A friend of the two Jims approaches their cabin near Schooner Bend on the Kenai River, circa 1940s. (Photo courtesy of Mona Painter)

A friend of the two Jims approaches their cabin near Schooner Bend on the Kenai River, circa 1940s. (Photo courtesy of Mona Painter)

History Lessons: Coming in for the Landing: An Origin Story

Jim’s Landing honors two close friends: James (“Big Jim”) O’Brien and James (“Little Jim”) Dunmire.

Part I of III

The name itself receives little attention, but the “Jim’s” in Jim’s Landing is misleading. The apostrophe implies that the landing was named for a single man named Jim, when actually it honors two close friends with that name: James (“Big Jim”) O’Brien and James (“Little Jim”) Dunmire.

Still, the misplaced apostrophe is, however, no big deal compared to the difficulties associated with the place itself. Jim’s Landing, just off the eastern end of Skilak Lake Road, has often been a point of concern.

To begin with, when the upper Kenai River periodically floods, the road into the landing, and many of the attached parking spaces, flood along with it.

This summer, when the smoldering Swan Lake Fire flared back to life and surged across the Sterling Highway, it scorched Jim’s Landing and jumped across the river to incinerate the forest-covered hills on the other side.

And since the landing, located just above the turbulent waters of Kenai Canyon, is in a non-motorized zone, hikers wishing to reach the Surprise Creek trailhead can find it a difficult place from which to launch small boats and paddle across the river.

The landing exists because of the trailhead.

The trailhead exists because gold lies in the Surprise Creek drainage up in those forested hills.

The history of the landing begins decades before the arrival of O’Brien and Dunmire.

Before it was known for two gold miners named Jim, the landing was named for a different miner, a German immigrant named Stephan Melchior, who came north to Alaska in 1896. According to Mary J. Barry’s history of mining of the Kenai Peninsula, Melchior began mining on Surprise Creek “shortly after” he arrived in the Territory.

Surprise Creek flows northwest from its alpine headwaters between Bear and Russian mountains, just beyond the eastern end of Skilak Lake, and dumps into the center of Kenai Canyon.

Melchior, who was nearly 50 at the time and a mechanic and millwright by trade, filed for water rights and mining claims on the creek, where he built at least one cabin, a water-powered sawmill, and a system of sluice boxes. He also carved out at least 3 miles of roads and trails, all on the creek below treeline. By March 1918, he held four placer claims on Surprise Creek and an additional claim on one of its tributaries, Basin Creek.

Barry never states how much gold Melchior discovered in Surprise Creek or how he first found traces of the metal, although it seems likely that he followed traces of “color” upstream from the creek mouth.

After determining that the lower creek was not the main source of gold, and that repeatedly scaling the creek from the canyon could be problematic or even dangerous, he must have sought an alternative route. Ultimately, he discovered the route from his main placer site down to the landing that came to bear his name.

Regardless, Melchior died in Seward in 1933, so he was gone when the two Jims arrived in June 1935.

In a 1986 interview, Beverly Christensen, who first came to Cooper Landing just two months after the Jims arrived, said that O’Brien and Dunmire learned of Melchior’s placer work and took advantage of the infrastructure Melchior had left behind.

Despite the advantages, however, gold mining involved intensive labor. Over the years, the Jims would file numerous placer claims and greatly expand their operation. The Jims were in Alaska for the long haul — more than 30 years, usually living together in Cooper Landing.

After their deaths in the late 1960s, their grave markers lay side by side on a wooded slope of the Cooper Landing Cemetery. For nearly 85 years now, they have been attached to the area, in person or in spirit.

Although O’Brien and Dunmire shared a first name, a love for the outdoors and an obvious affection for each other’s company, they were also, in appearance and personality, quite distinct.

In 1942, on his World War II draft registration card, 54-year-old Big Jim reported that he stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 190 pounds. On his own registration card that same year, the nearly 46-year-old Little Jim said he stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 140 pounds. Since they were often near each other, the physical disparities were stark.

According to Cooper Landing historian Mona Painter, who knew them both, Big Jim was quiet and usually reserved, whereas Little Jim was loquacious —“a chatterbox,” she said.

Big Jim was born on April 15, 1888, in Craig, Missouri. Prior to venturing north, he had worked at the Sunshine silver mine in Idaho. It was in Idaho, says Barry, that he met Little Jim.

