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Ron Simpson
Ron Simpson was interviewed on September 18, 2003 by Mark Cosson in Copper Center, Alaska for the KUAC-TV Documentary “Klondike and Alaska: A Rail History.” He talks about the history of the Copper River Northwestern Railway. He discusses why the railroad was built and by whom, its hauling of copper ore and passengers between Kennecott and Cordova, engineering and construction of the route, relationship with steamships, construction of steel bridges, impacts of the railroad on the Native population, the demise of the railroad, and his construction of a replica model railroad.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History AAF-10213

Project: Railroads of Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 18, 2003
Narrator(s): Ron Simpson
Interviewer(s): Mark Cosson
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
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Early explorations in the Copper River region and Chief Nicolai

Discovery of the Kennecott Lode and the development of copper mining

The beginning of the Copper River and Northwest Railroad

Engineering difficulties of building the railroad and steamboats built by the railroad

Temporary and permanent bridges built for the railroad

The impact of the railroad on the Native population

Shutting down the Kennecott Mine and the railroad

Selling off the trains and the rails and what was left behind at the Kennecott Mine

His research on the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad and his interest in model railroads

The rotary engines used for snow removal

The model of the Copper River and Northwest Railroad in Copper Center

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MARK COSSON: Copper River Northwestern Railway. Give me a little synopsis of how it all came about.

RON SIMPSON: The Copper River Northwestern came about because it was recognized as early as the 1840s by the Russians that there was a significant amount of copper up here. The Russians sent some expeditions up here into the Copper River apparently to seek the source of the copper and they were not successful. In fact, they were driven off by the Ahtna people. In 1885, the first successful American expedition came up that was headed by Lieutenant Henry Allen and three other people with him.

He made it to a place called Taral, which is a historical site now across the river -- across the Copper River from present day Chitina. The man in charge of Taral was a fellow named Nicolai. Nicolai was not at Taral but some of his people were and they directed Henry to, Henry Allen to follow a trail known now as the Hannakecan Trail up to Nicolai’s camp in the mountains. Allen recognized this as important even though it was off --

it wasn’t really in his plans to divert off the Copper River. He wanted to follow the Copper River up and then go down the Tanana River to the Yukon. But he went ahead. He went up the Chitina River because he really wanted to meet with Chief Nicolai. Nicolai at the time was amazingly only 18 years old but he was also recognized as the chief of all the Ahtna people and that’s the people that are in this valley to this day. At that time Allen believed there were about 300 of those people living in the valley. In any case, he made it to an area now known as Dan Creek. That’s where Nicolai was and one of the things he asked Nicolai was is there a source of rich copper and Nicolai said yes there was.

He said will you show me where it is and Nicolai said he would not, but he silently pointed in the direction where the copper was and indicated in the affirmative that the copper really was there. So Allen took that and continued on with his expedition. So this was the first time that it was officially noted that yes there was a strong possibility that a source of copper existed that would be worthwhile to pursue. The second time that anything of significance happened was 1899. A group of prospectors came into the valley by coming up through Valdez Glacier and down the Kaltina Glacier.

Most of the prospectors of that time thought they were going over to the Klondike Gold Rush. That was 1899 of course and that’s when the Gold Rush was going on, but a few of them had other intentions in mind. One of them was a fellow named McClellan. He took a small party and sought out Chief Nicolai with the intention of finding out where this copper was because he believed that there would be quite a bit for him in it. After many hours of intense negotiations he was able to work an agreement that allowed him to be led to the source of the copper that Nicolai had pointed out to him many years before.

