STORIES OF COURAGE & BRAVERY IN ALASKA'S RUGGED COPPER RIVER VALLEY

Jim Frey Sr. of Slana, Telling A 1914 Nelchina Gold Rush Story

  The Little Nelchina Gold Rush Of 1914:

The Tarp, The Snow & The Wise Horse 

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Some Things Never Change. A Snow-Covered Cook Shack At A Copper River Valley Camp, In 2014. A Hundred Years After Jim Frey's Story.
It's hard, when you're traveling cross-country in the Copper River Valley, to know where to find help, or shelter, in the wilderness.

Jim Frey, Sr., of Slana, enjoyed recounting stories of his long life in the Copper Valley.
 

One of his stories was recycled. It was a retelling of a story he had heard in 1946. 

Jim recalled:

"I met an old gold miner from Chisana. He told me of the Gold Rush to the Little Nelchina in 1914. Today, the area is known for caribou. He did not see any in 1914. But there were lots of rabbits.

"They prospected all summer, without much success. Only a few creeks had mineable gold. 


"When they were leaving the area, they were trying to find a cabin they heard of. But it was snowing hard, and getting dark, so they hobbled the horse and made camp. Next morning, the tarp was down on them, heavy with snow. 
"The cabin. It was only a few hundred feet further on. And the horse was standing in the doorway. Looking out."

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Being "Copper River"

The Copper Valley Hammers You Into Becoming A New & Different Person

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All creatures are changed and rebuilt by their environment. No matter how different they seem when they start out.
 

If you live in the ocean you need fins. So birds (like penguins), mammals (like otters and whales), and fish all developed fins. 

Buck Brown of Gakona. A Transplanted Mainer.
If you're going to live in the air, you need to fly. It doesn't matter if you're an insect, a bat, a flying squirrel, or a bird -- a set of some sort of wings is necessary if you're intending to inhabit the world of open air.

The Copper Valley was a lot like the ocean or the air. It changed people.  In an intuitive, relatively unscientific, rapid, Lamarckian (yes, definitely not Darwinian) manner. 


To live in the Copper Valley required persistence, self-reliance, planning, resilience, and an ability to rely on, and help, those around you. It didn't matter if you were a contact-era Ahtna Native who had grown up in the boreal forest and had never seen a soldier before, or if you were a newly arrived 1972 homesteader from Ohio.

The place itself, if you stayed long enough, shaped you into a new and different person. A Copper River person. 


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Dragging Beans, Flour, Sugar & Evaporated Apples Into The Copper Valley Wilderness


"What The Merchants Advised... Was Purchased Without Question"

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A Copper Valley Gold Miner surrounded by the heavy material goods he had dragged up the mountain.


There were no shortages of "experts" on what to take to the Copper River Valley during the 1898 Gold Rush. Chief among them was the big, new Chicago mail order warehouse, Montgomery Ward.
Today, you can go to the Pioneer Museum in Fairbanks, and see a Montgomery Ward poster with the heading, 'We Know What You'll Need in Alaska." Montgomery Ward's "Grocery Outfit for One Man...12 to 14 Months" included:

400 lbs. of flour, 20 lbs. of corn meal, 40 lbs. rolled oats, 25 lbs. rice, 75 lbs. beans, 75 lbs split peas, 25 lbs salt pork, 2.25 ozs saccharine, 10 lbs. baking powder, 150 lbs bacon, 25 lbs dried beef, 2 lbs. soda, 6 packages of yeast cakes, 24 lbs salt, 2 dozen cans evaporated milk, 3 bars tar soap, 5 lbs. laundry soap, a 10 lb. tin of matches, 5 lbs. raisins,  25 lbs. coffee, 10 lbs. tea, 3 dozen soap squares, a lb. of pepper, half a pound of mustard, 20 lbs. evaporated apples, 6 jars beef extract, half a pound ground ginger, 20 lbs. evaporated peaches, 25 lbs. evaporated potatoes (in 5-lb canvas bags) and 5 lbs. evaporated onions. In case you happened to find yourself in Alaska, with "three or four men" requiring a meal, for an extra dollar, Montgomery Ward threw in an "Army Ration Packet" -- a 19th Century MRE --  that included Irish Stew and hard  tack -- weighing 4.75 pounds, and featuring little packets of salt, pepper, and coffee.