Little Jim was born on June 10, 1895, in Sandy, Oregon. The 1930 U.S. Census indicates that he was a coal miner in Clarks Fork, Idaho, and had a wife named Katherine, and a young son and daughter. But just five years later, on June 14, 1935, Little Jim signed in formally (and without his family) at the Eastport-Kingsgate Border Crossing between Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and Yahk, British Columbia, on his way to Alaska.

In the 1940 Census, he was residing in Seward and claimed he was still married, but he was living with his mining partner, James O’Brien. Since June 1935, however, the two Jims had been spending much, if not most, of their time near Cooper Landing, having moved into an abandoned cabin near Schooner Bend.

Things went well there until they encountered Charlie Hubbard two years later.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Next time, we will follow Big Jim and Little Jim through their early labors and trials, including their run-in with Charlie Hubbard, as they integrated into the Cooper Landing community.


• By Clark Fair, For the Peninsula Clarion


James “Little Jim” Dunmire (left) and James “Big Jim” O’Brien. (Photo courtesy of Mona Painter)

James “Little Jim” Dunmire (left) and James “Big Jim” O’Brien. (Photo courtesy of Mona Painter)

An Alaska Shop postcard, circa 1930, shows Stephan “Steve” Melchior traveling in Seward on a wooden cart pulled by his dog team. (Photo courtesy of the Jim Taylor collection)

An Alaska Shop postcard, circa 1930, shows Stephan “Steve” Melchior traveling in Seward on a wooden cart pulled by his dog team. (Photo courtesy of the Jim Taylor collection)

The crescent-shaped Surprise Creek drainage begins between the snow-tinged Russian (left) and Bear mountains and empties into the Kenai River canyon near the bottom center of this image. (Photo by Clark Fair)

The crescent-shaped Surprise Creek drainage begins between the snow-tinged Russian (left) and Bear mountains and empties into the Kenai River canyon near the bottom center of this image. (Photo by Clark Fair)

More in Life

Frenchy Vian, who posed for many photographs of himself, was acknowledged as a skilled hunter. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)
Unraveling the story of Frenchy, Part 2

In fact, Frenchy’s last name wasn’t even Vian; it was Viani, and he and the rest of his immediate family were pure Italian

File
Minister’s Message: Share God’s love even amidst disagreement

We as a society have been overcome by reactive emotions, making us slow to reflect and quick to speak/act and it is hurting one another

This image shows the cover of Juneau poet Emily Wall’s new book “Breaking Into Air.” The book details a wide array of different birth stories. (Courtesy Photo)
A book is born: Juneau author releases poetry book portraying the many faces of childbirth

It details “the incredible power of women, and their partners”

Lemongrass chicken skewers are best made on a grill, but can be made in the oven. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion
On the strawberry patch: Tangling with waves

Lemon grass chicken skewers top off a day in the surf

This photo of Frenchy with a freshly killed black bear was taken on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)
Unraveling the story of Frenchy, Part 1

The stories were full of high adventure — whaling, mining, polar bear hunting, extensive travel, and the accumulation of wealth

File
Seeing God’s hand in this grand and glorious creation

The same God of creation is the God that made me and you with the same thoughtfulness of design, purpose and intention

Chewy and sweet the macaroons are done in 30 minutes flat. (Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Sophisticated, simplified

When macarons are too complicated, make these delicious, simple macaroons

Michael S. Lockett / capital city weekly
Gigi Monroe welcomes guests to Glitz at Centennial Hall, a major annual drag event celebrated every Pride Month, on June 18.
Packed houses, back to back: GLITZ a roaring success

Sold-out sets and heavy-hitting headliners

Michael Armstrong / Homer News 
Music lovers dance to Nervis Rex at the KBBI Concert on the Lawn on July 28, 2012, at Karen Hornaday Park in Homer.
Concert on the Lawn returns

COTL line up includes The English Bay Band, a group that played in 1980

Marcia and Mary Alice Grainge pose in 1980 with a pair of caribou antlers they found in 1972. The sisters dug the antlers from deep snow and detached them from a dead caribou. (Photo provided by Marcia Grainge King)
Fortune and misfortune on the Kenai — Part 2

In Kasilof, and on Kachemak Bay, in Seldovia and later in Unga, Petersen worked various jobs before being appointed deputy marshal in 1934