This became known as the Nicolai Lode and that in turn led to the discovery of the much more significant Kennecott Lode, the Bonanza vein one year later near the head of the Kennecott Glacier Valley. The moment that the men discovered it the word of course got out in a matter of days and one of the men who found out about this was a fellow name Stephen Birch. Birch had been sent up to Valdez with a party called the Abercrombie party headed by Captain Abercrombie to seek out

opportunities for mineral development. He was funded by some rich capitalists on the east coast. He learned about this find. He immediately began negotiations with one of the men to buy his share out and he was successful in doing that and the following year made a trip up to the what is actually now known as Bonanza Ridge to look at the claim for himself. He immediately notified his backers that this was -- this was definitely a claim worth pursuing and that he needed a great deal more money because he wanted to buy out the ten other members of what was the then known as McClellan Party

so that this claim could be developed by these rich investors in the east. Over the course of several years it was done and by about 1905 Stephen Birch was up there actually -- we call proving the claim, trying to determine the actual value of it. By 19 -- well actually by 1905 he was absolutely convinced that it was worthwhile to make an investment to build the railroad into the Interior. The -- this was agreed to by the investors and the original site -- the original port selected was Valdez.

Valdez was a deep, warm water port with easy access, relatively easy access into the Copper River Valley by going up the Lowe River, crossing Marshall Pass, going down the Tasnuna River and following the Copper River up. They got a good start on this when they changed their minds because of a considerable amount of coal that was being developed down in an area known as the Bering Coal Fields to the southeast of Valdez

and to the southeast of what is now Cordova. By now the principal investors was a group known as the Guggenheims. They began investing in coal claims over there because of course it made sense if you could get enough coal claims then you would beat the problem of access to easy energy for purposes of operating a railroad and also to develop a smelter in the area to keep the costs of copper production as small as possible. So by 1906 they had moved the entire operation over to Katalla and were in the process of building the railroad from there.

Well two things happened. In the first place other interests in the east -- principally headed by a group of conservationists headed by Gifford Pinchot who was the chief forester for the -- for President Roosevelt at the time strongly opposed the taking of any coal out of that area. What they were really afraid of it appears is that the Guggenheims would accumulate far too much power and this would be a threat to other eastern interests. So in reality what it was was not so much a conservation claim

as an attempt to block competition with other eastern capitalists. In any case President Roosevelt shut down the access to coal and that was pretty much the end of that. But then on top of this a big storm, winter storm came in, the railroad builders had been putting in a breakwater to protect their wharf. The winter storm took out the breakwater and took out the wharf and took out most of the town of Katalla. So that was the end of Katalla for purposes of building a railroad into the Copper River Valley.

By this time, however, a fellow who had already successfully completed the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, Michael J. Heney, had already established a railroad right-of-way claim all the way up the Copper River from Eyak. Eyak he later named Cordova. He would now sit in the driver’s seat because this was the only logical place left from which to gain access into the Interior. Heaney had built -- had established his railroad claims

with full intention of selling this to the Guggenheims because he believed that ultimately they would conclude this was the only logical route in and in fact, that’s what happened. They bought out his interest in the construction company and hired him as the chief contractor for purposes of building the railroad into the Interior. The Guggenheims then put Erastus Cornelius Hawkins in charge. Hawkins was the engineer who had also headed the White Pass and Yukon project. So now you had the same two men together that had built the previous very successful railroading project into

-- from Skagway into Whitehorse, together again building this new railroad in what appeared to be seemingly impossible conditions in the Interior. The reason it appeared to be impossible was because part of the route required going between two glaciers, the Miles and Childs Glacier in order to cross the Copper River and breach the Chugach and go into the main Copper River Valley. Well of course the engineering was successful and they were able to build the necessary railroad and bridges and get all the way through. In the meantime, the mine was still under development.

By the time the railroad was completed in March 1911, there was about 2,400 tons of high-grade ore sitting at the Bonanza Mine waiting for shipment. The railroad which arrived took out that first load of ore, actually half of the load that was there. They took out about 1,400 tons of ore. On April 7, 1911, amid a great deal of fanfare I might add and that marked the beginning of Cordova and of course it continues to exist as a relatively viable city to this day. The railroad was a common carrier.