Montgomery Ward also had an equally heavy list of "clothing and hardware" necessities for a single miner.

"In making this list we offer only such articles as WE KNOW you should take to Alaska, and we confidently say, that with EVERY ARTICLE GUARANTEED AS REPRESENTED, there is no place in the world where, for the same money, you can duplicate this outfit in quantity and quality," Wards promised.

The well-prepared miner, said Montgomery Ward, needed 2 jumbo undershirts, 2 pairs of jumbo drawers, 2 summer undershirts, 2 pairs summer drawers, 2 pairs German socks, 3 pairs heavy hose, 4 pairs summer hose, a heavy sweater, with hood, a sleeping cap, a Danco cap, a Scotch camp, a blanket lined duck coat, a pair of duck pants, a mackinaw coat, a pair of mackinaw pants, 2 pairs duck overalls, a slicker, a pair of slicker pants, a souwester, 2 rubber blankets, 2 flannel overshirts, a "Klondike Esquimau" suit, a pair of horsehide gloves, 2 pairs horsehide lined mittens, 2 pairs woolen gloves, 2 pairs of supsenders, a 20 lb. sleeping bag, a Winchester 44. caliber rifle, a 44 Colt Revolver, bullets for both, a 7x7 wall tent, a pair of hip boots, a pair of leather boots, and 2 pairs of "Arctics."  For actual mining and household and personal maintenance, the miner also needed: a pair of U.S. blankets, a 20 lb. setting of "agate tableware" a miner's shovel and clamps, a 3 1/2 lb. ax, an extra ax handle, a 7 lbs board ax, 2 picks, 2 pick handles, a 3 lb. coffee mill for that 25 lbs of coffee, a 2 lb miner's gold pan, a rifle cover, a 4 1/2 lb. belt, a holster, a hunting knife and sheath, 2 pieces of mosquito nettings, 3 augers of various sizes with a handle, snow glasses, a 5 foot whip-saw, 5 1/2 foot cross-cut saws, a 28 inche rip-saw, 12 assorted files, a draw knife for peeling logs, a 30 lb. Yukon Stove, a 3 1/2 lb "heavy" hammer, and a light hammer, a pair of "Miner's Shoes", a "Miner's Glass", a brass pocket compass, and a 50 foot tape line.

Then, to top it off, a miner needed a ten-pound medicine chest, with 45 items in it, including medicines for colds, diarrhea, heart ailments, headaches, piles, toothaches, worms, gonorrhea -- and 50 cents worth of anti-scurvy medication.

Montgomery Ward warned potential miners:
"You should bear in mind that in a wild and inhospitable country, such as the Yukon is, where vegetables and fresh fruits are unknown, unless imported and sold at fabulous prices, something in the way of fruit is absolutely indispensable to ward off the dreaded scurvy. But there are other commodities which one's personal liking may induce him to take, as for instance, rice, syrup, oatmeal, hardtack and lime juice. "

The average miner's gear ran around 1,500 lbs. The problem of what to do with the gear once you got to Alaska was not addressed. How could one person move this amount of gear around the countryside, without roads, or horses -- or, in most cases, even dogs to help him?




An ax and knife grinder from the Gold Rush. It might have been the same one shown in the picture at the top of this page. This is at the Copper Center Museum.


Montgomery Ward cagily solved this problem of transport by showing illustrations of prospectors who somehow seemed to have beasts of burden show up in Alaska --  to help them with this task  One prospector is shown driving two horses and a large, heavily laden sled, across snow covered terrrain on an obvious trail.

The other prospector is sauntering along, leading a burro with some packs strapped to its back, and carrying a rifle. 


Addison Powell, in his book, Trailing & Camping In Alaska, commented on the gullibility of miners. He said,

"I traveled a thousand miles overland to Seattle, the metropolis of the northwest. Never again will that city be filled with such a mongrel lot of transients. They hailed from everywhere and were dressed in all sorts of clothes. What the merchants advised them to buy for their northern trip was purchased without question. They bought furs and striped and variegated mackinaw clothing, and proud of their purchases, paraded the streets in the most fantastic costumes."

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