An interest in model trains and early Alaska’s Kennecott railroad turned into a 20-year journey of research and exploration for CIRI shareholder Ron Simpson. Along the way, the Athabascan resident of Copper Center, Alaska, discovered not only his family heritage and the history of the Copper Valley area, but also a passion for sharing that heritage and history with others.
It started as a research project in 1989 on the Kennecott Copper Co.’s Copper River & Northwestern Railway (CRNW), the historic railroad that connected the Kennecott copper mines with the port of Cordova. Simpson was inspired by the 300-foot diorama of life on the Yukon and Tanana rivers that his friend was constructing at the time (the diorama is on display at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks).
Simpson started with the Chitina branch of the CRNW and structures in the ghost mining towns and camps of the Kennecott area after noticing many of the structures were missing from photographs. The railroad became central to his interest in the area.
“It’s the one thing that tied all these buildings together,” said Simpson.
The scope and amount of research grew as he delved more deeply into the history of the copper mine and railroad’s development and the lives of the people there.
“It required an increasing amount of research,” said Simpson. “When you want to construct models, you have to know what the structure looks like from all angles. You need photographs, engineering records and historical documents. At some point, I realized that I’ve learned enough and gathered enough material to write a book on the subject.”
Simpson published the 800-page historical novel “Legacy of the Chief” himself in 2001 using some of the large dividend CIRI issued to its shareholders that year. He published 1000 copies in hardcover, and another 1000 copies in soft cover a year later. A few copies are still available at the online retailer amazon.com.
Simpson’s father had been raised in the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, Alaska, which made it difficult for the family to trace its Native roots.While researching for his book, Simpson found and was able to talk with an uncle, Harry Nicolai, who taught him about his family. Simpson’s family was descended from Chief Nicolai, an Ahtna chief who was credited with making the deal that allowed the Kennecott Mines Company of Alaska to come into the region and build the mines. This discovery of his own heritage had a profound effect on Simpson.
“I found this out when I had already been researching for a few years,” said Simpson. “The farther I got into writing the book, the more the Native heritage element seeped into it.”
Simpson moved to Copper Center, the area where these events took place, and began to hear and write down stories the local people would tell him about the days when the mine and railroad operated. It was at this point that Simpson, who wanted to include the stories he was discovering, decided to change his book from a history to a historical novel.
“No one had ever written anything about the Native point of view about the mines at Kennecott,” said Simpson. “Because of my family connections, I was in a unique position to write it.”
A prominent figure in the book is Simpson’s ancestor, Chief Nicolai.
“I was doing my best to make sure I got his story right, and it seemed unfair how he was treated in the history books,” said Simpson. “I pieced together the different information and stories I found as best I could. You find a very intelligent, complex man whose chief concern was that his people make it through this new era that he himself did not understand. This new railroad was coming through, and somehow he had to make it work. And I think he did that, in his own way.”
Simpson bought an old bar in Copper Center and has spent a lot of time developing it into a tourist destination for visitors to Copper Center. The Copper Rail Depot features his large-scale model trains, including his original model, a representation of the Chitina local branch of the CRNW, which ran from milepost 131 (Chitina) to milepost 195 (Kennecott) from 1911 until 1938, when the mine was shut down. The bar also features large-scale models of the different historic Kennecott mine sites and a collection of large-frame photos from the Kennecott area. For more information about the Copper Rail Depot can be found online at www.copperraildepot.com.
Simpson enjoys sharing the history of the Copper Valley area with visitors, especially the Native heritage and stories.
“When I bring in the Native element, that’s what they really want to hear, what they’re interested in the most,” said Simpson. “This is a real opportunity. It gets us away from the stereotypes. They really want to hear our stories, from Native people.”