Old Cooper Landing store and post office now tell area’s history as a museum
The hamlet of Cooper Landing, on the banks of the Kenai River just west of Kenai Lake, is one of the Kenai Peninsula’s recreation meccas. The community traces its history back to the 1896-97 Cook Inlet Gold Rush.
That gold rush was actually years in the making. By the early 1880s miners had prospected their way north through British Columbia and Southeast Alaska and were working beach deposits along Lower Cook Inlet and fanning out across the Kenai Peninsula.
One of the earliest American prospectors along the Kenai River was Joseph Cooper. According to Mary Barry’s book about Kenai Peninsula mining history, Cooper had participated in the Juneau gold rush of 1880-81 before coming to the Kenai. Prospecting the peninsula’s mountainous northern region, in 1884 he found gold in the Kenai River near present-day Cooper Landing. He mined river bars there for several years and built a trading post (no longer standing). He then moved to the Ninilchik and Homer areas, eventually operating a store in Kachemak Bay.
Even after moving to the Kachemak Bay area, Cooper stayed active in coal and gold mining. In 1896 he led a group of miners back to the Cooper Landing area. They discovered gold on several creeks (including what is now called Cooper Creek) and staked numerous claims.
After that excursion the first American settlement in the area (the Kenai Peninsula had been occupied for hundreds of years by Dena’ina Athabascan Indians) sprang up along Cooper Creek, about a mile downriver from present-day Cooper Landing. The settlement’s heyday only lasted a few years, though, and nothing remains of that mostly-tent encampment.
Only a few miners lived in the area by the end of the 1910s, and it was the introduction of hydraulic mining along Cooper Creek and dredging on the Kenai River near Cooper Creek that birthed the area’s permanent community. These short-lived operations brought construction of a few buildings along the Kenai River’s eastern bank, but by 1914 mining had faded.
Trappers, big-game guides, and the few remaining miners then assumed the burden of keeping the settlement alive. Between 1905 and 1925 several additional structures were erected in the Kenai River community. The community’s first post office, (established in 1924) was called the Riddiford Post Office, and the community’s first school (built in 1925) was the Riddiford School, both named after a local resident who donated the land. The community was first called Cooper’s Landing, still possessing that moniker into the 1940s. By the 1950s, however, the apostrophe had disappeared.
Jack Lean played a pivotal role in Cooper Landing history. He was a dog musher and trapper, and for a time carried mail along the Iditarod Trail. Later he ran the winter mail between Seward and Kenai. Jack chose Cooper’s Landing for his base of operations on the Seward-Kenai mail run. When he and his brother, Charles, moved to Cooper’s Landing in the 1920s, many of the buildings used by the dredging operation lay abandoned. According to National Register of Historic Places documents, in about 1921 Jack built a chalet-style cabin with steeply-pitched roof with logs salvaged from abandoned structures.
Jack transformed that cabin into Cooper’s Landing Store in the 1930s, erecting an addition and eventually incorporating the post office into the operation. At that time the store faced the river just downstream from the Kenai River bridge. The bridge was eventually moved upstream to the mouth of Kenai Lake.
During the 1990s and early 2000s the Cooper’s Landing Store and post office, as well as the schoolhouse built in 1955, were moved about 600 feet downriver to land along the Sterling Highway owned by the Cooper Landing Community Club. Once moved they were re-oriented to face the road. After rehabilitation they opened as the Cooper Landing Museum. The museum is operated by the Cooper Landing Historical Society and is open during the summer.
- “A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula.” Mary J. Barry. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1973
- “Copper Landing Post Office, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael S. Kennedy. 1978
- Correspondence with Mona Painter, president of the Cooper Landing Historical Society. 2020
- Kenai Peninsula Borough property records