Kluti-Kaah (Copper Center) was an important winter settlement for the Ahtna for thousands of years, and you can still see some turn-of-the-century cabins at the site, which is across the river from today’s community.
Strategically located at the confluence of the Klutina and Copper rivers, the Ahtna would use the copper they found in the water to make arrowheads and knives or trade for fur.
“Copper is really important thing. You can make knife and you can make arrowhead, you know. They make in the front like a spear where they hit the moose or something. And they use for in the war. Nobody got it in the other country … only Copper River country,” Bacille George told anthropologists Frederica de Laguna and Catharine McClellan in 1960.
Andrew Holman established a temporary roadhouse near Copper Center in 1898 to provide shelter for prospectors on their way to the Klondike. Facilities initially consisted of two tents: one that served as Hotel Holman and the other a makeshift post office. He built a substantial cabin a year later.
Prospectors set up tent camps along both the Copper and Klutina rivers and Copper Center rapidly became the primary supply center for prospectors and travelers in the Copper River basin. A telegraph station opened in 1901 and a school four years later.
The influx of prospectors proved a great hardship for the Ahtna. As the Ahtna people told J.H. Romig in 1909: “too much beans, too much rice, too much bacon and plenty of stomach ache. Before white men came there was plenty to eat and meat and skins for moccasins. Now too much hungry, too much cold, too much sick and then all the same die.”
According to L.A. Jones, a teacher at Copper Center from 1911 to 1913: “The white men have largely killed their (the Ahtna’s) game and fur bearing animals, leaving them with no way to make a living. … There is very little labor which they can secure. Many are sick; tuberculosis seems to be among them all. Several parents have died leaving their children homeless.”
The copper that gave the town its name proved more valuable than the gold that lured the prospectors. From 1909 until 1938, the Kennecott mines “produced over 4.6 million tons of ore that contained 1.183 billion pounds of copper mainly from three ore bodies: Bonanza, Jumbo and Mother Lode. The Kennecott operations, 110 miles from Copper Center at McCarthy, reported gross revenues above $200 million and a net profit greater than $100 million.”
The gold rush and copper mining eras are memorialized in the Copper Center Museum, located on the banks of the Copper River in “old” Copper Center and the Copper Rail Depot, featuring scale models of Kennecott.
Today about 325 people live in Copper Center, which is located along the Old Richardson Highway, 15 miles south of Glennallen and 100 miles north of Valdez. Half the residents are Alaska Native. The Copper River Native Association delivers a variety of programs and services that promote the wellness of the people who call the Copper River Basin home. The community is also site of the Ahtna Cultural Center, which is operated by the Ahtna Heritage Foundation and contains exhibits and a hand-built fish wheel.
The community is also the primary gateway to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and location of the park’s headquarters and visitor center.