A boxcar full of memories

A unique duck cabin on the Copper River Delta is now over 120 years old

With "The Shoe" anchored nearby, Don Van Brocklin, in a yellow shirt, and Harold Norman, to his right, plus two unidentified visitors and a happy black Lab, examine the famous Box Car on Little Arc Slough. (Photo courtesy of Eric Fuglestad/for The Cordova Times)

It was 4 p.m., April 2, 2019.

After passing over duck cabins at the mouth of Eyak River, Alaska Airlines Flight 66, a Boeing 737, banked sharply to align itself for final approach to the Mudhole Smith Airport at Mile 13.

And there, below the right wingtip, on the banks of a dry slough, sat one of the last remaining relics of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway.

It was a faded boxcar that made countless trips along the railway’s 196 miles of tracks from Cordova to Kennicott, beginning with construction in 1906 and throughout its 32 years of operation.

And it’s not just any boxcar.

It’s The Boxcar.

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One of the most famous and unique duck cabins on the Copper River Delta, now over 120 years old.

If only its walls could talk.

Built in 1898 as a crew car, featuring bunks and a pot belly stove, this particular full-length car’s last trip was not by rail, but by barge, down Eyak River and up Little Arc Slough.

When the CR&NW Railway shut down in 1938, F.A. Hanson — who was the railroad superintendent and also happened to be an avid duck hunter — was left in charge of all the railway stock.

He partnered with Bill Leibe, a local grocer, and lined up help from former railway engineers to load the idle boxcar on a barge at the near end of Eyak Lake. Walt Mantilla, a lifelong Cordovan who graduated from Cordova High School in 1937 and later became head of the local state Department of Transportation operations, used a 20-foot power boat to tow the barge across the lake, down the river, and up to its final landing spot. A big tide flooded water right up to the edges of the bank, and rollers and pulleys were used to slide it onto wood pads.

By 1944, Hanson had left, and Leibe sold the Boxcar to the Van Brocklin brothers, Bob, Don and Ken. In 1946, the new owners jacked the “cabin” up and installed piling under it.

“Before that, it was basically sitting on the ground, and big tides would flood the inside, if you can believe that,” said Ken Van Brocklin, who passed away just last year. “We actually drilled holes in the floor to drain out the water.”

By the early 1950s, Ken and Don Van Brocklin were partners with Bill Sherman in the Club Bar and Enterprises operation, and the Boxcar was really just a branch of their popular Main Street pub and liquor store.

Anyone who has done much bird hunting out of a cabin on the Copper River Delta knows there is much more to the duck hunting than just shooting ducks.

And that getting there is half the fun.

Within the comfy confines of “The Shoe” cabin, Captain Don Van Brocklin, right, and an unidentified passenger chit-chat en route to the Boxcar. (Photo courtesy of Eric Fuglestad/for The Cordova Times)

Back before the 1964 Earthquake, a common approach was to launch boats at the spit on the near end of Eyak Lake, and cross it to head down Eyak River. Now that is impossible, due to the weir at the far end of the lake near the river outflow. That metal barrier was installed to maintain the lake’s water level following the 8-foot earthquake uplift.

The Van Brocklins had purchased a small cabin skiff, aptly named The Shoe, in honor of its unique profile, to access the cabin. Ken Van Brocklin and my dad, Don Shellhorn, were great friends; and Ken’s nephew, Randy Bruce, and I, impressionable youngsters at the time, remember many an entertaining “cruise down the river” in this craft.  Yet somehow there were no photos to be found on the infamous Shoe until just weeks ago, when I received an e-mail from Eric Fuglestad, who lives in Anchorage.

Fuglestad had discovered photos taken by his uncle Wally Wallenstein, an architect in Anchorage, who had visited Cordova in the ’50s, and ended up on a duck hunt to guess where, perhaps after designing buildings on Club Bar napkins.

One photo shows The Shoe tied up in front of the Boxcar, with Don Van Brocklin and Harold Norman, a local accountant, standing on the deck. Randy and I were startled by the snappy appearance of the craft, and also the small 25-horsepower Johnson mounted on the stern.

“I remember it was a bit underpowered,” Randy said. “Later they replaced it with a 5- horse, which was huge at that time.”

Another photo shows a cheerful little “rooster tail” as The Shoe cruises across calm Eyak Lake.  “Believe me, the lake can get pretty rough in bad weather, and some of the trips across it weren’t as pleasant,” Bruce said.

We both chuckled at the terry-cloth style bright yellow short-sleeve shirt that Don Van Brocklin was wearing. Don arrived in Cordova on the USCG Cutter Haida prior to WWII, and knew how to navigate in style, taking advantage of The Shoe’s inside and outside steering wheels.

Just last summer, Ken’s ashes were scattered in the slough beside the Boxcar, with tales of escapades part of his farewell tribute.

And every year we continue to share a Boxcar full of memories from undoubtedly the most unique duck cabin on the Copper River Delta.

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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].