That is not only was it a mining railroad, but it was licensed, authorized to handle passengers and other freight and indeed they did exactly that. This was a standard gauge 196-mile long system. They ran, at one time they ran eight passenger cars and 256 freight cars. In the early days by 1917 they had something in the order of 18 locomotives that were on hand to operate this railroad. By the time that they had acquired all the rolling stock,

the last of it was purchased in 1917, however. They -- one of the early intentions of continuing the railroad to Fairbanks was lost because the government had decided that it would be better to build the railroad from Seward through Ship Creek, which became Anchorage and on to Fairbanks through the Susitna Valley.

MARK COSSON: Why was that?

RON SIMPSON: That was another matter of politics. There was the democratic administration, the Wilson Administration, and they had a real problem with the Guggenheims. Once again it was a matter of maybe giving them a little bit too much power. Now the railroad itself was primarily at that time owned by J. P. Morgan and Morgan was not popular with the Wilson Administration. In any case for what appears to be mostly political reasons, the administration bought the Alaska Northern Railroad property out of Seward and went ahead and built the railroad that ultimately would have cost about twice as much as it would have had they gone ahead and acquired the Copper River Northwestern main line

from Cordova to Chitina and then extended it on to Fairbanks. Now the route from Chitina on to Fairbanks had been surveyed and the survey still exists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. You can go and see for yourself, but that was the end of it because the government had no further interest in it. So what that meant from that point on was what it started out as a very promising common carrier railroad became primarily a mining railroad. Ninety-seven percent of everything that went over the tracks was done for the Kennecott Corporation and the rest of it was -- the people and goods

that went to the other towns that kind of help support the activity that was there. The towns of Chitina and McCarthy and then the smaller communities along the way.

MARK COSSON: Building that railroad, I mean they were building that in the wintertime a lot. I mean that must have been an enormous project in those, in that day that could be compared possibly to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

RON SIMPSON: I have compared it to that. I believe that the engineering difficulties that they encountered were every bit as severe and maybe in some cases more so than what Alyeska encountered, especially in the building of the bridges. Not only were they dealing with going between glaciers at one point they were going over a glacier. They were going over heavily permafrosted country. They had to deal with glacial overflow where hidden lakes would break loose and wipe out trestles and it was an ongoing battle.

But on top of all that in the process of building the railroad they had a limited time to do it before they lost their tax benefits. They absolutely had to be in place on April 1st of 1911. They made it on March 29th. It really shows in the building of the Gilhina trestle a model of the center section is right behind me. The Gilhina was 880 feet long. It’s a horseshoe-shaped trestle, 94 feet at the center. There’s about a half million-board feet in that thing. They built that in 10 days, all 880 feet.

They built it when it was no warmer than -30 and at some points it reached as low as -60. They did this in 10 days. I can’t imagine any modern day construction company meeting that and this was done with ordinary manpower and blasting caps. That’s how they did it. The whole railroad was built like that. There was some advantage to building in the winter in the sense that back then much like the oil companies today it made more sense to haul when everything was frozen and drag it up over the river ice because otherwise you were facing the impossible conditions of tundra-like country and a river that just wasn’t going to allow you much

freedom of movement. The railroad did build three steamboats, 110 footer and two 120 footers, the Chitina, the Nizina and the Tonsina, that helped speed up the construction of the railroad because what they ended up doing was building it in a number of sections the same way that the Alyeska Pipeline was built. In order to do that they had to use these steamships that began at Mile 55 on the route. They would pick up all the material there and drop it off at various points. So they had construction going at several places simultaneously and they used 6,500 men to do this. This is what made it possible to meet the time requirements.

It is just hard to imagine doing that today especially considering that most of this was done, as you pointed out, in the wintertime.

