Cordova Chronicles: The biggest explosion in Cordova history

Part 1 of 3: The blast was caused by someone shooting a rifle at a storage shed full of old explosives

Railroad construction and mining have always been hazardous occupations, and sometimes we overlook the fact that Cordova was born of a dangerous quest for a copper bonanza discovered in 1889 in the Wrangell Mountains 196 miles to the Interior.

Renowned railroad engineer and contractor Michael J. Heney spearheaded the construction of the famous Copper River and Northwestern Railway to access that mother lode.  A granite monument he commissioned honoring eight workers who died in it’s construction sits beside Mile 3 on the Copper River Highway in the shadow of the Heney Range, and testifies to those dangers.

The “Irish Prince” left a remarkable legacy, including his famous quote, while building the Klondike’s White Pass and Yukon Railroad, “Give me enough snoose and dynamite and I’ll build you a road to Hell!”

The steamboat S.B. Mathews at Alaganik in April 1906.   The 1937 blast that killed Jimmy DeGaza occurred behind a  large rock knob just to the right of the wooden skiff in the foreground.
Photo courtesy Ralph E. MacKay Collection

The latter was a cornerstone of construction procedures in those days, and from the get-go, the sounds of explosions reverberated over the din of construction in newly born Cordova.

The route of the railway around the edges of Eyak Lake required the removal of several rock outcroppings, and one has to look no farther than Mile 4 to see evidence of such efforts.  Just to the east of the Cordova Fire Department Tanker Truck Station there is a narrow cut blasted though rock forty feet high that was the original railroad bed.   It was also the route of the early gravel highway laid over the right of way, until bypassed when the road was straightened many years later.

The sounds of blasting marched onward, and by 1911 the CR&NW Railway had reached Kennicott.  Sadly, Heney was not there to see its completion.  He died in 1910 of health issues exacerbated by a shipwreck in southeast Alaska while returning to Cordova.

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Copper ore poured through Cordova to be shipped by Alaska Steamship Company for smelting in Seattle until 1938, when the mines closed down due to low prices for the metal as well as declining high quality mineral deposits.

Yet it was nine years later that the biggest dynamite explosion in local history rocked the city of Cordova.   While the location of this huge blast is fairly well known, facts and details have evolved into folklore and myth with the passage of time.

The eruption involved dynamite, of large quantity; the location was near Alaganik at 22 Mile on the Copper River Highway; and someone shooting a rifle at a storage shed full of old explosives was the cause.

In the mid-50’s, while on a family outing on the recently extended gravel highway, Dad had pointed out a strange gap in a rock outcropping near the road just beyond the McKinley Lake trailhead, and mentioned its cause.  Always a stickler for gun safety, an admonishment about reckless use of firearms followed.

A few years back, while shooting the breeze down at our duck cabins, Gus Arvidson talked about magnitude of the blast.  “I was on the roof of our house down on Railroad Row, trying to fix the chimney stack.  The explosion almost knocked me off the ladder.”

Surely an event of such magnitude would have been reported in the Cordova Times, yet several attempts at locating a story about it in the archives at the Museum failed.  Hoping to narrow the search, I had asked Gus if he remembered what year.   “Had to be in the late 40’s or early 50’s” was his reply.

Down at North Star Lumber, Danny Glasen remembered details, perhaps from stories  told by his father Dar, since he couldn’t have been very old when the explosion occurred.  “Johnny Kulper was involved, and I remember being told they got there by boat, and the explosion sank the boat.”

He also recalled one other chilling detail:  “They never did find the other kid.”

Enter Ira Grindle, intrepid researcher of Cordova History and avid reader of old Cordova papers.  About a month ago, I receive this e-mail:  “I Found It.”

Wow.  Did he ever, and what a series of surprises.  First of all, the explosion occurred on November 29, 1947.  Back then there was no road beyond Mile 13.  Since the individuals involved got there by boat, we both had assumed the event would take place in the summer or fall, when Alaganik Slough was not ice-bound.  To simplify our search, we had skipped looking through old newspapers at that time of the year.  Either it was a very warm winter in 1947, or perhaps the big tides that reached far up the slough prior to the 1964 earthquake uplift had kept it ice-free.

Additionally, the story appeared on the front page.  Publisher Everett Pettijohn almost always printed national and territorial news there, with local news tucked inside.

This story received large print headlines in the 1947 December 1 edition.

“Jimmy LaGasa Dies in Dynamite Blast”

“Local Youth Victim of Odd Accident”

“Jimmy LaGasa, 24, was blown to bits by a dynamite blast at 12:50 pm Saturday, and his companion, Johnny Kulper, miraculously escaped with a bad shaking up in one of the district’s oddest incidents.”

“The blast occurred at an old powder house of the Mt. McKinley Mines at Alaganik Station, 22 miles east of here on the old C.R. & N. W. Ry.”

“A party of ten people, including six members of an inquest jury, returned to town last night after a final investigation of the case and a search for the victim’s body.  The jury had been called by federal Coroner Dorothy Awes late Saturday when Kulper returned to town to bring news of the tragic happening.”

The rest of the Cordova Times article contains many details, and yet leaves several unanswered questions.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].