The community of Copper Center is located on the Copper River’s west bank, just north of the Klutina River. It was founded in 1898 as a trading post along the trail from Valdez to the Yukon Gold Fields.
Ahtna Athabascan Indians have inhabited the area for thousands of years. According to Terrence Cole’s 1993 publication, “History of the Copper Center Region,” at the time of western contact there were about 300 Ahtna living in the region.
When Copper Center was established, the nearest major Ahtna settlement was Chief Stikwan’s Camp about five miles below Copper Center. The book, “Where Raven Stood: Cultural Resources of the Ahtna Region,” states that its Ahtna name was Nic’akuni’aaden — meaning “place that extends off from shore”) Chief Stickwan moved the settlement in about 1903 to T’aghes Tah (meaning “among the cottonwoods”) — commonly called Wood Camp, several miles nearer to Copper Center.
A small village was also located across the Copper River from Copper Center at Tay’laxi Na (meaning “fish-run creek”). It was alternately called “Chief Andrew’s Place” or “Old Copper Center.”
Cole states that in 1898 Westerners briefly outnumbered the Ahtna around Copper Center by 10 to 1. Western hunters quickly depleted the area’s large game animal populations, and coupled with newly-introduced diseases and alcoholism, the Ahtnas’ lives grew precarious. Concerned about their welfare, Baptist missionary G.S. Clevenger opened a mission and school on the west bank of the Copper River just north of Copper Center in 1903. His goal was to help the Ahtna become self-supporting by teaching them to raise cattle and crops.
Clevenger discovered, however, that with Ahtna families widely scattered across the valley, it was difficult for them to attend school. Within a few years the mission school became a U.S. Bureau of Education facility, and a Native village (now called Kluti-Kaah) eventually coalesced around the school.
The Ahtna also preferred to attend their own Russian Orthodox chapel on the east bank of the Copper. The Old Copper Center log chapel had no ordained priest, but was probably visited periodically by lay Orthodox preachers. The chapel (now gone) was constructed in about 1907 by local residents.
When evangelical missionaries Vince and Beckie Joy moved to Copper Center in 1937 to minister to the Ahtna, the Orthodox chapel was still in use, but the Baptist mission was gone. The Joys began holding church services at the Copper Center Roadhouse, as well as visiting the Ahtna living across the Copper River. After the Joy’s finished their cabin, situated on a knoll overlooking Copper Center and the Klutina River, they held services there.
In 1943 Vince built the chapel shown in the drawing. Located next to the Joy’s cabin, it was called the “Chapel on the Hill.” According to Vince’s letters (which form the basis of the 1994 book, “Into the Copper River Valley”) he constructed most of the gable-roofed 20-foot by 30-foot log building himself. A 2020 Copper River Country Journal article states that military personnel stationed at Dry Creek, near the Gulkana Airport, also helped Vince. The Army had a small installation at Dry Creek during World War II, and Joy served as a temporary chaplain there.
The completed chapel has a square, pyramidal-spired bell-tower at the front of the building. The bell is supposedly from an old Pennsylvania coal train.
The Joys move to Glennallen in 1946 to build a new church, and the Chapel on the Hill was eventually supplanted by the Copper Center Community Chapel. In 2019 the Chapel-on-the-Hill building was moved to a site along the Old Richardson Highway near the traditional Copper Center cemetery. Set against the picturesque backdrop of the cemetery, the chapel looks much the same as it did when constructed.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• “Case Study of Copper Center.” Holly Reckord. Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company. 1979
• “Chapel On The Hill: Now Down By The Riverside ...” Linda Weld. In Copper River Country Journal. Sept. 2020
• “History of the Copper Center Region.” Terrence Cole. Covington & Burling. 1993
• “Into the Copper River Valley: the letters and ministry of Vincent James Joy, pioneer missionary to Alaska.” Fay E. Crandall, edit. Faith Printing Company. 1994
• “Where Raven Stood: Cultural Resources of the Ahtna Region.” Holly Reckord. Anthropology and Historic Preservation, Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Alaska. 1983