MARK COSSON: How far -- how did they get those boats into the river, I mean --

RON SIMPSON: The first one was the toughest. That was the Chitina. It was built in the Leuallen Shipyards in Portland, Oregon and then disassembled and shipped up to Valdez. There it was hauled up at Lowe River and over Marshall Pass down the Tasnuna River. The biggest piece being the boiler that if I recall was two and a half tons. They then reassembled the entire thing right there where the Tasnuna River hits the Copper River. I believe it is about Mile 82 on the railroad. That was the first one and it was assembled by the way totally with Native labor. Then it was moved down to Mile 55 and at Mile 55 in those days

was as far down the river as you could get with steamships. That was the head of the notoriously dangerous Abercrombie Rapids and you cannot get up or down those. There was just no way, but the idea was to get the railroad up to the head of that, Mile 55, and then go from there so that’s what they did. The second and third steamships were assembled in Cordova and hauled over the railroad and then assembled at Mile 55,

again with Indian labor. Additionally, during the entire time that the ships were operated, although they had a officially a white captain, in fact, the navigation was done using -- using Ahtna people because they were the ones that knew the river. None of those ships was ever lost or grounded in the entire time they operated. Quite a feat.

MARK COSSON: It seems they built some bridges that were -- some a little more permanent than others. Seems like every spring sections crossing rivers would be washed away -- the pilings -- the ice would take things out.

RON SIMPSON: Yes. Well here was the thing, here was the problem. When they first started building it of course is as I was trying to point out they really believed when they started the railroad that it was going to be a permanent railroad extending to Fairbanks. So the entire segment from Cordova to, pardon me, to Chitina, 131 miles was what they called mainline track, 70-pound rail, that means 70 pounds per yard. It also had very high engineering standards. There was -- the average rise I believe was one half of one percent all the way to Chitina. The curves were as light as possible and it was just generally a very good first-class route.

So most everything along that section as soon as they could was made permanent, but when you got to Chitina that was a different matter. They considered that a branch line and originally it was believed that the mines of what became known as Kennecott in 1915 had about an eight year supply of copper. Well an eight-year supply of copper -- of anything -- does not justify putting a lot of permanent infrastructure in. So even though plans were drawn up for a permanent steel bridge to cross the Copper River at Chitina and that would have been an 1,180 foot four-span bridge, about 100 feet above the river. This would also have eliminated a four- percent grade that exists

to this day on both sides. They opted not to do that because it would have cost $650,000. They decided it would be far cheaper just to go and put in a wooden trestle and let it go out every year because they know it would and rebuild it. After all what’s maybe eight or ten seasons. No one would have guessed – no one would have guessed that the mine would have lasted 27 years. I understand that it cost something in the neighborhood of $30,000 each time that the trestle went out and they had to rebuild it. They rebuilt the trestle something like 30 times.

MARK COSSON: What’s the -- there’s the exception of -- what’s the name of the big steel bridge across from the gorge?

RON SIMPSON: Oh, yes. The Kuskalana steel bridge had to be built. That’s 16 miles east of Chitina. There was no way around that because the span was too great and you could not build a wooden trestle across that span. That span is 525 feet on the top that’s all steel. They had wooden trestle approaches on each side. That was the only exception, but -- and of course that exists to this day. You can walk over and look underneath it and look up and it looks like it could have been built last year it’s so well done. It’s an impressive bridge, but that was the only exception. Everything else on that route was temporary.

The rails were 60-pound rails. The curves were tighter. So in some places it was much slower going and definitely there were some very steep grades. There was a four- percent. There were six miles of that out of Chitina. Then there was a 3.47% grade from McCarthy to Kennecott.

MARK COSSON: You emphasized that a lot of the labor involved in at least the construction of the sternwheelers was Native hire.


MARK COSSON: What -- what impact upon the Natives was this railroad?

RON SIMPSON: The railroad was a major impact on the Ahtna people. Unlike any place else in the United States where usually it was the cavalry that came in and this is who the Native peoples encountered. Here, although the Army was there in the form of Lieutenant Henry Allen and Captain Abercrombie and people like that, their impact was negligible. But when the railroad came in that changed everything.

That opened up the country and brought in somewhere between two and three thousand permanent residents.

MARK COSSON: White people?

RON SIMPSON: White people. This was at a time when there might have been 300 Native people living here and the first thing that happened was the diseases caught up and decimated our people. And I say our people because I am actually one of the descendants of Nicolai. But what happened Nicolai took a very farsighted I believe approach to this whole thing and a much misunderstood one. He recognized that what was coming was not going to be stopped because of the shear numbers, just were against anything that he could possibly conceive of doing.

