Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Copper Center Alaska - When the Gold Rush went past

Copper Center is really not a very logical place to build a town.  But of course it was not built in logical times or for logical people.

In the mid to late 1890s Alaska and the adjacent Canadian Yukon region were the site of multiple Gold Rushes.  Many of these were transient or were entirely based on rumor.  But no matter, wherever the gold was thought to be a small army of prospectors would rush out to stake their claims.

In 1898 the golden rumors suggested that all you had to do was take a ship to Valdez Alaska, stroll inland and start picking up nuggets.  Wrong.  Fatally wrong in many cases.  After struggling up the Valdez glacier and trekking to Klutina Lake the miners had to build boats and run the rapids of the Klutina river to its confluence with the Copper river.  At this point some soldiered on to the still distant Klondike gold fields.  Others set up a base to explore the Copper/Klutina region.  This base, at first nothing more than a tent city, became Copper Center.

4000 miners went north in 1898.  Some went on, some went back defeated.  About 300 wintered over in Copper Center suffering through cold, malnutrition and disease.  As there was in fact no significant amount of gold in the area most left in the spring and Copper Center faded to a simple trading post.

But although it contracted it never went entirely "ghost".  The Richardson Highway was built in the late 1890s, at first as a pack trail, then as a proper road.  The glittering illusion of mining riches flickered elsewhere, further north, and Copper Center served its function as a road house and stopping point.  By the time automobile travel began in the 1920s it was an essential place.  Mules and miners can function without gasoline and repairs, Model Ts cannot.

Alaska was a busy place during World War II and the road networks were improved.  Post war people started coming to the interior as tourists.  A New Richardson Highway was constructed putting Copper Center a little more off the beaten track but it hung in there.  After all it had no significant competition.

Today it is a sleepy little place, actually several little clusters of buildings.  Off in the woods, usually beyond No Trespassing signs, you can see the ruins of log cabins.  It is hard to tell how old they really are, the climate of the Last Frontier is not kind to the works of Man.

A series of photos of Copper Center in the summer of 2014.

This is the equivalent of "Main Street".  At the end is the Copper Center Lodge under reconstruction. The cafe is on the right.  The garage on the left.  Empty space and random vehicles are here and there.

The garage.  I suspect that this log structure has repaired pretty much every model of car ever built in America.  The gas pump out front must not have been in service for a while, the price is frozen at 51 cents per gallon.  For my UK readers I should specify that would work out to approximately 60 pence per gallon.  Note that the gauge reads cents per gallon....the notion of a price over a dollar was not considered.

At first glance you would think the strange things in this photo were some sort of pontoon boats. Close but not quite.  They are "fish wheels".  Essentially these are fish traps that float on the rivers here.  The current drives a sort of paddle wheel.  Fish are scooped up and dumped into a submerged basket.  This seems both efficient and unsporting but it is allowed only on a limited basis and only for Native Alaskans.  (that is Native American Alaskans.  Alaskan natives refers to anybody who actually lives there full time as opposed the the more numerous summer visitors).

Our party had to split up for lodging.  The younger generation down at the campground by the river, my wife and I staying here:

This is the Copper Rail Depot Saloon.  An....interesting establishment.  It is in the middle of nowhere. The accommodations are basic.  But it has a fabulous juke box, a wide array of really great micro brews and the most elaborate model train set up I have ever laid eyes upon.  And in the parking lot there was a food trailer serving very acceptable Mexican fare.

Strolling around Copper Center you see all sorts of enigmatic sights.

In Alaska it is very easy to become disoriented.  In mid summer you have pretty much 24 hours of sunlight.  This makes it possible to grow some really outrageous Giant Vegetables.  I am not sure what they have growing here, looks like perhaps cabbages approaching shoulder height.  The fencing features barbed wire.  They don't have to worry about deer so I assume this is moose deterrent.  Or maybe not.  I promise to address the matter of the Mordor Bunnies in due course.

In addition to the Garage there is also a sort of blacksmith/machine shop.  Out front I saw these:

I think the owner of the car has given up waiting for the work to get done.  The second image shows the remains, one assumes, of a bush pilot crash.  The log structure next to it could either be a traditional hunter's food cache or more likely a house for a really, really large dog.

The far end of Copper Center has an out of business "Cash Store", an art gallery and surprisingly large and active Post Office and City Hall buildings.

If you have ever wondered how to make a fence post in a place where rock and permafrost renders post hole digging impractical, here you go.  You're welcome.

As to the future of Copper Center, well, who knows.  The fishing outfitters and campgrounds seem to be doing well.  And there will always be a need for local services on some level.  It is good to see the Lodge being rebuilt and I have to say the little cafe did a fine job on the two breakfasts we had there. (They serve yak burgers at lunch but alas I did not avail myself of this rare opportunity).

What money there is in the area seems to be up the hill where the Princess Cruise line has a very fancy resort.  Some of our party went up there to enjoy the fabulous views and to try unsuccessfully to pass themselves off as idle rich folks.  But this is money that does not trickle down the hill to the old Gold Rush town.  The Idle Rich arrive on a motor coach and leave on one.  Other than some business to the fishing guides they might as well be on another planet.  So Copper Center sleepwalks on.  Perhaps on some level the spirit of the place is still awaiting that Big Strike, that Golden Opportunity that will bring another wave of enterprising entrepreneurs and fortune seekers.

The wait may be a long one.

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