Fairbanks riverboat business founder dies at 82

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The founder of a popular Fairbanks riverboat attraction has died at the age of 82.

Jim Binkley died Friday as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Alaska State Troopers said.

Binkley had been in great pain in recent years because of a degenerative nerve disease, said his son, Riverboat Discovery president Johne Binkley.

''He had been so active, so vibrant and so full of life, it was very difficult for him to accept the progressive deterioration of his physical condition,'' Johne Binkley told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''We are extremely saddened that his health had reached the point where he felt he could no longer go on with his life. We understand that his pain was more than he could bear. He will always be our captain.''

Jim Binkley had retired after decades as a riverboat captain, but the first three of the family's trademark Discovery sternwheelers remained moored near the backyard of his home along the Chena River.

''He used to love to go down there and sit in it,'' Johne Binkley said. ''He loved to see the Discovery (III) go by and wave at everybody.''

Binkley and his wife bought their first boat, the Godspeed, in 1950 and began what would eventually become Alaska Riverways Inc., which ferries thousands of tourists on the Chena and Tanana rivers during the summer.

Today, all three of their sons -- Johne, Jim Jr. and Skip -- are riverboat captains. So are several grandchildren.

Binkley, born in Wrangell as Charles Madison Binkley Jr., came by his more commonly known name, Jim, in an unlikely way.

''They had a contest in California for a Sunny Jim look-alike,'' said Johne, referring to the smiling boy on the label of Sunny Jim jam.

Binkley won and the name stuck.

In Wrangell, he worked on the Stikine River with his uncle. He went north, Johne guessed, to learn more about his father, the senior Charles Binkley, who had died when Jim was 5.

Binkley attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he met his wife. They were married in 1947.

The couple had four children, the three boys and a daughter, Marilee.

Johne recalled his father saying more than once, ''If you want to know how important family is, just ask somebody that didn't have one when they grew up.''

Binkley built the first Discovery in the backyard of the family's Noyes Slough home.

''He was extremely proud of it,'' Johne said. ''He didn't have much money. He had to scrape things together, old junk that he had been able to scavenge.''

Brad Phillips, owner of Anchorage-based Phillips Cruises & Tours, first met Binkley in 1947 as a student at UAF.

''I was his first deckhand,'' Phillips said. ''In those days we thought if we had 2,000 tourists come through that was really something.''

Today the Discovery III averages that many in a couple of days.

''I think that Jim himself has said he had no idea it would grow into what it has grown into,'' said Bill English, who partnered with Binkley in the riverboat business for 45 years. ''He just wanted to make a decent living for his family (and run) a business Fairbanks would be proud of.''

Binkley served two terms in the state House, from 1961 to 1964.

Johne said the family is planning a memorial service for later this week.

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