He couldn’t stop that. So what he did was he found ways to make accommodations with the people that were coming in. In order to get anything done you had to go through Nicolai. Nicolai was the chief and even after he was -- he made himself disappear after the turn of the century. He was the one that the people went to for advice.

MARK COSSON: Was he -- was he the chief, did he wear a top hat?

RON SIMPSON: That was a Doc Billam. Doc Billam was another family, head of another family in the same area, another very powerful man, who found his own unique way to work with the people that came in. Doc Billam was what I would call the ultimate Indian capitalist. He found -- he looked at the white men coming and he saw this as an opportunity to make money. And primarily through his rafting service, he rafted people across the Copper River when there were no other boats available, whenever there was no other safe way to get across there. He sold supplies. He did whatever it took.

He made money and he was successful. Nicolai, however, was the one that was in the background and made the deals. And although this has never been said officially, this has never been said before, this is only because of my family connections that I can say this at all. He was the one that made the deal and made it possible for really two things to happen. One of them was that within the Native hunting grounds and the railroad traversed much of this the Indian people were able to ride the rails for free.

That was one of the concessions that the railroad made. The other one was that the people at Chitina became the source of maintenance crews that were primarily used in the springtime to rebuild the railroad. This provided a source of revenue much like you find today with the fire -- Alaska Fire Service where you got a few months of seasonal employment to get the cash so that the people can still live their preferred lifestyle but still have the cash they need to exist in the modern white man’s world. So even back then this was going on. So in that sense even though the railroad changed everything

Nicolai found a way for his people to work with the railroad that was there. And by the time that the railroad finally came to an end in November of 1938 believe me even the Native people missed it because it became in that time the way of life for everybody that was there.

MARK COSSON: So let’s talk about why the railroad shut down.

RON SIMPSON: Okay. Kennecott is a high-grade copper ore deposit. It turned out that it was the single -- it was in a class all its own. There has never been any higher-grade copper found anywhere in the world in the quantities that existed at Kennecott. The thing about high-grade mining is that you’ve got a limited amount and then that’s it. You clean it out. It’s in identifiable pockets. And there is really usually nothing else. As opposed to a low grade mine where you will have ore scattered over a very large area

you can mine it for years and years and years, with high grade that doesn’t happen. Kennecott was high grade. They -- the Kennecott engineers determined in 1924 that they had discovered all the high-grade ore that there was discovered. At that point they needed to make a plan of mining retreat because that was it. There would be no more ore. So in 1925 they began drawing up the plans for retreat out of the Kennecott system. Kennecott was so massive that it was believed that it would take between

eight and twelve years just to complete a retreat process. And that didn’t take into account what later happened that for nearly three years the mine shut down because of low prices. So in any case once it was determined that the high grade was going to be gone. They’d reached their limits. The people at Kennecott downgraded the value of this Alaskan operation. What had once been their primary mine was now a remote outpost.

They took the money they made at Kennecott and invested it in the Bigham Canyon Mine and the Bradon Mine in Chili and other things related to the copper industry and pretty much left Kennecott on its own. So they quit investing in anything essentially after 1924 really. That included upgrades to the railroad, upgrades to the mill, anything that required any large amount of money they weren’t going to do it anymore. So what happened was it didn’t take long and it became increasingly expensive to maintain the railroad.

Things started falling apart. The railroad -- none of the wood was ever creasoted so there was definitely a limited lifespan of how long those trestles were going to last. Fifteen percent of the railroad was trestles. So one of the considerations in the mine retreat had to be how long can we operate this railroad without putting any more money into it? How far can we stretch out our resources before we have to get out? And by the mid-30’s they picked that time. They decided that they would operate through the summer and fall of 1938 and that would be the end of it.

