This Week In 1898 In The Copper Valley: Jim Buckley Fell Into The Copper & Was Swept Away Forever

July 10th, 2021  Copper River History:  Falling Into The River This Week In 1898   In early July, 1898, a group of miners was headed up the ...

July 10th, 2021 

Copper River History: Falling Into The River This Week In 1898  

In early July, 1898, a group of miners was headed up the Copper River. They were traveling against the current, using ropes to drag their heavy spruce boats upstream towards Chistochina, where they had heard there was gold to be found. 

Ornate carved script on Jim Buckley's cottonwood tombstone in Copper Center. (Photo donated to the Country Journal by Fred Williams) 

The miners had built their small and flimsy crafts out of spruce. The boats were overladen, with hundreds of pounds of food, clothing, tents, pots, pans and tools, which the men had dragged into the country in the spring – over treacherous glaciers and down the raging Klutina River. 

In July they headed north. The miners walked their boats along, against the heavy currents of the Copper River. They hauled their crafts along the eastern bank of the Copper, across from the road is now. 

One of these miners, Horace Conger, commented on how terrible the experience was. On July 7th and 8th it was both windy and hot. "Very dangerous," Conger jotted in his diary. "Saw several parties returning. It is getting more discouraging every day." 

On July 8th,1898, Conger noted that another group of miners had swamped their boat. "They lost most all of their stuff that was in it," he said.

The next day, July 9th, the men "passed by some very dangerous clay banks" and saw a recent, huge mud slide on the riverbanks. 

On Sunday, 
July 10th, they rested in the rain, on the other side of the Copper River, almost directly across from where the Gakona River Bridge and Gakona Lodge now stand. 

Alaska has always had a lure for Minnesotans. Decades later, Pat and Don Stenberg, who lived for many years at Gakona Junction, came to the valley from Mankato, Minnesota. Jim Lorence is from Mankato and also lives in Gakona. He was a longtime counselor at Glennallen High School, and now works at CRNA.

Of course, in 1898, there was no "Gakona Junction" and no "Tok Cutoff" and no "Richardson Highway." There was no bridge and no lodge. 

There was just the river, and the hapless miners – and their grim determination to drag all their gear north to some unknown and undefined destination, hoping their luck would change, the rain would stop, and they could head back down the Copper, laden down with gold nuggets. 

The men's wild hopes and dreams never meshed with the harsh realities of the valley. There never was any gold. Yet there was always danger, just like today. 

Monday, July 11th, 1898, was cloudy. The men continued pulling their heavy boats against the stream toward Chistochina, tugging away on their fraying ropes. As they toiled, they continued to slide and fall in the bushes and mud along the Copper. Disaster struck. 

Wrote Horace Conger:
"Started out this morning in good spirits, but before we had gone one mile, Jim Buckley fell into the river and was drowned."

They looked for their friend's body in the rain for several days before giving up. It wasn't until months later, on September 5th,  that Jim Buckley's body was finally found, on the shores downstream in Copper Center. 

Drowning was so common back then. Many of the miners drowned, not just him. 

Yet it was a terrible blow, and when Jim washed up in Copper Center, the miners there did what they could to respectfully commemorate the life of the fallen Mankato man. 

A small memorial tombstone was carved into a cottonwood tree by miners in Copper Center, where he came ashore. 

Jim Buckley of Minnesota: This week, in 1898, he joined an ever-growing group of people who came to the Copper Valley and succumbed to its dangers. 

-Conger's observations from:  "In Search Of Gold; The Alaska Journals of HORACE S. CONGER, 1898-1899, Carolyn Jean Holeski and Marlene Conger Holeski" 


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