your trash.
The Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, Part 2
Americans were proud of their achievements a century ago. And the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, which ran from
Cordova to Kennecott, was an Alaskan engineering marvel.
It was completed in 1911 at the cost of $23 million, as America basked in the glories of its industry.
railway was 131 miles long, and faced many of the serious construction
problems that later plagued the Trans-Alaska Pipeline: huge river
crossings, swamps and ravines. Not to mention 50 below zero working
conditions and mosquitoes. A massive crew was required to maintain the
railroad, and the biggest rotary snow plows in the world were brought
in to clear the tracks.
The railroad followed the Copper River from Chitina to Cordova. A spur went from Chitina to the Kennecott Mines.
When the railroad was running, Chitina served as a central supply depot for both Kennecott and Interior Alaska. Remnants
of the railroad, like the abandoned boxcar in the photo, abound.
Then, in 1938, the last train pulled out of Kennecott,
abandoning the mines, the buildings, and the tracks. The Copper River
& Northwestern was now gone, and tracks and trestles were gradually
torn up and replaced by today’s gravel road.
The section to Cordova fell into complete disrepair, and Cordova is now accessible
only by air and water.
The 1918 Flu Epidemic
The “Spanish Flu” began in 1918, and came back to America with U.S. soldiers from World War I.
More than 20 million people died of flu worldwide. In Alaska, an estimated 3,000 people died
At that time, there were small newspapers fiercely competing with each other all over Alaska. Some towns even had two
or more papers.
This story in the Chitina Leader, on display at the Copper Center museum, shows how the flu was both national and local
Rush to COPPER CENTER
miles south of Glennallen
100 miles north of Valdez
The first gold rush town in Copper River. The original name of this village was “Kluti-Kaah,” and
it was on the other side of the Copper River. Today, this Ahtna village is along the old Richardson Highway. Some cabins from the
old village & the gold rush are still standing (though the one in this photo is not).
COPPER CENTER GOLD RUSH HISTORY: A Miner's Refuge
There was an important Athabascan settlement near Copper Center before the gold miners arrived in 1898. Gold
miners, starting in Valdez, came down the Klutina River and built a tent-and-cabin town here.
Center became the base for their explorations of the Copper Valley.
There were two major roadhouses, a telegraph station, and a US marshal.
Hay was grown for feeding horses hauling goods over the
(Photo, Valdez Museum)
DEATH ON THE TRAIL
An 1898 tree tombstone marked the spot of miner Jim Buckley’s grave in Copper Center.
(Photo, Valdez Museum)
Ride the EDGERTON HIGHWAY
paved miles to Chitina
At Chitina, the road descends to the Copper River bridge and then on for 60 narrow unpaved miles to the McCarthy
Chitina, going toward Kennicott and McCarthy, the road turns to gravel and passes through an old railroad cut to a 1,400- foot
bridge across the Copper River.
Here, you can view fishwheels at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers.
are also used on other big rivers. They’re said to have been invented
in China, and came north with the gold rush. These paddlewheel-powered
fish traps are used by Alaskans who are permitted to catch salmon in
There are two types of fishwheels. Some are made of scrounged material – pipes, lumber, chicken wire,
small poles and old barrels. Others are intricately designed by skilled welders.
They are all powered by the force of the river. Salmon swim upstream and are scooped up by the nets and
deposited into a side box.
Fishwheels are private property, so please leave them alone.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest National Park in the
United States. The Park remains almost completely wild and is a major
attraction for experienced hikers and outdoors enthusiasts. Find out
more about it here.
Copper River Native Association
The Copper River Native Association represents and protects the tribes
and communities of the Copper River Valley.
Website of the Ahtna Corporation, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation and major landowner in the Copper River Valley.