Cordova Chronicles: The biggest explosion in Cordova history

Part 2: So many questions remain in this fascinating, yet tragic story

On Nov. 29, 1947, Jimmy LaGasa and Johnny Kulper left Cordova on what The Cordova Times described as “pleasure jaunt”.

Undoubtedly, they had checked the tide book before departing at daybreak in Kulper’s inboard motorboat, making the long run to Alaganik by way of Eyak Lake and river, across the Copper River flats and up Alaganik Slough.

Given the potential hazards of such an excursion, it must have been a fairly nice weather.

They were an interesting duo. Kulper, age 16, was one of six children of Otto and Grace Kulper of Cordova, and was already well versed in fishing and traveling the local waters.  LaGaza was 24, and had been a resident on and off for 10 years. He had come to Cordova with his father, a deep sea diver, and attended local schools.  He had also served for a period with the Navy during the war. Records showed LaGasa was a member of the Cordova District Fisherman’s Union.

Alaganik was a small settlement just this side of the McKinley River that had been used for centuries by the Eyaks, and in fact the word is derived from the Native word “Alarneq,” which means “switchback in the river.” It was a key stopping off point for expeditions up and down the Copper River, and also for mining operations at nearby McKinley Lake.

Kulper and LaGasa arrived at Alaganik near 22 Mile of the abandoned railroad around 12:30 pm, and tied up on the banks of the slough. A huge explosion soon followed. Jimmy LaGasa literally vanished. Escorted by a nearby trapper, a shocked Kulper ended up walking to Mile 13 on the railway tracks to report the incident and seek help.

In its aftermath, the December 2, 1947 edition of the local paper described what happened in great detail.

Here are excerpts of that report:

“Kulper told the inquest board he had remained on the boat to rig up a gasoline lantern.   LaGasa, he said, told him he was going to take a shot at the powder house to see what would happen.  LaGasa said he had done this once before and nothing had happened.”

“As Kulper came on deck with the lantern, he said there was a terrific explosion, which knocked him down.  The force of the blast tore up decking and virtually shattered the boat’s cabin. It split seams in the boat’s hull and it sank, although Kulper, regaining his wits, was able to scramble ashore and tug the boat to shallow water, and a part of the upper structure remained out of water after the craft sank.

“Following the blast, Mr. and Mrs. Glen Mason and Mr. and Mrs. Lee Acey, who were trapping in the area, rushed to the scene and together with Kulper, searched the area.  They found only LaGasa’s lower right leg.

“Mason then accompanied Kulper back to town.  They walked from Mile 22 to Mile 13 and were then brought in by auto.”

The magnitude of the blast was amazing.

“Jack Dinneen, who was at the mouth of Eyak River at the time of the explosion, said he saw the blast and heard its mighty roar from where he stood some ten miles away.  He said he thought it was an airplane accident.”

“Acey said he was knocked down by the concussion of the blast as he stood near his cabin about a thousand yards from the scene.  Other persons heard the explosion from the CAA airport area at Mile 13.”

The following day, three outboard boats took investigators and the Inquest Jury to the scene.  The party included U.S. Commissioner Awes, officially acting as coroner, U.S. Deputy Marshall M.E. Edmonds, Kulper, Dinneen (who furnished one of the boats), and Jurymen W.C. Sears, Fred Lantz, John LeFevre, Glen Mason, William Fleck, and Vince Addington.

They found an incredible scene.  The powder house had been built within timbers supporting an old railroad water tank only about 10 feet from the tracks, which ran through a roadbed cut in solid rock which rose over 30 feet.  The blast had created a huge hole, and tossed large rocks over two feet in diameter in all directions.  The heavy rails nearby were twisted and broken.   Investigators surmised that only the rocky knoll, which was between Kulper and the blast, had saved his life.

The party searched for hours in an area extending as far as 1,000 yards from the scene, but were unable to locate nothing more than tiny fragments of clothing.

The Inquest Jury estimated 400 to 500 cases of dynamite were stored in the shed, but decided they were unable to determine the actual cause of the explosion:  either LaGasa did shoot into the building with his .30’06 rifle, or he had fallen with or dropped a case of the dynamite in attempting to carry it from the building.

Their official verdict, issued at a final session on Dec. 2, stated that LaGasa’s death was “accidental, caused by an explosion of dynamite, unknown ignition.”

The blast had stripped away all the trees and brush on both sides of the track. Today, the only evidence of the incident is an overgrown gap in the rocky knoll below the road, about 300 yards this side of the USFS landing and facilities at the McKinley River bridge.

The gap in the rock knoll caused by the 1937 explosion is visible behind the truck. It is now overgrown with trees. Alaganik Slough is directly behind the knoll.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Seven decades later, mysteries still surround the incident. If LaGasa had fired his rifle, wouldn’t Kulper have heard the shot prior to the explosion? If LaGasa had served in the Navy, wouldn’t he have known about the power of explosives? And how had he had the chance to shoot at the powder storage shed sometime before, as Kulper stated? Had other people done this? Were the mines at McKinley still operating, and if not, what was all the dynamite doing still stored there?   How come no one from town or Mile 13 launched an investigation immediately after the explosion?

Ah, so many questions, in a fascinating, yet tragic story.

Yet the power, utility, danger, and fascination with explosives continues. It turns out there have been some noteworthy big explosions in Cordova’s more recent history, as you will discover next week, in Part III of this series.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. Shellhorn has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town.