That decision was made quite some time before the end came. When they pulled out it was only a matter of years before the railroad trestles started falling apart and it was only the next season that the line really became completely unusable because among other things massive amount of money had always been put into maintaining a five mile stretch that was on an old glacial till. And the first thing that happened was all that fell apart, five miles of track just disappeared right off the bat. But in the meantime Kennecott had developed this plan of retreat. In 1938,

they made their final evaluation and determined that yes, they could get out by the end of the year. They would take what they could get and go. But they would get out before any kind of winter operations would be necessary. They didn’t want to put any money into that either. It looks like they thought they were going to get out in October, but what happened was at the very end they hit a one final large deposit in the most remote of all of five Kennecott Mines known as the Arie Mine. That added a considerable tonnage to the ore that had to be taken out and that kept the railroad operation a little longer than they anticipated.

And it also had the consequence of ensuring that not much else would be taken down those railroads. They wouldn’t end up salvaging much of anything because the rails were committed to hauling out high-grade ore instead of salvaged equipment. Kennecott took out its generators, the most expensive mining equipment, and a few other very valuable items and that was it. They left the entire town of Kennicott intact because there was no point in hauling any of that stuff out. They had run out of train capacity and what was left there the things that people live with, the hospital equipment.

A good deal of the mill machinery was considered not valuable enough to hold the rails any longer so on November 10th the decision was made, this is it, and the last train pulled out on that date arriving in Cordova the next day. On that day it happened to be a very cold blustery day. There was a great deal of snow blowing around everywhere and I suspect that they were very glad to get out of there. That was really it as far as the railroad operation. There were 40 men left behind at Kennecott to continue a mothballing of the mill site and that was not completed until December 23rd.

At that point a charter plane came in and picked up those remaining men at McCarthy and hauled them out and that was truly the end of Kennecott.

MARK COSSON: So what remains? I mean they left -- they left everything intact.


MARK COSSON: Railroad, everything, what happened to all the rails?

RON SIMPSON: The first of the rail went out with the U.S. Army. The Army acquired the Copper River Northwestern stock that was at Cordova. There was quite a few engines that had been left behind and all the trackage up to the Million Dollar Bridge and a little beyond was still in place. They took out almost all of that rail and by the end of the war they had shipped out all of the rolling stock that was remaining. Let’s see, there was about six or eight locomotives that were still there when the war started

that the Army shipped. There were five passenger cars and there was a number of other freight cars. All of the valuable freight cars -- the steel cars, the steel flatcars, the steel boxcars had been sold by Copper River Northwestern in the 1938 and shipped out, mostly to the Alaska Railroad. So that was pretty much the end of that. Then in the early 1950s, a company called Alaska Junk came in and bought the rights to the remaining rail and they tore up the track between Tiekel mile 101 and Chitina mile 131

and then continued on up until 1963 tearing out track all the way to McCarthy. That segment of track, apart from the Copper River at mile 132 all the way to McCarthy most of it was still sitting at the wharf at Valdez when the earthquake hit in 1964 and took out all that rail and put it in the bottom of the bay at Valdez. Now the buildings, most of the major buildings that are in Kennecott per se have survived. A lot of the -- a significant number of the minor ones did not because there was a mining operation that came in in the mid-60s

and burned them down because they considered them in the way. This also happened at the Bonanza mining site. They came up there -- they got up there to high grade that was up there, which was completely -- I guess the contract they had with Kennecott and in the process they burned up the 130 foot long Bonanza barrack building that was up there so that they could gain access to the copper that they thought was below the barrack. There was no copper below the barrack. They burned it up for nothing. After that an enormous amount of what you would call salvage and just plain wanton destruction occurred

and the mill site was essentially stripped of just about anything of value that could be walked off. Everything from player pianos to copper wire and windows and doors and stoves and toilets, everything, walked out of there. So by the time the Park Service acquired it in 1997 essentially what you had was an empty shell. The other buildings that were along the railway either succumb to the forces of nature because of heavy snowfalls and that was especially the case south of Chitina where snowfall was really heavy or they also fell prey to human salvage

where buildings were torn down for their wood value. The Army tore down some and people that moved into the valley after the railroad left tore down much of what was left or picked up the buildings wholesale and moved them. So as a result today you will find very little left of what was once a magnificent railroad.

