Jim McKinley Of Copper Center Was Born In The Gold Rush & Lived Into Modern Times

The Copper River Chronicles: Alaska Lifestyles

Ahtna's Traditional Chief  Lived A Life That Mixed Longtime Athabascan & Western Work

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

An outbuilding from Jim McKinley's cabin, beside the road in Copper Center.

Historian, Trapper, Road & Railroad Worker

Jim McKinley was born at the height of the Gold Rush, on May 3rd, 1899, in Copper Center. His life spanned the years from the Gold Rush to the computer age.

His obituary, when he died June 17th 1991, was a chronicle of the history of the Copper Valley, and the interface between Ahtna Natives and the settlers that came to the region.

He went to school in Copper Center in 1903. In 1906, when he was 7 years old, his grandfather, and many other Ahtna people, tragically died in a great flu epidemic -- a precursor of the better-known 1918 epidemic.

In 1907, he saw his first western-style "boat" -- which  came up the Copper River to Copper Center, and was probably one of the short-lived sternwheelers that plied the region for a few years.  

In 1908, a Russian Orthodox Church was built in Copper Center, near the river, at the spot where eventually a nondenominational church would replace it. 
Historic photo of Ahtna girl with dipnet. (UAF)

In 1909, the 10-year old Jim McKinley traveled to Chitina, by boat, for the first time in his life. There was no road to Chitina at the time.

In 1910, young Jim and his family moved to Upper Tonsina, where they spent the winter. They came back to Copper Center that summer to dipnet.

In 1912, Jim remembered that he saw his first fishwheel in the Copper River. 

Demonstration Fishwheel at Ahtna Cultural Center.

Both dipnets and fishwheels have gone on to become symbols of Copper River Valley "subsistence" fishing. The dipnet was an Athabascan invention. It was a longhandled, willow "net" which was used to scoop salmon from platforms jutting out into the Copper River. People still use dipnets (though now made of aluminum) to catch fish at Chitina.

The fishwheel is an invention that is also still in use. It is a large, turning wheel that runs with the current. Fish headed upriver along the bank swim into the wheel and are trapped and shunted into a sidebox where they are later removed by the fisherman.

Jim McKinley's life story shows the precarious ups and downs of Copper Valley life. During the pre-World War I years, stylish Americans wore furs, and fur prices soared. Jim McKinley and his family hunted for live wild foxes during 1913, and 1914, when prices were high. But prices crashed.

In 1917, he worked at the Copper River Canyon Cannery, dip netting fish and selling them for 8 cents apiece to the canneries.

1918 Spanish Flu story in the Chitina Leader newspaper.
On display at the George Ashby Museum in Copper Center. 

In 1919, there was another flu epidemic in Copper Center, and many local people died. 

By 1920, Jim had found work in Paxson, north of Gulkana on the Richardson Highway, toward Fairbanks. Then he went to work for the Copper River Northwest Railway for 3 months. The railway connected the Kennicott copper mines to Chitina, and from there, to the port of Cordova, where copper was shipped down the coast to the rest of the United States.

In the winter of 1920, Jim McKinley trapped.  In 1921, he worked for the Alaska Road Commission. In 1923, he was hired to groom the Richardson Highway;  President Harding was coming to Alaska, and it was thought he might come by way of the the highway. Instead, the president traveled on the Alaska Railway. 
Jim McKinley sits in the spring sun outside his cabin.

That year, too, Jim McKinley's father bought him a Model T. He was married to Ellafina Joe, who was born in Knik. In 1924, he worked on the Copper River Railway in Chitina, and on the highway.

In 1929, he worked in a cannery at Valdez, with Bill Egan, who was later to become governor of Alaska.

In 1930, he worked at the Dadina Gold Mine, trapped in the winter, and then worked on the road again in the spring.

And, also in 1930, he again worked on the Copper River Railway. In 1934, he worked at Chistochina for the Nabesna Mining Camp. In 1935, he worked at Paxson all summer, and trapped all winter at Klutina.

In 1936, he spent the summer taking care of a sick uncle, and trapped in the winter. In 1939, he worked at Valdez all winter, and in the fall he worked on the road. In 1940, he trapped again at Klutina, and in 1941 he worked in Kenny Lake. When the  Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he worked on the Glenn Highway all summer long, as part of the effort to make sure there was a strong overland connection from Anchorage through the Copper Valley and into Canada, down to the rest of the United States.

In 1946, Jim McKinley converted to Christianity.

Jim McKinley was an ardent Christian who was pastor of Copper Center Chapel for a long time.

He was also traditional Chief of Copper Center Village, and an official spokesman, who recounted historical events at potlatches and other meetings. Jim McKinley died in 1991.

© Copper River Country Journal, 2015, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

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