MARK COSSON: It's a shame isn't it?

RON SIMPSON: Yeah, very much. I got into this research project in 1989. I started at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. I should add they had an enormously helpful staff and they worked with me for quite a few years in the Elmer Rasmuson Archives there. I was struck in looking at the photos, the before and after, and all the buildings that were missing. That really bothered me. By 1995, I decided I’m going to take it on my own to rebuild some of these buildings that are no longer there in model form

because I wanted people to see the magnificence of what Kennecott and that railroad was. So I began a process in 1995 of building it 1:24 scale one-half inch equals a foot all of the significant major structures from Chitina on. So by this year what I have done here in Copper Center is completed a large part of what had been the old Kennecott, the old McCarthy, and the old Chitina. If you look at what is here today and then go to the actual sites you would be amazed at how much difference there is.

In all cases I was careful to at least put in one building that has still survived so you could recognize the spot. For instance in McCarthy there’s a power plant that was built by the Mother Lode Copper Company that was a rival to Kennecott. In Chitina, there was an old cache store and I rebuilt that. And in Kennecott, there is the mill, although I built an earlier version of it and the machine shop. The machine shop was the only building where I was actually able to go and measure it, photograph it, and build it that way. All the others I built out of photographs because the designs that I was looking for were no longer there.

The buildings were in most cases completely gone.

MARK COSSON: You seem to have quite an affinity for model railroads.

RON SIMPSON: Well, I didn’t think of myself as a model railroader at all. When I started this project the railroad was clearly a part of it and it was the one thing that tied everything together. So I had to have that. I had to become a model railroader in order to make this project work. What determined the scale of 1:24 was while I was living in Fairbanks and I was there until 1996. Some old fellow that was interested in what I was doing gave me this 1:24 model, a Bachmann model of a 10-wheeler engine that looked remarkably like the Mogul type engines that the Copper River Northwestern used. I looked at that and that’s it.

That looks just right. This is the scale I’m going to build at and so that’s what it became after that was the 1:24.

MARK COSSON: The garden railroad.

RON SIMPSON: The official garden railroad scale as far as I’m concerned, yes. It’s also a very easy scale to build in. The very first piece that was actually built was a model behind me. That’s eight feet of curve and 42 inches high the center section of the Gilahina. That is built out of a 102 cue sticks.

MARK COSSON: Pool cue sticks?

RON SIMPSON: Pool cue sticks, that’s right, yeah.


RON SIMPSON: So I had to become -- I was not a modeler of any kind I just had to learn. To me it was just kind of an important thing to do. I had no idea what I was doing with this. By 1995 that was the year that I discovered that my roots happened to include the Nicolai Family. I didn’t know this until then because my dad was an orphan and he did not have -- he had lost the connection. He grew up in a Native orphanage in Seward. In ’95 he called me up and said I’ve just been informed that I have an uncle and he is dying at the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage.

My dad lives in Oregon. So he told me you must visit this man. So I did. And that’s how I found out that our family is Nicolai and my dad’s mother was either a daughter or a granddaughter of the chief himself. That was entirely one of those odd coincidences. It would never have occurred to me until that time that I had any real -- that close of an affinity with what is Kennecott and its copper.

MARK COSSON: One more thing about the Copper River Northwestern before we talk a little bit more about your model railroad is snow fighting. I saw pictures that were just amazing that the rotaries were buried all the way up to the top.

RON SIMPSON: They built four rotaries. They were -- if I recall the blades were 12 and a half-foot diameter. The problem on the Cordova end there is an enormous amount of snow combined with very high winds up to about 90 miles per hour and that causes some incredible snow drifting. At first the company did not intend to operate in the wintertime. In 1914, they changed their mind and went ahead and that’s when they built those 24-trackwalker line shacks.

That’s when they started putting in hundreds and hundreds of feet of snow sheds and that’s when they began the formal winter running. The very next year Kennecott struck it big in the jumbo mine and had so much copper to take out of there they didn’t know what to do with it. And so the timing was just perfect. That was the year also 1915 when the first of five big 95 ton Mikado type engines was brought on to the system. And those were used to haul the ore. They needed very big engines because the loads were so enormous. So from 1914

until 1932 the Copper River Northwestern was both a summer and winter run, utilizing as many as four rotaries. What they did they would use two rotaries at a time. They would have one in the front and one in the back facing the other way. Now that was because they discovered they could get stuck and it may not be possible to go forward and they needed to have a way to get out of there because in the early days of construction they had a train that got stuck out there for something in excess of three weeks after -- by what became known as Hot Cake Channel Bridge. They called it that because by the time that they finally got themselves dug out of there they were down to eating hot cakes.

So they developed -- their own engineers developed the rotaries. They were actually built by a company called Cook but they were developed specifically for here and they developed rotary turnarounds at Cordova and at Tiekel, which was normally as far north as they had to go and that was Mile 101 and that’s where the climate change becomes quite apparent where you’re out of the coastal zone and into the sub-arctic zone. So under ordinary circumstances they would bring the rotaries to Mile 101, turn them around, and head them back. But there were times when they had to bring them all the way to Kennecott.

MARK COSSON: Okay. How many feet of track do you have laid down here?

RON SIMPSON: I don’t really know. I would guess -- I never really kept track. I would guess something in the excess of 400 feet. It is not any really large number but it looks like it because of the way the thing is laid out. There is probably 250 feet in this building alone because there is so much overhead that has to be housed here. When I bought this location in 1996, this was originally the Copper Center Bar. I bought it with the intention of installing the model railroad and developing that and going from there. So by the time I moved out here I had already had the plans laid out for an inside overhead track system.

I got down here and within two years realized that what was in this building was anywhere big enough for my needs. I couldn’t do anything with Kennecott in here. So then I had to look at expanding outside. So there were several more years of building all the necessary overhead stuff that you have to have in order to get over to another building that I also had to build that is 36 feet long and 20 feet wide to house the Kennecott model.

MARK COSSON: It has been a blast, hasn’t it?

RON SIMPSON: It has. We finished that building in 2000. In 2001, early in the year I hired a carpenter to come in from Spokane and he built all the necessary walk ways so people could have access to it and also so that we could actually get the track out to that building where Kennecott -- the model of Kennecott was. May 27, 2000 we had a dedication ceremony here attended by 250 people. Among the people that attended the ceremony and spoke was a man who had been born at Kennecott, grew up there, and was -- ended up going back to work at the mine.

One of the sons of the superintendent was here to speak. We had two women who had written books related to this subject -- Lodie Jansen and Elizabeth Tower, that came to speak. And we had one man that had worked on the railroad for 10 years and had been on the last train out, Al Swalling, came to speak. It was an absolutely momentous event and anybody that was here that was fortunate enough to experience this said they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

MARK COSSON: Is there anything else about the Copper River Northwestern Railroad or your model of the Copper River Northwestern that you would like to say?

RON SIMPSON: Well, what I was starting to say in ’95 I took all this information and I realized that it wasn’t going to be enough just to build this model. The model was great, a great deal of fun, very demanding, occupied a lot of my time, but I wanted -- what I had learned about Kennecott and what I had figured out about Kennecott, because a lot of things I had to put together to be in a form -- a lot more people had access to it than otherwise would. So I ended up writing a historic novel called Legacy of the Chief, which is -- which revolves around Nicolai and two of his grandsons

and tells the story from a Native standpoint of that railroad at Kennecott and gives it a dimension that no one could ever have imagined because until now no one had ever put together the strong Native connection between the railroad and Kennecott that really existed. It had almost been forgotten by everybody, including the Native people that were here. I put all the bits and pieces together that I had accumulated over all these years and some very interesting information came into the very last about a fellow named Cat Goodlata, who actually worked at Kennecott, one of the grandsons of Nicolai

and put it in a novel form and gave new life to what I know is new life to a very neat old relic -- Kennecott and its railroad.